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They keep coming, one incredible hulk after another. Some teams may have five or six Luzinski-sized sluggers who can crank it out of any park. But this one has 10—every player in the lineup a home-run threat. No wonder it has been called the most awesome scoring machine ever assembled in the sport. After 99 games this season it is 84-15 and is averaging nearly four runs—an inning.
Closer inspection reveals that the team is composed of a bunch of caterers. You know, the fellows who make canapés and petits fours for weddings and bar mitzvahs. At least that's what their jerseys say—JERRY'S CATERERS. In truth, only a few of them work for sponsor Jerry Pendergast of Miami; the rest are electrical workers, laborers and heavy-equipment operators who play for his No. 1-ranked slo-pitch softball team.
More precisely, they are softball players who moonlight as caterers, laborers, electrical workers and heavy-equipment operators. Because everyone in softball is a free agent, Pendergast will most likely lose several of his stars when this year ends. Then he will have to rebuild, just as he did after last season.
At this time last year all but four players on his 14-man roster were working and playing in places like Oklahoma City, Augusta, Ga. and Detroit. They are in Miami now because, to get right down to it, Pendergast made them deals they couldn't refuse: a job either with his company or another in the community, plus an expense-paid vacation in one case, a down payment on a house in another, air fare for wives to all games in others. And just to make sure that this generosity isn't for naught, those who work for him knock off at three to lift weights and practice hitting. Those players who work elsewhere are compensated by Pendergast for the days they're traveling with the team.
But the competition is breathing down Jerry's neck. One sponsor usually throws in a car and an interest-free loan to get the players he wants; another offers jobs in his company at twice the salary of a non-softball employee or, better yet, a percentage of the profits. If a player has an especially good season, he may be enticed to leave by a home-run bonus or a job for his wife.
Hold on a second. This is slo-pitch Softball. You remember, the game played at Fourth of July picnics and after work for an hour or so on the way to the local watering hole. Sure, a few overfed, over-the-hill and overzealous Americans suit up for their companies, churches and taverns, but most of them play in search of flashbacks to a time when the ball was harder and smaller and so were they.
This brand of ball is different. It is played by an elite group of 20 or so company teams that make up the National Slo-Pitch Conference, the United States Slo-Pitch Softball Association and the major division of the Amateur Softball Association. "I've had a team going on 20 years now, and I can't remember when it hasn't cost me $100,000," says Ken Sanders, owner, sponsor and manager of Ken Sanders Subaru in Augusta. "This year I figure I'll spend closer to $150,000." And only two of Sanders' players work for him. For sponsors that have entire teams on the payrolls earning inflated salaries, the cost can run as high as $400,000.
Fortunately for the sponsors and players alike, the overseers of Softball take a three-monkeys attitude toward violations of their amateur code, which states that no player shall be paid to play ball. "As long as I can make it all look like expenses," says one sponsor, "I can give the players whatever it takes to get them." One NSPC official even concedes, "A top player can cost up to $30,000." Like the legendary Al (The Wanderer) White, one of the game's premier hitters, whose travels have taken him to seven cities since 1969. "Wave that dollar in front of ol' Al and he's gone," says Jerry's Outfielder James Washington.
These teams are not to be confused with those in the struggling American Professional Slo-Pitch League and its antique collection of ex-major-leaguers. In fact, the players become slightly miffed when asked whether they play in the APSPL. "These teams definitely have better players," says Mike Nye, who for three years was one of the APSPL's highest-paid players before returning to the so-called amateur ranks this season. "The best pro teams couldn't stay on the field with a club like Jerry's," adds Stu Weinstein, who writes a weekly Softball column for The Miami News. "As a matter of fact, there are probably 15 amateur teams now that could beat the best of the pros."
Ordinarily, a lot fewer beat Jerry's. However, the team was upset at the NSPC championship in Birmingham, Ala. last week, largely because of injuries to two key players. Jerry's will still be the club to beat in this week's ASA championships and the USSSA tournament later this month.