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Original Issue

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

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

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

The weatheroutside may be frightful, but inside the 42,000-square-foot Ball Park SportsCenter, the Boys of Summer and Winter are gleefully at play. Tonight, InvestorsLife, which sponsors a team made up primarily of guys from the Granite CitySteel mill, is taking on players representing Show Me's, a restaurant in thenearby town of Fairview Heights.

A stocky guy fromthe Show Me's team steps to the plate, and he zings a line drive tocenterfield. The fluorescent orange ball jumps off the AstroTurf, rebounds offthe wall and rolls back toward the infield. Pinball softball. The InvestorsLife centerfielder runs hunched over like a crab, snatching at the ball whiletwo runs score. After five innings, the leftfield scoreboard reads 7-3 in favorof Show Me's. "This is a great game," says Investors catcher ArnoldMeyer, 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 forspring. The one thing I'm not crazy about with the indoor game is, it's deadlyquick. 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 ofthe small but growing band of softball junkies in the snow belt who can't facesix months away from their sport. Twenty-six teams from six states participatedin last year's Indoor World Series, which was held at the Ball Park. Anestimated 2,000 teams nationwide currently play indoors. They compete at some30 facilities, which are mostly field houses, converted tennis clubs and thelike. 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 onlyfacility in the country built for indoor softball. The park's magnetism isfar-reaching: One team drives 140 miles to play each Thursday.

During the gamebetween Investors and Show Me's, Ed True, principal owner of the Ball Parkfacility, sits in the Stadium Club lounge, two stories above ground level. Hemunches popcorn and watches the game through a huge plate-glass window. Behindhim, John the bartender serves drinks at an oak bar. Top 40 music plays in thebackground, 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 awedding reception here," says True.

True, 59, was aSt. Louis businessman six years ago when he bought the 10-acre plot on whichthe 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 afriend who had converted a four-court indoor tennis center into a softballfield. "Ed played there and came up with the idea of putting soccer andsoftball under one roof," says his wife, Myrna, who now works full time atthe BPSC. "That idea has been our savior."

For three dayseach 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 bleachershold girlfriends, wives and exuberant offspring of the players. "C'mon,Dad!" a Dennis the Menace look-alike screams to his father at theplate.

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 theindoor game," he says later. "Guys on the base told me about it. It's adifferent game—fast and fun. I love it."

The biggestdifference between the indoor and outdoor games involves batting. The bestindoor hits arc long and low because of the tight parameters of the buildingand because it has no fences to clear. This is a crippling blow to those hugesides of beef who excel at the outdoor game, the guys who can crack the ballinto the next county.

Other differencesbetween the two games exist, as True says, "because we had to make up somerules to accommodate both the building and our league schedule." Forinstance, games at the Ball Park last seven innings or 55 minutes, whichevercomes first. "When time's up, that's it," says Investors manager DaveFraley. "We don't even break ties."

As for thelogistical rules, they're comparable to those that make Arena football a fardifferent game from the one Joe Montana plays. A giant net, which extends fromhome plate to the outfield wall, hangs just below the Ball Park's ceiling toprevent balls from getting trapped in the rafter beams. If a batter hits thenet with an infield pop-up, it's a foul ball. A ball glancing off the net abovethe outfield is in play. So is anything hit off the 18-foot-high wall thatrings the outfield. So is anything that reaches the blue tarp that's suspendedfrom the 44-foot-high roof and drapes behind the entire outfield wall. "Inthe outdoor game, you step back when a hit is over your head," says ShowMe's manager and outfielder, Tim Garcia. "But in here, you wait for thecarom."

In centerfield ared-tarp target hangs in front of the blue tarp. To the hitter, 220 feet away,it looks like an oversized matador's cape. "Hit it and you get adouble," says True. "It's the longest shot in the building, and thebatter has to keep the ball low, below roofline." A smaller tarp, this onegreen, is above the scoreboard in left. This target is 190 feet from the plate,and batters who hit it are rewarded with a home run. "Only 12 sinceSeptember," says True. (Rightfield has no such target, so lefty pullhitters are out of luck.)

The orange ballhas a cork core, as opposed to a traditional Softball's much harder center. Asa result, the ball doesn't carry as far. However, it still skids off the hardAstroTurf surface, giving an advantage to wiry outfielders with sure hands."That ball hits your glove and just wants to jump back out," saysGarcia.

"I love theindoor game," says Joe Kicielinski, who plays first base indoors for theSt. Clair A team, and whose summer-league team reached last year's NationalSoftball Association World Series. "It puts finesse back in the sport.There's a premium on quick guys who can do it all, both offensively anddefensively. It stresses basics. Our summer team has done well recently becausewe took the indoor game and started playing it outdoors."

Not everyoneplays as well as Kicielinski & Co. As Investors and Show Me's prove, somereal Keystone Kops routines can take place in the indoor outfield, with playersfalling over one another in their struggle to control the elusive ball. After55 minutes, all antics and heroics come to an end; the Show Me's prevail 8-4 toremain undefeated for the season. "We escaped with our lives," saysGarcia. "Usually we win by 10 runs or more."

"The speed ofthe game is what I find frustrating," says Meyer, the aging Investorscatcher. "Guys get thrown out at first by outfielders—I've seen it happento rabbits." He pauses, and his dismay fades. "Oh well, no matter. Winor lose, post-game is beer time on our team. We're either toasting with it, orcrying in it."

Theplayers—weeping Investors and toasting Show Me's alike—repair to the StadiumClub lounge, where, on this night, the proceedings remain sedate. Such is notalways the case, according to a few of the players. One night, they say, barpatrons signaled last call to players on the field by mooning them through theplate glass. True doubts the truth of that particular bit of Ball Parklore.

In any event,there are no moons out tonight, and as the witching hour passes, the park andits lounge empty out. John Phillips, a Ball Park regular, lingers. He looks atthe darkened infield and muses on how the facility has changed things for himand for others.

"I used tospend the winter catching up on my reading," he says. "Others joinedbowling leagues, or they simply hibernated. The Ball Park brought a lot of thesummer guys back together in the off-season. I guess that's what's really fun,the razzing and the camaraderie. But I have to say, right about this time eachyear I can't wait to smell the grass, see the sun and feel the windagain."

Lisa TwymanBessone teaches a course in magazine editing at Northwestern University.



The green and red target tarps on the park's far wall are alluring, but it takes a long shot to reach them.