THE MEN OF STEELE'S Boasting a murderer's row that has averaged 196 home runs per man -- yes, per man -- this season, Steele's Sports Co. of Grafton, Ohio, fields a softball juggernaut

July 27, 1986

It's an odd thing, but at the No. 1 diamond at the Floral Park
softball complex in Opelika, Ala., the crowd standing beyond the
outfield fence is much bigger than the one sitting behind home plate
and along the foul lines. There are Little Leaguers in gaudy uniforms
out there, picnicking families, young lovers, college and high school
kids. And almost all of them are carrying gloves. There's a good
reason for that: The Steele's Sports Company slo-pitch softball team
is in town, and when those guys play, more balls are caught outside
the park than in it. Indeed, Steele's is a team that makes the '27
Yankees look like a bunch of Punch and Judy hitters.
Watch out, you people over the fence, Greg (Bull) Fuhrman is at
the plate, all 300-plus pounds of him, waving that aluminum Steele's
bat as if it were a ballpoint pen. The pitch comes floating into the
strike zone. Fuhrman lifts one elephantine leg Mel Ott-style, and as
bat meets ball there comes from him a sound like none you have ever
heard before, a sound deeper than a weightlifter's grunt, louder than
a bellow. A charging lion would stop in his tracks at the sound of
Bull's roar. The noise carries well beyond the ballpark. So does the
ball. So, for that matter, do most of the balls hit by the menacing
sluggers on what is, in softball circles, rapidly becoming known as
''the greatest team of all time.''
Could be. Steele's stats are certainly mind-boggling, a towering
monument to wretched excess. With about two-thirds of their
235-or-so-game 1986 season played, Steele's has a record of 147-8.
The team has averaged 34 runs a game, with 17 homers. Five of its
regulars are hitting over .700, and all of the remaining 12 players
are over .610. The team batting average is a cool .680 with -- get
this -- 2,622 homers. In that doubleheader in Opelika against the
best players that could be mustered from the surrounding countryside,
Steele's outscored its opponents 128-34. Only a few weeks earlier,
Steele's scored a record 91 runs against Shubin's of Los Angeles --
that's 91 runs in one game. And in a seven-game blitzkrieg of
Colorado shortly afterward, the team won by scores of 42-10, 66-24,
54-6, 60-4, 49-5, 52-9 and 65-9.
Last year, Steele's won the Amateur Softball Association Super
(highest) Division National Championship. This year, with a much
better team, its goal is softball's triple crown -- the ASA, the
United States Slo-Pitch Softball Association (USSSA) and the
Independent Softball Association (ISA) tournament titles. The talent
is certainly there. Steele's has, for example, 33-year-old Craig
Elliott, another 300-pounder who in 1983 set a national single-season
softball home run record (since, incredibly, broken) of 390. He has
won Most Valuable Player awards in five different national
tournaments and has played on four championship teams. An
independently wealthy paving contractor in Wadley, Ala., Elliott
will, nonetheless, earn nearly $100,000 this year for allowing
Steele's to use his name on one of the company's bats. Not every
Steele's player is so well paid, but most, either by working for the
company directly or with ''personal services'' contracts, make
five-figure salaries for playing the same game the rest of us play
over a few beers on weekends. Elliott is big in every way in
softball circles, but so are 265-pound first baseman Mike Bolen,
245-pound second baseman Mike Macenko, Fuhrman and Mighty Joe Young,
a 235-pound former Grambling linebacker who sells shoes out of the
trunk of his car and, at 38, is something of a softball legend.
There are also such up-and-coming greats as Doug Roberson, a fence-
climbing 220-pound leftfielder, and Scott Virkus, a 6 ft. 6 in.,
295- pound rightfielder who looks like a gigantic Gary Carter. Virkus
hit 150 homers in 81 games before leaving the team July 14 to try out
as a defensive end with the Buffalo Bills. Alas, Virkus failed his
physical and is hoping another NFL team will call.
