< Mighty Mike Macenko
Story Written By: Richard Hoffer - Times Staff Writer

Spring training was one day--two workouts--on a deserted field in the Sepulveda basin. Large men spilled out of two vans, lugged their aluminum bats to the plate and began knocking softballs in the general direction of, and with the approximate distance to, Burbank.

Manager Dave Neale watched one ball hurtle into the sky, knuckling strangely into the clouds above, and said approvingly, “That’ll play.” Another, after a seemingly satisfying conk, landed disappointingly within Los Angeles County. “Two-ninety-nine,” he said, measuring the distance with a practiced eye. “He’s out.” There was, as indicated by his tone of voice, still work to be done. Spring training was not over by a long ball. They would return in the afternoon to complete the preseason drills.

And so another season began for the Steele’s Sports Co. slow-pitch softball team, at once an assembly of outrageous rubes and a sophisticated marketing scheme, and arguably the best in the world. Before it ends in late September, these men will play more than 330 games in 36 states, tooling down the highways and byways all the way, which amounts to a lot of miles for those in the frequent-van program. If form holds, they will win at least 300 of those games, and hit 5,610 home runs--17 a game. Damage to roadside eateries will be incalculable. “They’ll get some looks in a McDonald’s,” Neale reports.This returns us to first impressions. These guys are not simply the best, recruited with a ruthlessness that might please George Steinbrenner and paid with the same zeal, they are the biggest.

Average size, the team informs, is 6 feet 3 1/2 inches, 250 pounds. Although there are some physical specimens on the team, the players seem especially notable for their weight distribution. They are startingly endomorphic and do little to belie the softball player’s stereotype as a, uh, recreational type.Mike Bolen, who smote 435 of the cantaloupe-sized balls over walls last season, weighs 265, but much of that is located in a centralized zone above the belt buckle. Of Bolen, the manager proudly notes that in 1,007 at-bats last season, he hit just 26 ground balls. We are cruel to suggest that perhaps there is a reason why. Yet, Bolen is positively Lilliputian compared to some of his teammates. Craig Elliott, for years regarded as the top slow-pitch player, comes in at 300. It is a rare man who can, in terms of home runs, hit his weight year after year. But Elliott, a millionaire paving contractor on the side, has room to grow, since he dinged 337 last season.

Kenny Dain
Charles Wright
Larry Fredieu
Craig Elliott


Two others top 300 and many of the rest edge up on it. Monty Tucker, for another example, brings it home at 310. He wears No. 99, which is a small vanity since there is assuredly room for triple figures across his back.“But wait,” a visitor says, as Ron Parnell, a sleek 190-pounder takes his cuts. “That looks like an athlete.”Publicist-wheelman Jerome Earnest apologizes. “In slow-pitch, you need good fielders at short and in left field.” It’s a lamentable requirement, else they could truly barnstorm as the Sultans of Fat as well as Swat.

Hey, nobody said slow-pitch was pretty. The people who throng to watch these behemoths bat are not, in a strict sense, merely weight watchers. The people who throng--and we’re talking crowds of 3,000-6,000--come to see an activity that is to baseball what rocketry is to aviation. It’s sheer spectacle. Let’s put it another way: Neale rarely calls for a suicide squeeze.

Dirk Androff
Monty Tucker
Dave Neale
Ernie Montgomery

Steele’s, as well as the other top two slow-pitch teams in the country, offers the fans a cartoon circus of cannonade. You may well say that a softball, coming at you slowly with a hump as great as 10 feet, is ridiculously easy to hit. Thus, you may dismiss the team batting average of .678. Since the softball is sometimes soft, however, and provides none of the rebounding properties of an oncoming baseball, you may not dismiss the home runs. And there are home runs!They hit 48 in a game once last season. They hit 21 in an inning. Eight in a row. Charles (Might Makes) Wright, during a season in which he hit a record 503 home runs (asterisk: that’s in 220 games), hit 6 in a game 4 times, 5 in a game 18 times. He also hit 9 grand slams, including 2 in one inning. When you average 34 runs a game, you sometimes bat around.

One more thing about the fans: The knowledgeable assemble not in the stands but beyond the fences, there to collect one of the average 17 balls lost to play. One such fan brought a ball back to Mike Macenko, who hit 410 of such last season, and asked for an autograph. “I noticed he had teeth marks on his arm,” Macenko says. “He told me it was from a kid going for the ball. Gee, all this time I just thought they were having a good time out there, but that’s kind of scary.”We belabor the point, but these guys will lose a lot of balls for you. However, wouldn’t you just know it, Steele’s knows just where to go to get more. And this is the real point.See, Steele’s is nothing more than a walkin'-talkin’ billboard, with the additional marketing technique of coming in to trash the very same goods and equipment that you must turn around and purchase anew from them. It’s a zany idea, when you think about it. It’s kind of like ordering groceries to your home and then inviting the stock boys over to eat it, just because they do it with such appetite.

