LONG BEACH — Returning to his hometown to play in the U.S. Slo-Pitch Softball Assn. World Series last week, Kenny Dain received a hero's welcome and then performed with a passion that rubbed off on his teammates like fresh paint.
Family members and friends from Dain's North Long Beach neighborhood descended from the Blair Field grandstand at every opportunity to bestow hugs and handshakes upon the red-bearded third baseman of the famed Steele's Silver Bullets.
"Hi, buddy," Dain would look up and say as autograph-seeking youngsters leaned over the dugout.
And a man who has played with Dain since they were in the ninth grade asked his old friend to hit a home run: "Grunt one out for me."
Not that the adulation made the 31-year-old Dain, who played baseball in the mid-1970s at Jordan High School and Long Beach City College, feel like a celebrity. "It's never really happened before," he said. "Maybe it will sink in."
Batting Practice Into the Trees
Before their first series game last Thursday night, Steele's took batting practice in a picnic area of Recreation Park, beyond Blair's right-field wall, and crashed balls into the upper branches of tall eucalyptus trees.
One of the balls lay on the grass, its seams split, attesting to the power that has built the team's reputation.
Dain was home after a nearly seven-month, 400-game barnstorming schedule of exhibition and tournament games, during which he hit .657 with 403 home runs.
"Kenny's not the flashy superstar who hits 900 homers a year," Coach Randy Gorrell said as a branch cracked. Gorrell believes everyone at the sport's top level should hit between .650 and .750.
At 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, Dain is slightly smaller than the average Steele's player.
"I like big strong people," said Manager Dave Neale, who, seeking an excellent fielder, asked Dain to join the team two years ago. Dain had played against Steele's as a member of Capitol Insulation of North Hollywood, which finished third in the 1985 USSSA World Series.
Emphasis on Fitness Is New
Most of Dain's teammates are huge but without the beer-bellied country-boy image often associated with slo-pitch. There has been a new emphasis on fitness.
"I was light when I started," Dain said. "Light doesn't make it. Our game is based on home runs."
His homer totals have increased through weightlifting but still seem low when contrasted with those of teammates such as 265-pound Mike Macenko, who hit more than 800 homers this season, and 290-pound Craig Elliott, who hit more than 700.
Yet it was Dain who set the record of eight homers in a World Series game last year at Waterloo, Iowa.
"He's into the game of softball," outfielder Scott Virkus said of Dain, his roommate on the road. "He takes everything personal. He wants to do it himself."
"This is a name sport," continued Virkus, a former defensive end for the Indianapolis Colts. "Kenny hasn't got the name and (management) hasn't always showed confidence in him, But he's stuck with it. Kenny's a workhorse, doing what he can to win games, a team guy. He keeps my confidence up. It's a hard life to be on the road all the time."
Despite his own cheering section, Dain did not start well in the series opener against the Oklahoma City Hunters. After making a third-straight out, he returned grim-faced to the dugout, rattled his bat in the bat rack, wiped his glasses and toweled away the sweat that poured from him, although the night was cool. Finally, his fourth time up, he singled.
"We're playing too up-tight, I don't know why," Dain said after Steele's, which averages more than 30 runs a game, had won, 8-5, to improve its record this year to 361-19.
"There was a time when I played softball every night of the week for different teams," Dain said, recalling city-league games in the late 1970s played in dimly-lighted Long Beach area parks before crowds that consisted mostly of players' wives or girlfriends, who usually brought the six-packs.
An all-Moore League player at Jordan, Dain had hoped to be drafted by a major-league baseball team, but wasn't. After two unsatisfying years at Long Beach City College, he dropped out in 1976, went to work and did not start playing softball until a year and a half later.
Dain, who is single, has adjusted to the grueling life on the road. He still plays every night.
"Double-headers . . . no time to rest . . . moving, moving, moving," he said. Traveling in vans, the team often arrives somewhere just in time to play the games. After a night at a motel, it's on to the next place, the miles as monotonous as the home runs.
Tour Takes in Small Towns
Some of the more than 150 towns on the schedule are so small, Dain said, that "you drive in and you say, 'Why are we here? No one will come out.' " But the fans, to whom these Paul Bunyans are folk heroes, always do.