Four other Steele's players weigh more than 230 pounds. Only
Greg Whitlock, the shortstop, is under 200, and he goes 190. The
average weight is 244, the average height 6 ft. 3 in., the average
age 30. And, oh my, can they hit that big, fat (12-inch
circumference) ball. Most softball parks have fences some 275 to 300
feet from home plate, distances that tax the best players and are
generally beyond the power of weekenders. The Steele's stars might as
well be playing in their own living rooms as in one of these
In the two games they played in the Opelika park, where the fences
are 285 feet all the way around, they hit 80 homers. Playing in
Columbus, Ga., the day before on a regulation high school baseball
diamond with 340-foot power alleys, they hit 14 homers. Two by
Virkus cleared a school building across the street from the leftfield
fence, one by third baseman Charles Wright, who currently leads the
club with 315 homers, shattered a window in that same building, and
another by Macenko landed in the top branches of a pine tree beyond
the fence in right center. All four homers were hit between 375 and
400 feet, Virkus's maybe farther. Remember, it's a softball they're
hitting, and one pitched so slowly that all the power must come from
the batter. Steele's is not in the least intimidated by baseball
parks. The guys have hit balls over the fences in every park they
have ever played in, including Denver's Mile High Stadium.
The Steele's Sports Company headquarters are in Grafton, Ohio,
but the softball players, who promote the firm's products by
demonstrating what remarkable uses they can be put to, barnstorm
hither and yon, knocking off teams from Opelika to Las Vegas. And
they don't just play bumpkins. They enter virtually every major
tournament, from the Azalea Festival in Wilmington, N.C., to the
Coca-Cola Classic in Marietta, Ga. The company was founded in 1979 by
a former softball player, Dennis Helmig, who transformed an auto
parts business into one of the country's fastest-growing sports
equipment manufacturing firms, turning out primarily baseball and
softball gear. Steele's is not yet in the same bat, ball and glove
league with such major outfits as Worth Sports or Dudley Sports, but
it's gaining on them, more than doubling its total revenues in the
last year from $2.2 million to $4.5 million. The projected figure for
1986 is $8 million. Softball is big business these days. More than
40 million Americans play it, and upwards of $500 million is spent
annually on equipment and playing fields. Helmig's amazing team,
organized only six years ago, is his company's living, breathing,
slugging advertisement. Use one of our bats, his players imply, and
you, too, can hit 400-foot home runs. That's nonsense, of course.
Indeed, the game Steele's plays is hardly softball as we know it.
The Steele's convoy -- two brown-and-orange vans with sides boldly
painted NATIONAL CHAMPIONS, and two rented cars -- motors through
the lush, thickly forested Georgia countryside. The vans will do
close to 100,000 miles apiece this season, mainly because manager
Dave Neale is flat-out terrified of airplanes. Husky and
silver-haired, Neale is an old sandlot baseball and softball player
from Cleveland.
''We'd play money games in my neighborhood, winner take the pot,''
he recalls. ''Many's the day I'd take the last $20 in the house to
get in a game.'' Neale, 48, has been in softball for 31 years, many
of them managing a team representing the bar he once owned in
Cleveland, the Hillcrest Tavern; for the last four years he has
managed Steele's. He has been married to Arlene for 30 years. She
always sits beside him in the van, working on her needlepoint or
watching soaps on her miniature battery-powered television set. She
is a cheerful, attractive blonde who waits patiently through the
incalculable boredom of Steele's lopsided, home run-saturated ball
Neale, who takes his softball as seriously as Gene Mauch takes his
baseball, sometimes refers to himself wearily as a ''glorified
babysitter.'' On this very tour he was obliged to order one
player, a 34-year-old, home after an infantile dispute over who would
sit where in one of the vans. In three decades, Neale has seen and
heard it all. Once, when he was managing a team called the Cleveland
Competitors (then the property of former Cleveland Cavalier owner
Ted Stepien), he instructed his players to assemble at 7 a.m. to
catch a bus for a game in Fort Wayne, Ind. One player, Freddie
Miller, ''the strangest human being they ever invented,'' was still
missing at 7:05, so Neale, a fanatic on punctuality, commanded the
bus to leave. Miller arrived for the game in the third inning,
looking harried and apologetic. Neale gave him the cold shoulder.
