If I make a home run every time I bat, they think I’m all right. If I don’t, they think they can call me anything they like.
Mighty Mike Macenko knows better than anybody how the Bambino felt. Oh, sure, Jose Canseco and Darryl Strawberry have won the year’s home-run titles in hardball, and this weekend the World Series may make some other minor slugger loom major. But all these Gullivers, whether they know it or not, stand as Lilliputians in the shadow of Mike Macenko, the nonpareil. As second baseman for Steele’s Silver Bullets, a touring slow-pitch Softball team, Mike is paid to homer, and even the legendary Babe would envy his stats. This year Mike belted 830 home runs—14 shy of his record 844 last year—and batted in 1,667 runs. Last month, to cap his season, Macenko led the Silver Bullets to the slow-pitch championship of the world.
Fine. But let him hit a pop fly or even a puny two-bagger—the man has never struck out—and invariably the catcalls begin. Mike finds this somewhat disheartening. Ask him about his prodigious number of round-trippers, dingers, four-baggers, what have you, and his eyes glaze over. He prefers to talk about his batting average, which admittedly is worthy of note. “Last year I hit .744,” says Mike, 32. “This year my average was .745. To hit over .700 at our level is great.”
Of course, when a team wins more than 300 games a season, its level may seem a bit suspect. The Silver Bullets, who are based in Grafton, Ohio, and whose record this year was 365-19, spend February to September pummeling one local “all-star” team after another and traveling some 75,000 miles each season. Last April the Silver Bullets faced an especially hapless squad in El Paso and ran up their highest score of the season, 109-7. Things don’t usually go that far. “If we’re beatin’ ’em by 25 runs, the umpires might stop the game after five innings,” says Macenko. The Bullets are challenged only during tournaments or such postseason series as the recent U.S. Slo-Pitch Softball Association World Series in Long Beach, Calif. “That’s where I get pumped up and what I live for,” says Mike, who stands 6’3″ and weighs 265 lbs. “I don’t get off on beating an exhibition team 109-7. What’s fun is playing the best teams and whippin’ their butts.”
Slow-pitch fans are aware that a close game for the Bullets is nearly as rare as a Macenko strikeout, but they seem less put off by the one-sidedness than Mike is. The team averages 34 runs and 17 homers a game, and that is what the fans pay to see. “We played in Springfield, III., after a minor league baseball game,” says Dave Neale, the team’s manager, “and there had been a downpour between the minor league game and ours. So the fans had been drinking all night, waiting for us. When we went down one, two, three in the first three innings, the beer cups came flying.” Macenko himself rarely lets a crowd down like that, and when he’s hot, he’s hot. This year he sent 10 softballs over the fence in one five-inning game, propelling his team to an 89-22 win. “I take him to the park and he performs,” says Neale. “He gives 110 percent 90 percent of the time, and I yell at him the other 10 percent.” Yogi Berra couldn’t have put it better.
The son of a coal miner who later worked on a Ford assembly line, Macenko got hooked on softball at 16 when he played in a league in his hometown of Brookpark, Ohio. A year later, the Mayor of Brookpark organized a team, and the husky teenager gave intimations of the mightiness to come when he went four for four in his first game, smashing a homer every time up. Macenko didn’t finish high school (although he eventually passed an equivalency test) and began making his living by pouring 270 yards of concrete a day as a construction worker. Then in 1975 Neale saw Mike swinging the lumber at a home-run derby in Medina, Ohio, and asked him to play for a team he was managing in Cleveland. They both switched to the Silver Bullets in 1983, and since that magic moment the team has lost an average of only 15 games a year.
“I never expected to make a living playing softball,” says Mike, who earns at least $30,000 a year from Steele’s Sports Company for both his on-field heroics and his work in the company’s warehouse and promotion department. When he isn’t attending to these various chores, Mighty Mike spends his time with his wife, Antoinette, 25, whom he met while putting on a hitting exhibition, and their 10-month-old daughter, Amanda. Antoinette, a 5’3″ former high school basketball and volleyball player, rarely joins him on the road anymore, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t offer encouragement. “I’ll get in the doldrums about all the travelin’,” Mike admits, “and she’ll say, ‘Quit whinin’ and get out there and play!’ ”
If the nearly 400-game-a-year schedule doesn’t wear him down first, Mighty Mike expects to keep on playing another five years. That would enable him to break Hank Aaron’s career baseball home-run record of 755 by about 13,000, give or take a few, but Mike isn’t really concerned about that. After all, the orange, brown and white jersey he wore on his way to becoming a legend already hangs in the National Softball Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. Yet there is one feat—apart from his extraordinary batting average—that brings a dreamy smile to his lips. That was the time, in Las Vegas, when he hit his longest softball home run ever, a wallop of 508 feet. “I hit an American Softball Association commissioner’s car in the parking lot with that ball,” Mighty Mike recounts with pride. “He wasn’t even mad. In fact, he got out to measure it.”