Slo-Pitch museum covers all the bases


PETERSBURG, Va. -- Forget about Henry Aaron, major league baseball's home run king. Seven hundred and fifteen homers in a career? Pardon us, Hammerin' Hank, but you're small potatoes. When it comes to hitting dingers, Mike Macenko is the main man. A member of Steele's Silver Bullets, a slo-pitch softball all-star team, Mr. Macenko hit 844 home runs in 1987 alone.

That's Mr. Macenko's picture up there on a wall of the United States Slo-Pitch Softball Association Hall of Fame Museum. He's the meaty-looking guy swinging the big bat, a look of grim determination on his face. But Mr. Macenko is not the only slo-pitch overachiever honored in this collection, located 30 minutes south of Richmond, Va., off interstate 95.

There's Dick "The Rocket Man" Bartel, so called because balls would rocket off his bat. His picture sits on the same wall as that of Rich "The Crusher" Scherr, who could do you-know-what to the old cowhide. Over here is a big poster of Bruce "Mr. Softball" Meade, all 6 feet 6 inches of him, half of which seems to be his handlebar mustache. And right next to him is the racy poster featuring members of Team Undercover Wear, the 1991 Class "A" World Champions from Wilmington, Mass., who posed with lingerie models wearing the skimpies their employer manufactures.

The United States Slo-Pitch Softball Association represents more than 100,000 teams and 2 million players. Its national headquarters were established in Petersburg in 1971 because the president of the organization lived in the area.

"I was kind of opposed to having that poster up there," said museum manager Brenda Hamilton, "but the guys out-voted me."

It's the only jarring note in an otherwise respectable showplace. Other than the church pews, that is -- the ones left over from the days when the USSSA Museum, which also houses the organization's national headquarters, was a funeral parlor. They're sitting right there in the USSSA Hall of Champions, which features 142 jerseys worn by championship men's and women's teams from the USSSA's various divisions. Teams like the Mueller Pipeliners from Milwaukee, the Peoples Church Softball Club from Tacoma, Wash., or the mighty warriors of the Florida Mulch Softball Club.

Even though it represents more than 100,000 teams and 2 million players, the USSSA has only been around since 1968. Its national headquarters were established in Petersburg in 1971 because the president of the organization lived in the area. The museum did not open until 1984. But it was not until last year, when Ms. Hamilton took over the reins, that the museum started to get a professional make-over: All the material on display got description cards. New exhibits, like one on softball umpires, were set up. And a marketing plan was developed.

So the 5,000 visitors who came to the museum last year (attendance is up 300 percent this year) can now enjoy the bat collection, the wall that tells how softballs are made, the room describing softball tours of the former Soviet Union and the various Hall of Fame plaques. Ms. Hamilton says that 60 percent of all visitors, who are mostly in the 45-65 age group, do not even play softball but are interested because they have a child or grandchild who does.

And they all know how seriously the players take the game. Just take a run out to the bucolic confines of nearby Lee Park, where the USSSA was holding a national invitational tournament the other day, and you'll get an idea of the competition -- or lack of it.

A few hundred fans turn out on a muggy evening to catch the play of teams from as far away as Florida and Ohio.

As the smell of hamburgers fills the air, kids merrily play tag under the stands, and the beer flows like tap water. But the night's first game is the softball equivalent of the recent Olympic basketball mismatch pitting the Dream Team against Angola. In this corner: Steele's-Sunbelt Hit Men, one of only 14 "Major" division teams in the USSSA. Their opponents: the Vienna (Va.) Mudcats, a Class "C" team that is about as good as the one your brother-in-law, the weekend warrior, plays for.

The Mudcats actually requested this matchup, so spare them your pity; they wanted to know what it's like to play the best. No one's surprised that they are down 69-1 in the fifth inning of a game that, thanks to a USSSA rule, will be called at the end of the frame with Steele's ahead 84-1.

"You can get real tired of watching all these home runs in one game [there will be a total of 55]," said Harry Marsh, the USSSA's director of communications, "except the skills Steele's is showing are what all these B and C level players want to be."

Sort of how those Angolans felt getting whipped by Magic and company. In fact, isn't that . . . yes, it is! That's the Mighty Mike Macenko out there playing for Steele's, and he's just added five home runs to his already humongous total of 5,244 dingers since 1973.

And Hank Aaron? Who's he?

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