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 left-fielder, and Scott Virkus, a 6'6", 295-pound right-fielder 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 6'3", 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 bandboxes.
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 soft-ball 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 games.