St. Louis- One hundred years since George Hancock invented the game of softball, Steele's Sports has turned the creation into a monster. Steele's has been designated by the Amateur Softball Association as the official exhibition team for the centennial year, and it's quite a show. The barnstorming slow-pitch bruisers from Grafton, Ohio near Cleveland, will hit something like 6,000 home runs in their seven month season.
Cranking' Craig Elliott already has become the first player in history to hit 300 homers in four different seasons. The Men of Steele's left-handed crusher Mike Macenko, is trying to surpass Babe Ruth's career total of 714 homers-in a single season! After 207 games, Macenko stood at 498 homers-just five the record of 503, set in 1986 by Charles Wright of Steele's. Macenko had a chance of eclipsing Wright's record in a tournament final June 28 in Wilson, N.C., but managed just one round tripper in his nine at bats. That meant Wright's record would fall in Steele's weeklong swing through Wisconsin starting June 29.
"Ol Babe Ruth with mustache (Macenko) had eight hits, but just one home run," said Jerome Ernest, a former sports editor from Panama City, Fla., who in the last three years has chronicled the feats of the Men Of Steele as scorekeeper/publicist. The weekend visit to the Carolinas produced two more major records. The Men Of Steele hit the 10,000 milestone in home runs-that's in 3 years -and they wiped out their own one-season (86) mark of 3,193. Steele's came out of the tournament with a total of 3,933 this year.
"We went over 10,000 when we hit 16 homers and scored 28 runs in the last inning of the championship game with Ritch's of Concord, N.C. We beat 'em 63 - 17," Ernest said. "We were playing in a baseball stadium with a temporary fence. When they announced that we were at 9,997, the next three guys homered. Doug Roberson and Macenko put their balls over the baseball wall and Elliott got No. 10,000 over the softball fence. Steele's hit 95 homers in 5 games in that United States Slo-Pitch Softball Association (USSSA) event, which marked the first appearance of Wright in the lineup this year. He broke in with 5 homers, but has a long way to go to catch his teammates.
Roberson, with 441 homers, was staying on Macenko's heels. Six other-Elliott, Ricky Huggins, Scott Virkus, Mike Bolen, Ken Dain and Ron Parnel-were over 300. Steele's was 199-8 after 207 games, and had a record 97 game winning streak from April 11 to June 20. The team was averaging 38 runs and 19 homers a game and has long since qualified for the USSSA World Series, set for September 17-20 in Waterloo, Ia. That's the one Jewel of softball's triple crown that Steele's missed in 1986, when it won the National Softball Association title and the ASA Super Division championship. Steele's will defend its NSA crown August 28-30 in Houston and its ASA title in September 4-7 in Parma, Ohio.
Steele's Sports evolved from the old Steele's Automotive Parts team out of Lima, Ohio which won a state championship in 1978, prompting sponsors to decide that the club ought to market its own ball and bat. A group of investors-including Dave Neale, field manager of the softball juggernaut, and company president Dennis Helmig-started Steele's Sports. The late Bill Albrecht, a major backer in recent years, suggested that the team go big time and national softball names such as Elliott and Bolen were recruited in 1985, when the team went on tour for the first time and compiled a 159-27 record. The road show then was limited to stops in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Major additions in 1986 were Roberson, Huggins and Virkus, a 6-6 290 pounder who once played for the Buffalo Bills and was a defensive end in the Canadian Football league. The Men of Steele's hit the road in a convoy of vans and compiled a 217-13 record. The year's schedule began with a tournament in February 13 in Honolulu and will cover 34 states. The care and feeding of the Men Of Steele's comes to to about $4,000 a day. Meal money is $25 a day, but travel is the big item. The players -who come from 10 states are on salary and represent the company year round on the diamond and in the firms warehouse or in sales or promotional capabilities.
Elliott the most celebrated of the Men of Steele, he's a six time most valuable player at the national championship level, maintains his home and has an asphalt paving company in Wadley, Ala., while representing Steele's. He missed the first 70 games this year because he was tied up with the paving business.
Neale's assistant coach Randy Gorell and Ernest, the designated drivers had put more than 30,000 miles on the teams vans by the end of June. Players are flown to the tournament sites, burt they travel by vans on short hauls. The team normally plays for a guarantee, plus lodging, at each stop and sales of Steele's equipment, T-shirts and caps help defray expenses. The players had eight days off in March and there have been other breaks of three and four days. The team will get one day of rest before entering the Smoky Mountain Classic July 10-12 in Maryville, Tenn., where they'll be facing Smythe Sox of Houston and Howard's of Denver, N.C. Those teams are on a par with Steele's at the national level.
The Smythe Sox, featuring superstar Bruce Meade, won the USSSA title in 1986, depriving Steele's of the triple crown. Howard's, which boasts Rick (The Crusher) Sherr, ended Steele's 97 game streak with a 32-26 triumph in a tournament in Minneapolis. Steele's also lost to the Smythe Sox 44-39, in that tournament.
Macenko, 31, softball's new superman, is a homegrown Man of Steele. The 6=3 245-pounder is from Brunswick, O., and has played with Cleveland-area teams since 1974. He's been with Steele's since 1983.
"I'd played baseball and then got into what we called a softball "funny league" at the age of 16," Macenko said. "I got invited to a home run derby and beat everyone. Dave Neale saw me and invited me to play softball. I was with Dave on the Hillcrest team in the NSPC (the National Slo-Pitch Conference of the late 1970s) and with Ted Stepien's Cleveland area teams in the national pro league (in 1981 and 1982)."
Macenko is married to the former Toni Stabile, who was a basketball star at Brunswick High School and now coaches softball there. "She had 1,500 points in high school and she's just been named to the Medina County sports hall of fame -- she went in with the baseball guy, Gene Woodling" said Macenko. And we're to have a baby in the fall. He's just as proud of his wife's achievements as she is of his. When Mike is home, Toni pitches batting practice to him. And she doesn't object to all the time he spends on the road with the team.
Macenko has not missed a game this season. He went on a 81-homer tear in nine days as he closed in on Wright's record. In that stretch he went 107 for 132, an average of .811. Through June 24, when the Men of Steele struggled to a 32-30 victory over St. Louis Merchants in the second half of a doubleheader at the St. Louis Sports Complex, the team had scored 10 or more runs in an inning 270 times. There were 55 20-run innings and nine 30-run innings. Although a home run can be expected on every pitch, one more is never boring to the Men of Steele. The players line up to give the high five's as a home run hitter crosses the plate. And Ernest dutifully updates the crowd, via the public address anouncer, after each clout. There's always a groan of disbelief in the audience when word comes out that it was "No. 428 for Roberson" or "No. 367 for Huggins," or whatever.
Ernest is revered among the Men Of Steele for the way he marks his score book. A routine homer rates only a line. A line drive soaring into the night might rate two lines. A three-line entry is a "Mickey Mantle," a tape-measure blast. And the ultimate, according to Ernest, is "the liner plus a star (asterisk)."
Two notable "three-liners plus a star" were the 508-foot homer by Macenko in Las Vegas and 489-footer by Elliott in Denver.