''You and me are history,'' he advised the latecomer. But Miller
begged him for a chance to explain. Neale finally relented, and
he's eternally grateful he did, for he firmly believes that
Miller's explanation, even though it was probably fiction, belongs
in the Alibi Hall of Fame. It seems Miller had taken up with
another man's wife, and on the night before the game the cuckold
caught the two of them in flagrante delicto. The aggrieved husband
drew a pistol and pointed it at Miller. And he kept it pointed at
him, said Miller, right up to the time the team bus was scheduled to
leave. Finally, a half hour after the bus had departed, his captor
drifted off to sleep, and Miller was able to escape with his life.
Now, after all that, couldn't he play? Neale shrugged.
Jerome Ernest, 44, is the team's traveling secretary,
statistician, demon publicist and van driver. He is a short, plump,
bespectacled man who appears positively dwarfish alongside the
mastodons whose exploits he so faithfully records. He is easily the
most trusted man in this extraordinary troupe, the one person capable
of locating the remote ballparks in the obscure towns the team
barnstorms. ''Ask Jerome'' is everyone's answer to sticky questions
of fact or geography. Everyone knows the importance of being Ernest.
Ernest is the man sportswriters seek out for the latest Steele's
statistical marvels. He reels them off from memory. When his players
hit 21 home runs in the fourth inning of the first game of the
doubleheader against the two all-star teams from Opelika, Ernest
was on hand to put the achievement in historical perspective. ''The
inning record (in organized softball) is 27,'' he told a local
reporter. ''Fifty-two is the record for a game. Twice this year we've
| hit 46 in a game, and one other time we hit 45. (Since then,
Steele's has had 48- and 47-home run games.) And those were all
five-inning games.'' When Steele's pitcher Rick Weiterman got his
21st straight hit, Ernest was at the ready. ''Roberson also had 21
hits in a row this year, and that included 9 home runs in a row. In
four games in Denver, he had 17 homers and 44 RBIs. Bolen had 18
straight hits, made an out and then had 9 more -- that's 27 for 28.
And Joe Young had 15 straight and 24 for 25.''
Steele's home runs are hit with such numbing frequency that Ernest
has taken to grading them. If a ball is merely knocked out of the
park, he just darkens in the space in his scorecard. If it is hit
farther than the average, he puts a line underneath the home run
mark. A three-line homer is Mickey Mantle country. Virkus got a pair
of three-liners for his two over-the-roof shots in Columbus, Ga., and
another for one he hit in Opelika that cleared the leftfield fence at
285 feet, soared over two rows of parked cars and bounced against a
second fence bordering the parking lot. Ernest had a local
recreation department official put a tape measure to that one. It
came to 410 feet, a fact duly recorded in Ernest's scorebook. When
Elliott hit one almost as far in the same game, he hurried over to
Ernest to check on his grade. It was only a two-liner, and the big
slugger returned to the bench looking as downcast as the class grind
who has gotten a B+ in an exam he thought he had wired. But Elliott
raised no protest. Ernest's scorecard is the law.
It's a wonder, of course, that the man is able to keep track of
what's going on out there. When a team scores 91 runs in a game, a
statistician's scorecard can look like the Rosetta stone. ''You can't
look away for a second,'' says Ernest of the unnatural concentration
his job requires, ''or you'll miss something. They go through that
batting order so fast.''
In the smaller communities where softball is the reigning
summertime activity, the arrival of the Steele's team becomes a
matter of civic pride. The players, dressed in one of their four
tasteful uniforms, are deferred to as if they were royalty. It
matters not at all to the men of Steele's that most American sports
fans haven't the foggiest idea who they are or what they do; in their
own little world they are hot stuff. Ernest and Neale set up the
backbreaking schedule in advance, but they'll deviate from it on
occasion to oblige a Steele's client. This spring, for example, they
went well out of their way to play a game in Dothan, Ala., at the
request of the town's parks and recreation department. ''They really
did a nice job of promoting,'' says Neale. ''The mayor was there and
a lot of people showed up. Three stores picked up Steele's sporting
goods, so I don't think of that as having gone 12 hours out of our
The team's arrival is generally preceded by radio and TV
announcements and by advertisements placed in the local papers.
