As he waits for the pitch, barrel-chested Mike Macenko waves his bat with the ease of a doctor waving a tongue depressor. It is tiny in his massive hands. It is dwarfed by his sewer-pipe-sized forearms.
There is nothing delicate or tactful about him or the way he plays the game. Unleashing his sweeping swing is like putting a bull in a closet-ure fury. He doesn't hit, he attacks. On contact, he grunts, the ball screams, the crushing sound is heard two fields away. And that`s where the ball usually falls.
Macenko is, on a team filled with giants and in a division filled with unbelievable exploits, softball`s undisputed King of Clout. Henry Aaron, the most prolific slugger in the history of baseball, took 23 years to hit his 755 home runs. Macenko, who is 6 feet 3 inches, 250 pounds, may exceed that figure in a single year.
Macenko plays an entirely different game, under entirely different circumstances from Aaron, yet one thing ties the two games and the two men together.
A home run, on any level, causes excitement. After 220 games this season (which started in February) playing for Steele`s Sports from Grafton, Ohio, Macenko has an incredible 526 home runs and 977 runs batted in, the most in the history of softball, even though there still are 115 games left in the season. He averages a home run almost every other at-bat.
Macenko plays for Steele`s Sports, the most chronicled collection of 12-inch slow-pitch softball sluggers ever assembled, a barnstorming group of bruisers who make the average team look as though it plays an entirely different game. And it does.
Steele`s belongs to the elite Super Division, a dozen teams with the very best players who tour the country playing 150-300 games a year, playing softball on a level above everyone else. Steele`s has won every major softball title in recent years, including the Amateur Softball Association, the National Softball Association and the U.S. Slow Pitch Softball Association titles.
This year, the aptly nicknamed Men of Steele are averaging 37 runs and 18 home runs per game, making a travesty of the game the average softball team plays. They are 212-8, a record that includes a 97-game winning streak. In a single game, Steele`s hit 63 home runs in a 108-5 victory over the Wichita Falls All-Stars.
''The thing about it,'' Macenko said, ''is that home runs never get boring, no matter how many or how often you hit them. It`s like catching fish. It doesn't matter how many you catch, every one is a real thrill. And anyway, a home run means you don`t have to run. You can trot around the bases.'' Playing on fields with fences that range from 300 to 325 feet from home plate, the Men of Steele hit home runs with numbing regularity. They have scored more than 10 runs an inning 270 times this season. In one recent game, Macenko, Doug Roberson (6-0, 225) and Mike Bolen (6-2, 260) hit 21 home runs in 36 total at-bats.
In the summer, they often play exhibitions in minor-league baseball stadiums as a preliminary to the regularly scheduled pro baseball game. During their games, the most popular seat at the ballpark is not behind home plate but behind the outfield fences. They homer so often it often looks as though they are playing in someone`s living room. ''If we`re in town, the action is over the other side of the fence,'' Macenko said. ''That`s what the people expect, and that`s what we`re paid for.''
In a Steele`s game, pop fly's often finish on the warning track, and often opposition infielders go an entire game without an assist. The first basemen often fails to record a putout. It`s a wonder the opponents even bother with infielders. The 14-man Steele`s roster includes players from eight states. Although softball still is considered an amateur sport, most of Steele`s players are paid well, ranging from $20,000 to $60,000 per year plus all expenses. They either are employed directly by Steele`s, a sporting-goods manufacturer, or are paid through a personal-services contract that includes lending their name to equipment and signing autographs.
''No question, it`s play for pay,'' said Al Ramsey, executive director of the USSSA. ''Everyone gets around it, and if you start enforcing the rules you`d be opening a Pandora`s box. At this level, believe me, players are well compensated.'' Macenko, although he is the current superstar at age 31, is not the only home-run hitter for hire with Steele`s. Nor is he the biggest player on the roster. Scott Virkus, a 6-6, 295-pound right-fielder from Palo Alto, Calif., was cut by the Buffalo Bills last summer. He has 390 home runs this season.
Craig Elliott, 6-4, 300, was the first player to hit more than 400 home runs in three consecutive seasons. Four of the players weigh more than 275 pounds. Surprisingly, though, most are good athletes, giving Steele`s a respectable defense to accompany its awesome lineup of sluggers. The team was put together by Dennis Helmig, a Cleveland businessman who turned an auto parts store in 1979 into Steele`s Sports, one of the fastest-growing sporting-goods manufacturers in the country. In 1985, revenues totaled $4.5 million. In 1986, they reached $8 million. This year they will exceed $10 million, mostly through sales of softball equipment.
Helmig has $450,000 budgeted for his softball team, which provides him with an advertising, marketing, promotions and research and development branch. ''My guys are walking billboards for the business,'' Helmig said. ''I never believed it would become this big-the company or the team-but it just mushroomed beyond belief. In the early years, the team dictated the business. Now the business dictates the team. It`s a wonderful arrangement.''
Although Steele`s players are flown from various parts of the country to start each road trip, most of the traveling is done in two vans. On the sides of both vans are the boldly painted letters ''National Champions.'' They will travel across 34 states and more than 150,000 miles this summer. Macenko is the only Steele`s player to have more than four years of experience on the tour. Most other players last only a season or two before the travel wears them down.
''I`ll admit I`m a little sick in the head to be doing this,'' Macenko said. ''The traveling gets to be a grind, but I love it. Otherwise I`d probably be working in a factory somewhere. But this is better.