Greensboro’s Barstool Softball League: chasing grounders, secret game locations and a softball dynasty
It’s a day for the ages out here at the ballpark, and I’m not talking about the neo-retro, artsy-fartsy downtown digs of the Greensboro Grasshoppers who on this Sunday are out of town blowing a 4-0 lead to the Rome Braves, capping off a mild slide in the standings which has put them in the basement of the South Atlantic League.
No, this particular diamond is in the rough ‘— a chain-link field of dreams at an undisclosed location at the perimeter of town with no pitcher’s mound to speak of and an infield that has been covered with a not-so-fine layer of gravel that incites baserunners to think twice before sliding into third.
There are no concession stands or luxury suites, no press box or scoreboard at this ballyard, but the sign in deep center reads 287 feet and the foul lines are clearly demarcated in chalk. A small gathering of fans have gathered to watch the four-game card, though most of them have set up lawn chairs in the shade rather than fry their buns on the aluminum bleachers that have been collecting heat since the sun came up hours earlier.
It’s midway through the season in the Greensboro Barstool Softball League, and today is the hottest day yet ‘— 95 degrees at least, maybe closer to a buck, and there is absolutely no breeze to stir the dust on the diamond or cool the sweat from the players’ brows. And the locale remains a mystery to our readers not because the players don’t want people watching ‘— they do. It’s a secret because, as workers in the service industry, most of the players toil in the public eye all night long. Their softball league is strictly for insiders.
The first game of the day started at noon, a high-scoring affair between Shucka’s Alley and the Old Towne Draught House that culminated at 11-10, with Shucka’s coming out on top. Shucka’s is relatively new to the league, which has been running for at least 20 years, but they’re coming on strong this season and have spent most of it at or near the top of the standings.
The league rules are forgiving: games last six innings or an hour and a quarter, whichever comes first. Pitching is arced and underhanded, with balls and strikes called by the home plate umpire, and teams are coed. One wrinkle: you can’t walk a guy to get to a girl, therefore any female batter preceded by a walked male gets an automatic trip to first.
It is far from textbook baseball, with a single umpire, tons of undocumented errors and plenty of missed bags, but it is a near-perfect model of camaraderie in competition and, for lack of a better clichÃ©, good clean fun.
After their win, a few Shucka’s players celebrate their victory in the parking lot, paved with the same gravel as the infield, while game two builds up steam.
It’s a contest between M’Coul’s, who are enjoying limited success in their first season with the Barstool League, and perennial heavyweight Hugo’s who at 8-0 have earned a comfortable berth in the standings. The score stands at 4-1 in the middle of the 2nd in favor of Hugo’s ‘— at this point it’s anybody’s ballgame, and the heat of the day ratchets up a few notches as they switch sides.
There’s no love lost between these two squads, at least on the field. At their last meeting earlier in the season M’Coul’s talked a lot of smack, according to Leigh Hathaway, a general manager at the Hugo’s on Lawndale who has played in the league for seven summers. ‘“We kicked their ass,’” Leigh says from the shade behind the cage. ‘“Now they’re a little quieter.
‘“We’re all friends off the field,’” Leigh continues. ‘“We all work in the bars; we all hang out at each others’ places; we share the same regulars. We all know each other.’” But when it’s game time, she says, they all come to play.
At the plate, big Bill Watson from the Hugo’s team tags a lofting pitch to the wall for a stand-up triple. A sacrifice fly brings him home to make the score 5-1. The M’Coul’s bench collectively sets their jaws. There’s some carping over there: many of the Hugo’s players, it seems, don’t actually work for the company. But the rules are pretty informal here, with teams made up not only of staffers but also regular customers, spouses, friends and even a few ringers. And it can get a bit convoluted: a manager of Old Towne plays for Ritchy’s. A bartender’s wife plays for the Flatiron. And even M’Coul’s today fields a temp player, Matt Wells, who works and plays for Old Towne but got the call when the roster came up short.
He’s in the dugout now, Matt is, and he rubs some of the dusty gravel in his hands before turning to an Old Towne teammate and saying, ‘“Wanna see me go yard?’”
He digs in his feet at the plate, takes a few slow cuts and then sets for the pitch, a high looper (they’re all high loopers in slow-pitch softball) that drops into the zone for a called strike one. He tips the next pitch foul, one and one. The third he keys in on and gives a mighty swat. The ball falls just short of the fence and into a fielder’s glove, but the sacrifice drives in two for M’Coul’s, keeping them in the game.
Andy Hughes, the owner of Hugo’s, sits in a preferred place in the dugout, on the shady end next to a cooler. He’s been playing in the league for 15 years, he says, ‘“and I know it’s been going on longer than that.’”
