Where Softballs Still Fly Fast, Hard

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Russ Snow, 35, spends his life pretty much dedicated to three things: gathering and selling firewood, breeding and selling catfish--his two businesses--and playing softball.

In fact softball is one of few things that takes Snow away from the picturesque 160-acre ranch that his family owns at the top of Highland Valley in Escondido. His home there is an 1800s caboose, one of the first ever built by Southern Pacific Railroad Co., and he has lived among the orange and avocado orchards that cover the rocky, rolling hills for most of 22 years.

But, as a left-handed pitcher on the nationally known Vista Bombers men's fast-pitch team, Snow has taken his game to the big time. In fact, had he been able to throw a baseball as he throws a softball, Snow would have undoubtedly made the major leagues.

The Bombers finished in the National Men's 'A' Division Tournament last year, with Snow throwing his 80-plus m.p.h. fastball. From 46 feet away, his fastball terrifies opposing batters. He's also got a rocketing rise pitch, a diving drop and a 45-m.p.h. change-up that keeps batters guessing and his catcher on the balls of his toes.

The governing International Softball Congress elevated the Bombers to Men's Open (it's highest level) this season and now ranks them No. 20 in the country. They've already beaten the defending 'A' Division national champion Boulder (Colo.) Springers, 9-1.

The Bombers are a contender for the national title and could qualify to play for the ISC World Championship later this year. The team will take its first step toward those goals this weekend, when it hosts the ISC California State Qualifier tournament Saturday and Sunday at Breeze Hill Park, 2 miles south of California 78 and Melrose Drive in Vista.

The tournament has a double-elimination format, with the first game at 9 a.m. Saturday, the last at 6 p.m. On Sunday, the championship game is at 2 p.m.

The Bombers are currently 33-12, playing one day a week in the Escondido City League and out-of-town tournaments. When the pressure to win gets a little too intense, most of the players escape to Snow's Highland hideout.

"It's a favorite spot of the guys'," Snow said. "We'll barbecue or fish or hang out in the hot tub (he built a spa on top of a boulder behind the caboose) or throw horseshoes."

Men's fast-pitch softball all but died when the popularity boom of slow-pitch hit about 15 years ago. Snow and his fellow players don't seem to mind bucking the trend, though.

Last winter, Snow was flown south to pitch in the New Zealand National League, where he took his game to a new level while playing in softball's land of origin. In fact, he had the league's second-highest batting average: .417.

"I had a 5-5 record," he said, "but I didn't have half the team behind me that I do here. The Bombers are better."

The team includes several local players: catcher Joe Verbanic, who both played sports and now coaches at Vista High, second baseman Tommy Davis, a baseball and football standout at Vista and right fielder Steve Fields, another Vista alumnus.

There are several other talented players: coach and third baseman Steve Miner, 43, a legend in the sport who invented a batting technique called the cross-over slap, shortstop Mark Paule, who played baseball at San Diego State and center fielder Mike Cook of Spring Valley, who was the Western Softball Congress batting champion, Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player last year.

Miner, fellow third baseman David Magdaleno and left-handed pitcher Cary Weiler, 43, Snow's long-time tutor, were original members of the Bombers, which started in 1974. After the team became a national power in the late '70s and early '80s, the Bombers went dormant--partly because Vista merchant Carl (Slick) Davis, the team's first sponsor, died in 1982.

The team was resurrected by Los Angeles attorney Jim Flanagan, a Bomber of yore who is now the team's owner and general manager. Tommy Davis, who was bat boy when his dad, Slick, played, also wants to carry on the tradition.

But things are not the same. Miner says the underhand, windmill pitching style has nearly become a lost art.

"It hurt when the military bases dropped fast pitch and stopped developing young pitchers," he said. "(San Diego) city used to have 125-150 teams in 10 or 12 divisions in the '70s before slow pitch took over."

Snow just happened to be raised on the game. His father, John Snow, was a successful pitcher. His grandfather, Charles, still tending the ranch at 82, played until he was 54.

However, there is still a candle burning for fast pitch in North County. The Escondido city parks department conducts a 12-team men's summer league that lasts for three months and plays four nights a week at Kit Carson Park. Registration fees are $290 per team. Oceanside, Carlsbad and Vista sponsor a smaller Tri-Cities league. The Bombers' roots have always been in Vista.

"Vista has always supported softball extremely well," said Snow, who estimates about 200 people gather to see their games at Breeze Hill's Slick Davis complex when the competition is good. "Fast-pitch softball seems to be a small-town sport. They tend to get behind their teams."

Persons interested in entering a fast-pitch team in the Escondido league can call 741-4691 and ask for Rich Buss. Information on the Tri-Cities league can be obtained by calling the city of Oceanside at 966-4531.

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