TAMPA — The muggy heat and patrolling cops weren't enough to keep the crowds away. It still felt like a Sunday afternoon party at Robles Park.
But amid the running children, laughing mothers and men smoking cigars was a serious game between N 2 Deep and the Sulphur Springs Drak Stars.
The all-female kickball games started with low-income mothers who wanted to get their daughters active in something positive, competitive and fun.
"We were bored," said Allison Riggins, 26, who plays on West Tampa's Rough Riders team. "We just wanted something to do."
Women and girls, many from urban housing developments, took pride in their teams, wearing matching colors and bringing their families to watch.
Soon, hundreds of spectators crowded parks.
Then came the police, on horseback, and city parks officials who said the kickballers needed a permit to play.
Then came the outrage.
"I'm not trying to be racist or anything," Riggins said. "But we're doing the same thing that white people would do, and no one is sending police to their games.
"They see a bunch of black people gathered in a park and they want it to stop."
The word goes out
The first two teams of mothers and daughters formed in February, meeting weekends at Riverfront Park near downtown.
Within a few months, there were eight teams with up to 30 players each, representing housing developments all over the city, including Port Tampa, College Hill, Sulphur Springs and the University area.
Teams played at various parks, resulting in games several times a week. Times and locations spread by word of mouth.
Girls as young as 14 and women old enough to be grandmothers joined in the fun, some practicing six days a week. Men from the neighborhood coached.
"I push my girls hard," said Willie Kirkland, 36, who coaches Tampa Heights' N 2 Deep. "I want them to stay in shape, and I want them to win."
For many, kickball is recreation they can afford — no costly uniforms, bats, gloves or pads, just a field and a rubber ball.
Which is why the women balked when city parks and recreation officials noticed the gatherings and demanded they pay up to $300 for a permit.
The city argued that the games — one of which drew an estimated 2,000, according to police — were similar to other organized events that require permits, such as Little League games or annual festivals.
The kickballers fought back, saying they were not an official league. Hundreds protested with signs at Riverfront last month.
"They're just a group of women doing a beautiful thing, trying to do something positive in the community," said Michelle Williams, a community activist and real estate agent who attends many of the games. "Why should they have to pay to have fun?"
After the story hit TV news, the city backed off.
The city's concerns were never about race or class, parks spokeswoman Linda Carlo said.
"I produce events at the park, and even I have to pull a permit," she said.
But the players and coaches say they are not a real league and are simply throwing games together for fun, Carlo said, and the city accepts that.
The players aren't the problem, she said. The problem is the spectators, which police say have been hard to handle.
Safety major concern
In April, police arrested nine people during a game in Riverfront park, mainly for smoking pot or having open containers of alcohol. Fights also broke out at 18th Avenue Park in Belmont Heights and Robles Park in the Tampa Heights area.
After the rally last month, crowds thinned and the kickball players began to clean up after the spectators.
"We just want to have fun and keep it clean," said Ernestine Sams, who plays for Ponce de Leon-College Hill's Best Of Both Worlds team.
The mood calmed until May 21. About 7:30 that night, a caller told police of a 100-person melee at Riverfront Park.
Officers found "several girls with ripped shirts and several hair weaves that had been ripped from the heads of the girls," the report said. Someone swore at the officer and, within minutes, another fight broke out across the street.
Lt. Rocky Ratliff said he doesn't necessarily blame kickball. "All we were concerned about is safety," he said.
Going to next level
The teams will play until the weather gets too hot or they narrow down to a final championship game, coach Kirkland said.
City officials have asked to be informed of games so patrols can be increased.
The players agreed, although some resent feeling like potential criminals every time they bring a kickball to the park.
"The police came on horses and stomped through one of the games," Williams said. "Why is that necessary?"
(Ratliff said the horses are popular with kids and trained to disperse crowds, but officers no longer use them at the games.)
Pat Kirkland, who helps her cousin Willie coach N 2 Deep, said she understands the need for law enforcement.
She praised Tampa police for sending the "coolest cops" to Robles Park. She has seen the occasional drunken brawl or sideline skirmish but said most teams distance themselves from trouble.
The teams dream of taking the game "to the next level, like being recognized as a national league," she said.
"That's why we need to keep the games clean. We don't need that kind of bad publicity."
Times staff writer Justin George contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.