SOFTBALL? That's the game in which I play shortstop in a local recreation league, where a guy has to hit .700 to make the top 10. That's the game in which 6-3, 280-pound Mike Macenko plays second base for Steele's of Ohio and averages about 40 home runs a week.
We all know what softball is, for goodness sake.Uh, not according to the players, coaches and everybody involved in this week's Pioneer Days tournament.
To these folks, softball has nothing to do with slow pitches and home-run derbies. Their game is fastpitch, and this is serious business.
Even right here in Salt Lake City, two sponsors field teams that travel the globe, rack up close to six figures in annual expenses, compete for the major national championship and accuse each other of stealing players.
Well, some rec league teams do that, too, but you get the idea.
"Softball, when you play it, is a way of life," says Larry Miller, a softball player and team owner long before he hit the Utah Jazz sidelines. "I'm not sure what it is, but to those people inside of it, it's not a game, it's an institution."
So is the rivalry between Miller Toyota and Page Brake, the local teams that will join Carpetowne in the 12-team Pioneer Days field that features the New Zealand national team and national champions from Canada, Mexico and America - all at the Cottonwood Complex Friday through Sunday. "They're the Karl Malones of softball," says Page Brake manager Wes Haymond, using an illustration Miller can understand. "Absolute legends are coming into town."
The fact is, Miller Toyota and Page Brake can play with any of them, and usually do. Just to make sure, they're always looking to add just the right player to their teams.
Page Brake owner Carl Hansen made a bold move in April 1987, offering a warehouse job to Brad Burrup, a former baseball player from Blackfoot, Idaho, who's considered the best softball catcher in the world, no less. Burrup happened to be playing for Miller Toyota at the time. Taking the job meant changing softball uniforms, is all.
"An in-your-face move," storms Miller, more than a year later.
As the '87 Cottonwood Travel League season started, Miller was still depressed by the Jazz's playoff loss to Golden State and saw his softball team shut out in three of four games. He even considered withdrawing as a sponsor until he overheard a stinging comment from a Page player, who'd helped lure Burrup away.
After the summer, when Miller Toyota was swept by Page in the season series but won a playoff series to advance to the ASA major nationals, Miller went into action. He brought back Burrup, making him manager of one of the Jazz-owned Pro Image stores - the store, in the Valley Fair Mall, reportedly now leads the chain in sales. And then he went after Brendan Keehan, the New Zealand pitcher who'd originally joined Page after Miller had no room for him on his staff.
So much for the, ahem, gentleman's agreement dictating that Miller and Hansen would never mess with each other's teams.
"You have to get the message," Miller explains. "I'm not going to let you kick me and not kick you back."
Sort of like NBA might become, with unrestricted free agents.
Hansen, meanwhile, was devastated. "You can never replace those guys," he says. He had to fold one of his developent teams, bringing up five players from the team known as the Page Brake Boys, and had seven new players wearing Page orange and black. He also acquired Canadian pitcher Lyle Normand, just for tournaments, and is battling back. Last weekend, Page finished third in a Seattle tournament that included part of the Pioneer Days field.
"It's not for the best, let's put it that way," Hansen says of the latest twist in the Miller-Page rivalry. "I have mixed emotions, and some are not good feelings, but (Miller's) done a lot for the game over the years."
So has Hansen who, after 32 years in the game, still wears a Page uniform and watches his sons play from the dugout. And the rivalry is actually no more heated than before - that would be impossible.
"We're all friends," notes Page's Haymond, "but when they walk between the lines and we walk between the lines, it's a rivalry that's not equaled."
They'll be between the lines this weekend, in a fast-moving game with pitchers throwing 90 miles an hour from 46 feet away and hitters just trying to slap the ball around for base hits. That's softball. Not Mike Macenko's and my other stuff.