Ernest sees to it that game details are relayed quickly to sports
desks and newsrooms. NATIONAL POWER ROUTS COLUMBUS ALL-STARS read the
headline over an account in the Columbus, Ga., Ledger on May 28,
after the team had whipped the locals by the comparatively modest
score of 27-10. ''Steele's, considered the nation's best softball
team, with both a 79-5 record and a record 91 home runs (sic) in one
recent game, hit 14 homers Tuesday night. The All-Stars hit two:
Jimmy Ennis had both.''
Outfielder Dan Griffin, at 230 pounds, is the smallest stud-poker
player in room 226 of the Day's Inn in Savannah, Ga. Virkus rocks
back and forth in a suddenly fragile-looking chair, stretching
balloon arms behind his curly head. Fuhrman takes up most of the
double bed, which also serves as the card table. Fuhrman is the
team's champion eater, a title Neale would prefer he relinquish.
''He's got this thing about showing everybody how much he can eat,''
says Neale. ''And we're talking big-time eating here. I'd put him up
against anybody. We ate at a place in Denton, Texas, last season.
They had a deal where if you could finish a 72-ounce steak in less
than an hour, you didn't have to pay for it. Well, the first night,
Bull finishes it in 40 minutes. The second night he's down to 35
minutes. They told him not to come back.'' Henry (Hankster) McBeth, 6
ft. 5 in., 285, sits crouched over his cards, tapping them on the
edge of the bed. The 265-pound Bolen kneels childlike at the foot of
the bed, his oddly high-pitched voice urging haste since it's now
past five o'clock and the vans are to depart at 5:30.
A Leave It To Beaver rerun is playing unwatched on the television
set. Outside, the skies, which were sunny only an hour earlier, are
black and forbidding. There is a crackle of lightning, thunder and
finally the inevitable rain -- sheets of it, falling with waterfall
force. Virkus gazes lazily out the window and mutters, ''This crap
has been following us.'' Another lightning explosion is accompanied
by shouts of protest from the cardplayers. ''No way we play
tonight,'' says Griffin, dealing. Neale, ever conscious of the time,
steps into the room. ''You guys know what time it is?'' he inquires
mildly. ''No,'' says Bolen. ''Five-ten,'' says Neale. ''That gives us
20 more minutes of cards,'' says Fuhrman. ''Right,'' says Neale,
''but be in the vans at 5:30.'' ''We gonna play?'' asks Virkus.
''We're gonna try,'' says Neale, backing out the door.
Virkus counts his winnings in his own room. He is watched by his
20-year-old wife, Antoinette, who sits prettily on the bed wearing a
polka-dot dress. Except for Arlene Neale, Antoinette is the only wife
on the tour, and she has the look of a lost child. She had wandered
into the card game several times, only to retreat in confusion as the
big men ignored her. ''Did you win?'' she asks her husband. ''Only
about 60 bucks,'' he says proudly. ''Oh, then I'm going shopping
right away.'' She ruffles her skirt around knees turned pink from the
early afternoon sun. Virkus removes his T-shirt and tennis shorts
and stands there in his blue bikini undershorts. He is a figure of
Schwarzeneggerian definition, only much bigger.
''For me softball started out as fun,'' he says, slipping into the
orange jersey Steele's will wear this rainy night in Georgia. ''It
was something the guys did on Sunday in my town, Rochester, New York,
after being out Saturday nights. Everybody had hangovers. Then it
started getting real serious. Pretty soon we had a good B club. But
I always had football. I went out to City College of San Francisco
-- my grandmother lives out there -- and that's where I developed my
speed.'' Antoinette helps him pull down his jersey. ''I can do a
4.6 forty, you know. Well, they had me playing tight end, and I'd
work out running up and down those hills they got there. I just got
faster. I could see myself evolving. I'd had one year at Purdue.
