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The Winter Game: Pinball Softball
Lisa Twyman Bessone
March 11, 1991
At a customized ballpark in greater St. Louis, they're singing a new song: Take me in to the ball game
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March 11, 1991

The Winter Game: Pinball Softball

At a customized ballpark in greater St. Louis, they're singing a new song: Take me in to the ball game

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In O'Fallon, Ill., a suburb of St. Louis, it's a perfect night for soft-ball. Dark clouds sag with their weight of moisture, and gusts of wind buffet the low buildings like waves of surf. A cold drizzle falls in the gloom of an early February evening. The mercury hovers around 30�. Softball weather.

Oh, did we mention that we're talking about indoor softball?

The weather outside may be frightful, but inside the 42,000-square-foot Ball Park Sports Center, the Boys of Summer and Winter are gleefully at play. Tonight, Investors Life, which sponsors a team made up primarily of guys from the Granite City Steel mill, is taking on players representing Show Me's, a restaurant in the nearby town of Fairview Heights.

A stocky guy from the Show Me's team steps to the plate, and he zings a line drive to centerfield. The fluorescent orange ball jumps off the AstroTurf, rebounds off the wall and rolls back toward the infield. Pinball softball. The Investors Life centerfielder runs hunched over like a crab, snatching at the ball while two runs score. After five innings, the leftfield scoreboard reads 7-3 in favor of Show Me's. "This is a great game," says Investors catcher Arnold Meyer, unfazed by being behind. "I've been a softball player for 10 years, and I can keep my arm and legs in shape throughout the winter and be ready for spring. The one thing I'm not crazy about with the indoor game is, it's deadly quick. I'm getting up in years, you know."

Indeed he is. Meyer is a wizened 34. But that's not quitting time yet, so he remains part of the small but growing band of softball junkies in the snow belt who can't face six months away from their sport. Twenty-six teams from six states participated in last year's Indoor World Series, which was held at the Ball Park. An estimated 2,000 teams nationwide currently play indoors. They compete at some 30 facilities, which are mostly field houses, converted tennis clubs and the like. In Cincinnati, enterprising sluggers took over a defunct Ford plant.

Fifty-four teams, both men's and mixed, compete at the Ball Park, believed to be the only facility in the country built for indoor softball. The park's magnetism is far-reaching: One team drives 140 miles to play each Thursday.

During the game between Investors and Show Me's, Ed True, principal owner of the Ball Park facility, sits in the Stadium Club lounge, two stories above ground level. He munches popcorn and watches the game through a huge plate-glass window. Behind him, John the bartender serves drinks at an oak bar. Top 40 music plays in the background, and a handful of patrons watch basketball on two big-screen TVs. The joint seems decidedly upscale for a softball crowd. "We've even held a wedding reception here," says True.

True, 59, was a St. Louis businessman six years ago when he bought the 10-acre plot on which the Ball Park Sports Center now sits. Both his sons had played soccer as boys, and True intended to open an indoor soccer facility. Then he heard about a friend who had converted a four-court indoor tennis center into a softball field. "Ed played there and came up with the idea of putting soccer and softball under one roof," says his wife, Myrna, who now works full time at the BPSC. "That idea has been our savior."

For three days each week, soccer is played on the turf. The other four days, softball reigns, and the Ball Park truly feels like a ballpark. On this night, the bleachers hold girlfriends, wives and exuberant offspring of the players. "C'mon, Dad!" a Dennis the Menace look-alike screams to his father at the plate.

From the mound, Show Me's Stuart Yoza, a sergeant stationed at nearby Scott Air Force Base, lobs a perfect strike. "I'm from Hawaii, and I had never heard of the indoor game," he says later. "Guys on the base told me about it. It's a different game—fast and fun. I love it."

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