Beach-bum softball, with raunchy jokes and beer

The irresistible sport of Over-the-Line returns to Folsom Lake

Photo Illustration by Don Button

Dan Hernandez was a first-timer once. It began for him when two friends stopped by his Sacramento home, fresh from San Diego’s Fiesta Island and bearing a souvenir program, which contained many enticing pictures of happy people: nude, partying and playing the game.

“If you’ve ever seen the program, you understand why it was enough to convince me that I needed to see this thing for myself,” Hernandez said. So, he did. “As I walked onto the island,” he recalled, “I saw a guy dressed in Amish-type clothing, carrying a blow-up sheep in one hand and a bottle of tequila in his other hand. I’ve seen things on that island every year since then that just make you want to keep coming back.”

This year, on the weekend after the Fourth of July, Fiesta Island was full of people dressed in board shorts and bikinis, many of them carrying bats, coolers, chairs or sports bags. The smells of hot dogs, beer and breakfast burritos filled the air. At the island’s west end, a scoreboard towered over the crowd. It bore more than 1,000 three-player team names, ranging from “I Wish Our Wives Sucked as Much as Our Team” to “Dr. Scrotalingus and the Festering Mutant Butt Leeches From Saturn.” It was a typical scene at ground zero of the young, increasingly popular almost-sport called Over-the-Line, or OTL. Hernandez, of course, was there. Like most, he’d been hooked from the start.

Hernandez, along with groups of up to 30 friends, travels from Sacramento to San Diego nearly every year for the annual championship. And when one tournament a year wasn’t enough, he rallied together some softball buddies, formed what some would call a committee and started an annual Sacramento OTL tournament, which is now in its fourth year. This year’s festivities get under way at 9 a.m. on Saturday at Granite Bay Beach on Folsom Lake. You can’t play if you missed the August 3 team-registration deadline, but you can still go down and party.

OTL, which became official, if that’s possible, in 1954 at the San Diego Old Mission Beach Athletic Club (OMBAC), involves hitting an orange softball over a court line, in fair territory and out of the reach of defenders, who try to catch the ball barehanded. Because players don’t have to run any bases, the game reminds some people of the simple pleasures of backyard stickball or Wiffle ball they enjoyed as kids. Only now they play with beers in their hands.

“Anyone who has ever come out to play in our tournament has found out that the party that goes on is just as much fun as the game,” Hernandez said. “Actually, it’s probably more fun. Besides the sport of bowling, and maybe fishing or golf, I don’t know of any other game where drinking a beer is fully accepted before stepping onto the playing field.” He added that the tournament is a BYOB event, no bottles are tolerated, and drinking can occur only in the picnic area.

According to Sacramento OTL player and committee member Chris Lindstrom, local tournaments have come and gone for the past 15 years in areas like Curtis Park, but playing on grass just didn’t seem right. “You couldn’t make diving catches,” Lindstrom said, adding that Mariner’s Point in San Diego, where he first discovered the game, seemed ideal for it simply by being so sandy.

It was with that in mind that Hernandez and others scouted Sacramento-area locations for the perfect OTL playground. They considered parks and the ring inside the Folsom rodeo, but in the end they found Granite Bay to be the only suitable choice because it offered the best possible playing surface: a sandy granite beach.

“Granite Bay Beach is the one place in the Sacramento area that has a beach big enough for us to hold our tournament,” Hernandez said. “Plus, it offers other amenities, such as bathroom facilities, picnic tables and barbecues.”

Hernandez said the Sacramento tournament has grown from 13 teams in the first year to roughly 30 teams this year—bringing in up to about 90 participants. This year’s tournament will expand on the loose tradition of co-ed teams by introducing a women’s open division. It also will draw players in from San Diego, Santa Clara and Orange County. OTL’s growing popularity can’t be denied, as tournaments also are popping up in parts of Arizona and Nevada and throughout California.

Dan Hernandez invites you to smell the magic of Over-the-Line.

Courtesy Of Dan Hernandez

But it still feels like nothing more than a big old party. Another important reason for that is the sheer revelry of the teams’ names, which in Sacramento vary from “We Only Wear Gloves Cuz We Don’t Know Where Your Balls Have Been” to “Thank Your Wife for Last Night” and “Neverland Ranch Day Care.” Most players and spectators would argue that half the fun of a tournament is hearing the announcer read off a long list of hilarious perversions. And although the dirty team names have never been an issue with OMBAC or the people who play OTL, they have prevented coverage from sensitive mainstream media sources, like ESPN.

Don’t let any of this fool you into thinking OTL doesn’t consider itself a valid sport. As Hernandez explained, “Never once have I seen bad sportsmanship, or sore losers or winners.”

“It’s all the best aspects of softball,” added Lindstrom, pointing out that members of the Sacramento OTL committee play softball together for three-quarters of the year. In fact, it’s during softball season—between March and October—that the committee meets to “drink over the coming year’s tournament issues,” according to Hernandez. “They’re old, they’re crotchety, and they love to drink beer … well, most of them, at least.”

“Drinking isn’t a focal part of our lives, but when you like these sports, it’s a part of it,” Lindstrom said.

Despite its laid-back attitude, the committee does attend to all the necessary permits required to secure its event area. But while the detail-minding ensures the tournament will even take place every year, OTL at Folsom Lake would not be possible without the California Department of Parks and Recreation, which cleans up the beach, fills ruts and fluffs the all-important sand. A tractor and a beachcomber do the work, helping the local arena emulate the sandy beaches of San Diego.

“It’s as good as it’ll get in Sacramento. It’s better than grass, but it’s not the same as playing at the beach,” Lindstrom said. But then, even Fiesta Island sports the occasional rock or thorn-like thistle.

Driving the tractor and beachcomber—a job that usually takes up to five hours and prepares 150 to 200 yards worth of beach—is Tom “The Sandman” Ferris, who for seven years has been the heavy-equipment operator for the American River district. Ferris has never played OTL, but he’s always been invited. When told that the tournaments depend on him, he was humble. “I’m just doing my job,” he said. “We’re supposed to help the public out.”

According to Ferris, the sand, once fluffed and combed, recedes roughly six to eight inches—which is sufficient for play but maybe not deep enough for full-extension diving catches.

“I don’t think you’d want to do that,” he said.

Following Ferris’ example, the Sacramento OTL tournament has a certain quiet nobility of purpose. Part of each team’s $30 registration fee goes toward a good cause: the California Narcotic Officers’ Association Survivors Memorial Fund.

“It’s obviously an event to get friends together, but … there’s an underlying good purpose behind it,” Lindstrom said.

For the players, of course, it’s also a compulsion. As Lindstrom put it, “Once you expose someone to OTL, they get drawn back to it.”

“Our rule is: Everyone’s welcome,” said Hernandez. “If you got game, bring it. The only other rules we have are no babies, no bottles, no Bowsers and, most importantly, no dumb-shit questions!”