Played tight end, trading time with a five-year man. We dumped
Georgia Tech in the Peach Bowl that year.'' Antoinette sits down
again, smoothing her dress. ''But I didn't have the grades in
college. I just couldn't get interested in it. So I dropped out and
played some semipro football in Rochester, and I did really good --
scored 19 touchdowns in only seven games. The Buffalo Bills got
interested and gave me the opportunity. They moved me to defensive
end. I made the club, but those first two years were like a freshman
and sophomore year in college for me. Fundamentally, I was way
behind. They let me go, and I went to Indianapolis. Led the team
in sacks last year with six, and then they let me go.''
Virkus is in full uniform now. He fixes his orange, brown and
white cap and pounds an immense fist into his softball glove.
''Neale heard about me in softball -- they get a lot of information
by word of mouth. So he contacted me. When I got released by the
Colts, I decided to give this a go. It's nice to play in this kind
of situation. There's no pressure on me to perform, so I go up there
with a relaxed attitude. Oh, I still get upset. The pitchers try to
take you out of the game, like that Buddy Slater of Houston's Smythe
Sox. He did so much talking that I wanted to hit the ball right back
at him instead of out of the park. You see, when he does that, he's
accomplished his purpose. He's got me thinking about him, not the
ball. Bull helps me.'' He looks hopeful. ''Bull also helps me learn
about sales. If I can catch on with Steele's in the upstate New York
area, I'll have something after football. And I like softball. You
see me, you see I run out everything. I want to get as much exercise
out of this as possible. Hell, if you hit home runs all the time,
you finish a game without even breaking a sweat.''
Griffin says he's fascinated with guys like Bolen. Griff is
half-dozing in the back seat of the rental car that trails the vans
across Georgia. ''The best hitter on this team is Mike Bolen,'' he
says. ''He always hits the ball on the fat part of the bat. He
always hits it sharp. He has that concentration. When we get 50
runs ahead, I check out the girls in the stands, talk to the people
around the outfield fence. Not Mike. I wonder what some of these
guys will do when they can't play anymore. It's a funny game, you
know. People who know about it know who does what when. When we get
in the thick of it, in a big tournament, you find out who's got the
stuff. Mike has. Now he's after that record -- .769 for a season.
Mike Nye set it in Jacksonville 10 years ago. He was a leadoff
hitter, basically a hole hitter. He was a pit bull. He's about 40
now, but still playing. Mike's going for his record, and the funny
thing is he got off to a slow start. So what's he hitting now --
.768 or something? (Bolen has since slumped to .753.) The guy just
loves softball. His idols back in Tennessee were softball players,
particularly a guy named Stan Harvey. Plays for Howard's/Western
Steer (in Denver, N.C.) now. Isn't that something, having a softball
player as your idol? Hell, I wasn't even thinking about softball
when I was growing up in Detroit. Mike is something else.''
Neale thinks Bolen is ''the most underrated hitter in the United
States. He's so disciplined. Works for us, you know, as a salesman.
And he'll give hitting demonstrations. Our sales in Tennessee are up
200 percent since he joined us.''
Earlier in the day, Bolen was having lunch and talking softball in
a place called The Filling Station in Savannah. He is a huge man,
31 years old, who incongruously has a wispy strawberry blond goatee.
It makes him look like a Mennonite, or maybe Burl Ives. He has a
soft, melodious voice, a folk singer's voice. On the field he is the
most imperious of the Steele's players, an almost haughty figure,
unsmiling and uncompromising. Off the field he is pleasant and
accommodating. ''I can't think about hitting .769,'' Bolen says.
''That's awesome. We're a home run-oriented team, and all I think
about is hitting the ball hard, staying in a groove. When the other
team gets knocked out of it in the first inning, you just have to
force yourself to concentrate. I work at it.''
Bolen grew up in Cleveland, Tenn., near Chattanooga. ''I've
followed softball since I was very young. Yes, Stan Harvey played
there, and another fella named Ron Patterson. They were both great
lefthanded hitters. I started playing in Chattanooga for Burnette &
Associates back in 1977. I'd been playing the game since I was 14.
No sir, I never was involved in sports in high school. Never played
any baseball there. I guess I matured late. Right now, I feel like I
can play softball 24 hours a day, but I've got a family -- wife and
two kids -- and this traveling around gets real old. I've got
another year left on my contract with Steele's, and after that's up,
I'll take another look. I guess you could say softball is sort of in
second place in my life now.''
