Softball Champs Chase Champagne in 6-Year Climb to the Top

Times Staff Writer

He was a young slugger and thus well-suited for slow-pitch softball. He would whale away and bash a pitch into the next county, race around the bases and be rewarded with high-fives from teammates, kisses from pretty young women and a swig of beer that would taste like nectar.

The game had Jeff Huffington hooked so strongly that he was known to play for four teams, driving from diamond to diamond each night in search of his fix.

Carrying a .650 batting average, he arrived for his biggest game, the city's Class A championship, last Friday night at Pan-American Park. He wore the black and orange shirt of the Longshots, a team expected to win the title against a team called Too Hip.

Styling Salon-Fresh

Huffington, 25, was a 6-foot, 200-pounder whose hair looked fresh from a styling salon. He smelled of cologne and wore sunglasses.

"Let's get this show on the road," he said as he sat in the bleachers and changed out of his sandals.

He nervously smoked a cigarette.

He couldn't wait.

"A ton of girls will be here," he said.

Trophies sitting behind the backstop caught Huffington's attention.

"I want to get the MVP, man," he said. "One of those is mine. I'm gonna put it on my TV."

He smiled confidently and went to warm up.

A spectator behind the backstop said, "This is A league, I might stay around and watch this. Those boys are good."

There are four classes of slow-pitch in Long Beach--A, B, C and D. Of 180 men's teams, only 12 are in A.

Players in A are "top of the line," said outfielder-pitcher Vic Paige of the Longshots, Huffington's roommate. "There are no weak links."

The Longshots, whose team batting average was .495, saw themselves as serious athletes who weren't out for merely a night of recreation.

"It's no joke for us," Paige said.

The Longshots, whose average age is 30, worked up to the status they now enjoy.

They started six years ago in the D division, which contains weaker players who mostly just want to have fun.

'Lose by 40 Runs'

"I have a D team and we would lose by 40 runs if we played the Longshots," said John Costello, softball league coordinator for the Long Beach Parks and Recreation Department.

The Longshots won the D championship and were moved up the next year to C (where teams usually have effective pitchers) and cleaned up there too. They advanced to B (where teams have excellent hitters) and also won a title. This is their second year in A--last year they made the playoffs.

What separates the A's from the B's is fielding. In the A division, long drives are run down and caught and hot infield smashes are speared. Rarely is there the comedy of errors that is sometimes common in the sport.

The Longshots, cheered on by the hoped-for "ton of girls," jumped ahead, 2-0, in the bottom of the first inning on hard singles by Mark Keaneman, Jack Lopez and Ken Labac and a sacrifice fly by Rick Beber.

The batters waited patiently as the ball, delivered with an arc of up to 12 feet, hung tantalizingly before its descent to home plate, causing them to look up as if awaiting fruit to fall from a tree.

When their timing was correct, they hit the ball squarely. When it wasn't, the results were pop-ups or grounders on the dirt infield.

Huffington stepped up, the only player on the team in shorts. He swung mightily and hit a ball so deep to left-center that it was on an adjoining playing field when a Too Hip outfielder, barely visible in the dim lights, caught it.

Three more runs in the third made the score 5-0 and jacked the Longshots' emotions even higher.

Unassisted Out

Their 34-year-old manager-pitcher, muscular Jim (Kong) Werner, got so wrapped up in his own intensity that he fielded a bouncer and ran to first to beat the runner for an unassisted putout instead of tossing to the first baseman.

Labac demonstrated the excellent A-League fielding. A 6-foot-7 first baseman who looked like a tall building and had the nickname "Condo" to go with it, he swooped into the air and stabbed a line drive.

"Way to go, Condo," the young women cheered.

Condo, who hits (.663) as well as he fields, accepted a kiss on the cheek from a young woman who had to stand on the dugout bench to get up that far.

But Too Hip came back and cut the lead to 5-4, causing the young women to plead, "C'mon, Longshots."

And they responded. Keaneman's single up the middle with the bases loaded started a seven-run rally to increase the lead to 12-4.

Another Long Out

Huffington hit a third straight mile-long out and sat stunned on the bench amid the whooping of his teammates.

Paige cheered him up. "You carried us all season," he said, and Huffington rejoined the camaraderie.

The game was over, 12-4, when Werner caught a line drive.

The players and the girls celebrated their championship 11-2 season with champagne and beer and gathered around a tape player to hear a song about the Longshots written and sung by Keaneman. One of the verses went:

"We got ol' Jimbo on the mound,

anything hit to him on the ground,

there's ol' Jimbo throwin' 'em out again..."

But Werner, who was 10-0 as a pitcher, didn't get the MVP trophy. The Longshots voted to give that to Huffington, despite his hitless night.

"I got it, I love it," Huffington said as corks popped and ecstasy gushed out in the darkness.

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