Steele’s, which has a warehouse in Grafton, Ohio, makes softballs, softball bats--so upscale they come in their own designer cases--and gloves. Softball might not loom as the nation’s top pastime, but it looms high enough to make the firms that dabble in its goods and services highly profitable. Keep in mind that 40 million play this sport. A company with a name stands to take some of their money. Steele’s wasn’t much of a name at all until Neale, one of the owners, assembled this world-class wall-busting team in the late ‘70s. The company will spend $500,000 this season to send the team on its little good-will tour, but it turns out to be the cheapest advertising this side of a favorable notice in Consumer Reports. Since the team has begun barnstorming, advertising the ball’s fabulous aerodynamic properties, sales have gone from $2 million to $8 million.The players, incidentally, profit on a mind-boggling scale as well. There are no six-figure players--"yet,” says Neale--but there are some handsomely paid sluggers. A player was just lured from one of the other two super-powers--both backed by rival Louisville Slugger--with a weekly salary of $500. But the weekly stipend pales compared to what he makes off royalties. There’s a provision in his contract that gives him a quarter for each bat and ball sold in Georgia. It adds up.

Since players tend to have regional associations and popularity, coming as they do from 10 softball-rabid states, the more renowned can profit by such royalties.“You put a (Doug) Roberson bat out in Florida,” Neale says. “Well, everybody there knows Roberson.”And they’ll buy his bat even though one of the players on the team cannot be forced to say any one bat is different from another. Another of the players has his name on a new bat that will likely retail for close to $100. He gets $2 a bat and if it sells the anticipated 20,000, well, that’s pretty easy money.

In addition, most of the players are on the company payroll, either as warehousemen or salesmen. However, with sales increasing, Neale cannot always afford to take a salesman-player on the road with the team. He had to cut two such players, since they were making the company too much money at home. Steele’s genius for business does not just include the parade of equipment--its eventual loss and destruction--and its possibilities. There is one other wrinkle. As Steele’s is in demand throughout the season to play weekday exhibitions--weekends are for tournaments when most softball players are available--the company can make certain conditions on its appearance.“Say somebody wants us in Illinois,” Neale says. “Well, we might go if, say, they order 500-600 dozen of our balls. Now, they get the concessions, everything, whatever they want. We get the order.”

This season, Neale found a way to play in Oregon when an eager promoter upped his order to $48,000. “Does that warrant your team coming?” the promoter wanted to know. Neale asked directions. But the business of softball is largely lost on fans and players. For the players, who do not have the major league luxury of a home stand--the team has no home--the grind of a season is awesome. Explaining a rare loss last season, Neale detailed a nine-game road swing that occurred in less than 24 hours and got him from York, Pa., to Trenton, N.J.“We didn’t get back to the hotel in York (from a night doubleheader) until 1:30 a.m.,” he said. “We’re in our vans by 7 the next morning and drive to a doubleheader at Reading (more than 50 miles) at 10. Then back in the vans and to Bend Salem for a 2 o'clock doubleheader. Back in the vans and to Trenton for games at 7, 8 and 9. We lost the last game, 42-41.”

There was an up side to that loss. Neale has noticed that his team is sometimes better appreciated when it loses to the hometown heroes. Orders often rise. After this particular tripleheader, which was riveting until the last out, the promoter was jubilant. He had sold out the concession stands. He told Neale, “Yours will be the only ball we’ll ever use.” The agony of defeat, somewhat softened.The blur of the road--Neale: “We go to towns that don’t even have TV"--is a numbing thing. But the players take it in stride. Some even like it.

Macenko, a huge man who has brought his petite wife along for a trip to Hawaii, loves driving across America. “It’s no picnic, and if you’re playing second-rate competition, well, it’s tough to stay alert when the score is 60-10,” he says. “But I like it. Some of the others get tired of it and they come down to my room and, I don’t want to say complain, but talk about it.”Still, there is the excitement of sending a ball a cloud-touching 400 feet. They win their share of tournaments and World Series--two out of three last season--but the fun of it is those home runs, both in their numbers and quality.

Just as Eskimos have different words for snow, so do the men of Steele have different designations for home runs. When a team hits 3,913 in a year, a home run becomes commonplace. So Earnest, also the scorekeeper--a thankless job on the order of being a slow-pitch pitcher--has developed a system of starring the home runs, one to three, one being average. A three-star? “Mickey Mantle country,” Macenko says.

Macenko estimates that he has hit 50 that traveled 400 feet or more, including one out of Mile High Stadium in Denver and another that left a minor league park, traveled across a street and landed on a bewildered woman’s front porch. “I get off on the long ones,” he says.The rest of the population can get off on them, beginning this weekend. The team has uncharacteristically flown to Hawaii for a three-day swing--"virgin territory,” Neale says--and will return to California for a game Tuesday at Oceanside. There will be a swing through Arizona, then back to the Southland for an eight-day visit before driving up to Fresno. And on and on it goes, the conk of aluminum bats beating a tinny backdrop to their march across the country. Big men carrying big sticks, hitting long balls and making money for themselves and their company. A happy confluence of commerce and play. It reminds us: Is this a great country or what?


The Steele’s Sports Co. softball team averaged 17 home runs and 34 runs a game in compiling a 217-13 record in 1986. Below are the team’s top home run hitters and their statistics.

220 1114 785 803 503 867 .721

MIKE BOLEN HGT.: 6-2, WGT.: 265
207 1007 737 754 435 744 .749

204 1018 698 708 419 801 .695

219 1121 756 798 410 739 .712

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