Rick Weiterman, 28, is a Steele's anomaly, a singles hitter on a
team of big boppers. On the Alabama and Georgia tour, he had 23
straight hits -- that's straight hits, not hits in 23 straight games
-- and only the last one was a home run. As he rounded the bases in,
for him, an unfamiliar trot, Weiterman heard Neale cry out, ''Oh,
you've added a new dimension to your game,'' and somebody else
shouted, ''The wind must be blowing out awful hard.'' At 6 ft. 2 in.,
225 pounds, Weiterman is, by Steele's standards, a little guy. But
what genuinely sets him apart from his teammates is that he is a
pitcher. Pitchers by slo-pitch standards, and especially by Steele's
standards, are victims. ''We are at the mercy of the hitters,'' says
Weiterman. ''I've been put on my back by line drives and hit in the
shins. I've been lucky never to have been hit in the face or
A slo-pitch softball pitcher stands only 46 feet from home plate,
and with a brute on the order of an Elliott or a Fuhrman, that's just
46 feet from decapitation. A slo-pitch pitcher never steps forward
delivering the ball; he unloads his lobs quickly, then scurries
backward to get out of harm's way. His pitches must always have a
''hump'' in them -- from 3 to 10 feet in elevation in the USSSA and
from 6 to 12 feet in the ASA. Weiterman likes the bloopier pitches
permitted by the ASA, but he enjoys the greater freedom the USSSA
gives beleaguered chuckers. In USSSA games, a pitcher can indulge in
the most outrageous shenanigans as long as he keeps one foot on the
rubber when he releases the ball. Before he throws, the pitcher is
permitted to taunt the hitter, wave his arms at him or, at the risk
of life and limb, even run at him. Weiterman has thrown a
behind-the-back pitch. And another Super- level pitcher, Bob Loria
of Glass Wholesalers of Hammond, Ind., has performed somersaults
before releasing the ball. In a tournament in Milwaukee, with
Elliott at bat, Loria's entire team did somersaults before the
pitch. Talk about your topsy-turvy games.
Weiterman thinks of himself as just another victim. ''I can throw
a knuckler, and if the wind is blowing out I can throw a good
breaking curve,'' he says. ''But you can't win. You just gotta keep
standing in there and put it right down the pipe.''
The interviewer from WTOC-TV in Savannah smiles hopefully up at
Ken Loeri, the 6 ft. 3 in., 235-pound Steele's outfielder. Loeri is
smiling, too, although he hasn't been in such a good mood lately.
Last season his girlfriend unceremoniously dumped him. Since then, as
everyone who has spent time with him knows, Loeri has been down in
the dumps. Any mishap, on or off the field, seemed to call this
amatory disaster to mind. ''My girl left me, and now I can't hit the
ball out. . . . My girl left me, and now this damn faucet won't work.
. . .'' Although he's built like an NFL tight end, the loss of a
loved one seems to have diminished him. Lovelorn Loeri he's called.

But before the camera he appears restored, for he is an unabashed
Steele's promoter. A warehouseman for the company, he is also a
talented illustrator who will soon be designing logos for the
company's new tote bags and T-shirts. The TV interviewer wants to
know how many runs Steele's will score against the local team from
Thompson's Sporting Goods. ''Oh,'' says Loeri, toying with some
figures, ''about 40.'' The television man smiles. ''Four? Will
that be enough?'' ''No,'' says Loeri, ''I said, '40.' '' The
interviewer's smile shrivels. He cannot comprehend 40 runs in a
game, so he tries another approach. ''All ballplayers have goals,''
he says. ''Tell me, Ken, what are yours for this season?'' Loeri
does not hesitate. ''My goals for this season are to hit over 300
home runs and to bat .700.'' End of interview.
It is raining hard at six o'clock as the Steele's vans pull into
Savannah's Eisenhower Softball Complex. Spectators and players alike
wade ankle deep in mud outside the four diamonds and gather under
the overhang of the unpainted brown shack which houses the concession
stand. Park employees work -- fruitlessly, it seems -- to sweep and
rake the infields clear of the ocherous pools that have formed on
the base paths. Fuhrman, huddled in the snappy orange Steele's warmup
jacket, checks the action outside the concession booth. ''That one
could play on my all-star team,'' he says as a leggy brunette wades
past. ''They say beer goes with softball. I say women go with it.