Andy runs the league these days when he’s not tending to his bars, and he says that this year 10 teams compete for the title. Besides Hugo’s, M’Coul’s, Shucka’s and Old Towne, efforts are being put forth by Speakeasy, Arizona Pete’s, Ritchy’s, the Flatiron, RH Barringer and American Premium Beverage. Participation is not strictly limited to bars ‘— those last two teams are beverage distributors ‘— and Andy says the teams have changed a bit over the years.
‘“The Rhino [club] used to have a team,’” he says, ‘“the Jaycees had one. There was a group of lawyers who had a team way back when.’”
The contest today ends in favor of Hugo’s, 14-4, and before the next match between Ritchy’s and RH Barringer today’s umpire pauses for a cool drink. His name is Darryl Darnell, a large black man with a gap-toothed smile that he rarely displays during the games. He’s been an ump for the city of Greensboro for 22 years, officiating in both hardball and softball games, and he’s no stranger to abuse from fans and players. ‘“Believe it or not,’” he says, ‘“the church leagues are the worst. You got some people who think they know the rules better.’”
‘“This umpire is brutal,’” says Mike Rollins, a rookie for the Old Towne squad. ‘“His strike zone is pathetic.’” Mike was thrown out of the first game, he says, for ‘“arguing with that fat guy there behind the plate.’” Now he stands behind the cage and handicaps the third game of the afternoon.
‘“Ritchy’s should dominate,’” he predicts.
And the downtown bar’s team jumps to a three-run lead which they manage to hold until the bottom of the second, when a long shot to center becomes an RBI double for Barringer, making the score 3-1 before the third.
But the third inning is a decisive one for Ritchy’s. After a leadoff single, Ken Schwertner tags a long ball which becomes an inside-the-park home run in a play laden with errors that go without citation on the scorecards. A guy they call ‘“Hammer,’” a lean lefty, knocks in another. With the bases loaded Mark Klunk tears another inside-the-parker and the score now sits at 10-1. The inning doesn’t stop until Ritchy’s has scored another six runs and the guys on Barringer’s bench give their own pitcher, Billy Cobb, a new nickname: ‘“The Rifle.’”
‘“We’ve got a good team,’” Schwertner says, still a bit oxygen-deprived from his trip around the bases. ‘“We had Shucka’s beat [last week]. We were up by thirteen and they came back in the last inning.’”
But this week they hang on. Final score: Ritchy’s 19, Barringer 4.
Fortunes can change very quickly in slow-pitch softball, especially when many of the athletes have a less-than-disciplined attitude towards things like conditioning and fundamentals and are by gametime, more often than not, reeling from long shifts the night before or sweating out hangovers earned in the wee hours of the morning.
‘“We got a bunch of old people out here,’” says Mike Mullins, owner of the Flatiron, with a good-natured laugh. ‘“The only injuries we get are self-inflicted’… pulled muscles and stuff.’”
The Flatiron nine have a game against APB this afternoon ‘— the last one of the afternoon, which makes the stakes a bit higher. The last game’s losing team must cart off the garbage that’s been accumulating all day to the dumpsters a few hundred yards off, a humiliating walk of shame.
Mullins likes his chances. His team is just one game under .500 and for the first time in weeks they’ve been able to assemble a full team. The Flatiron squad has another edge: catcher’s gear including a mask and chest protector’… they’re the only team in the league with a fully outfitted backstop, Christy Seyboth.
‘“For the pretty face,’” Mullins explains. ‘“It’s the only way her husband will let her play.’”
The Flatiron has also brought with them a fair cadre of fans who loudly take to the home team’s bleachers.
Right now one of these fans is pontificating about why we’re all so hot.
‘“They say in North Carolina that three to four in the afternoon is the hottest part of the day,’” and he launches into a pseudo-scientific explanation of his assertion before heckling APB’s pitcher and catcher. He’s also got some words for Darnell the ump.
It’s only the bottom of the first, before the Flat has finished their first at-bat, and already they’ve dropped behind by seven runs, due mainly to the big swingers on the beverage distributor’s team. One of their guys, Maurice Hines, is perhaps the largest player to tote a bat here all day and it looks like a drumstick in his huge hands. He’s also the only one who goes yard, with a sonic blast to right center that goes over the fence at about 285 feet.
Boom goes the dynamite.
But the Flatiron nine, under the pitching of Mikey Roohan, hold APB to a few scoreless innings where they manage to put four runs across the plate. The score stands at 8-5 going into the last inning, when Barringer drives it home with another two runs that the Flat are unable to answer, for a final of 10-5.
The loss sets the Flatiron’s record to 2-5 ‘— none too impressive, but the standings in this league don’t matter much in the end. The league championship, a tournament-style day of games between all the teams which this year will be played on Aug. 28, decides who will bring home the trophy. So even if Mullins’ crew loses all the rest of their games they’ll definitely get a shot at the crown.
Today, though, they still have to take out the garbage.
To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org