Well, maybe women and beer.''
There is a game already being played on the adjoining diamond, and
the rain slackens a little. The infield has been transformed from a
lake to a swamp, so the decision is made to play, if for no other
reason than to appease the sizable crowd that has assembled to see if
Steele's is for real.
It takes an inning to find out, for in Steele's half of the first,
the unimaginable occurs -- no runs. And in their half, the boys from
Thompson's score eight. Could Steele's be in trouble? Not on your
life. In the second, Virkus, Wright, Macenko and Fuhrman all hit
homers that bounce off cars parked well beyond the fence. Bull's
thunderous grunt as he hits his a mile is in itself enough to silence
the opposition. Steele's hits 14 homers in the game and, ho hum,
wins easily, 33-13. Now they will play a second game against
About the time the nightcap starts, the game on the adjoining
diamond reaches the sixth inning. Watching it proves a revelation.
The players -- representing local teams from Stroh's and the Pony
Express, according to their jerseys -- are of normal size, and
they're wearing motley uniforms and a wide assortment of caps. The
game they're playing is not the same one Steele's plays. Ground
balls are hit to the infield, for one thing. Steele's can go a whole
game without giving opposing infielders an assist or the first
baseman a putout. Ground balls are beneath them. You wonder why
opposing teams even bother with infielders, since they are about as
functional in a Steele's game as adenoids. In Columbus, Ga., the
all-stars did, in fact, move their second baseman into the outfield.
Actually, the best place for him would have been 30 feet beyond the
outfield fence. But Stroh's and the Pony Express keep their
infielders busy tracking down balls hit down the line and up the
middle. They are also catching pop-ups. A Steele's pop-up is caught
on the warning track.
What a strange game these lesser mortals play. While the ball is
rocketing out of the lot with predictable regularity next door,
Stroh's and the Pony Express are sliding into bases, beating out
grounders and, yes, making errors. And their pitchers do not act as
if their lives were in danger. By the end of their game, players on
both sides are caked with mud. They laugh and embrace. They'll
probably go out for a few beers and talk over the good plays and the
bad. They look as if they have had a good time. There's probably
not a hitter among them who has hit 10 homers all season.
Meanwhile, next door, the Bull or somebody cranks up and grunts
and the ball goes out. Over and over and over again. END

Photo(s): PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS The four sluggers pictured on the previous pages and above -- (from left) Fuhrman, Bolen, Elliott and Virkus -- assault the fences with numbing regularity wherever their travels take them. PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS NO CAPTION PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS The four sluggers pictured on the previous pages and above -- (from left) Fuhrman, Bolen, Elliott and Virkus -- assault the fences with numbing regularity wherever their travels take them.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS Ernest's partial scorecard after Steele's 91-18 win over Shubin's of Los Angeles shows 18 ordinary home runs, 6 oneliners, 11 two-liners and 2 three-liners. PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS Weiterman (top) is lucky that he doesn't have to pitch against Steele's. Macenko, who can turn the double play at second, is hitting a cool .698 with 258 dingers. PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS To the homer-hitting contingent, home is the road. In a Louisiana motel (from rear) Roberson, Dan Schuck, Bolen and Wright await Steele's next massacre. PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS A visit by Steele's is a big event in a small town like Opelika (left). Even in sophisticated Savannah, Schuck gets the superstar treatment from local TV. PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS In three decades of softball, Neale has seen it all -- well, almost all -- as Steele's fencebusters continue to establish dizzying new standards of prodigiousness. PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS In Jackson, Miss., Virkus (top) hammers the message home: Buy Steele's bats. Young fans in Columbus, Ga., are more interested in Steele's home run balls. PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS BILL EPPRIDGE PHOTOGRAPHS BY JERRY LODRIGUSS With 2,622 homers in 155 games so far this season, can a Steele's exhibition really be considered a game? The author sees it as score-bored softball.