Paul Barger sifts through a handful of bottle caps, discarding the ones that are flattened or crimped. He picks a choice cap from the remainder, likely separated from a Bud not more than a month before. Barger moves a cap into position with his thumb and middle and index fingers. He glances askance at the batter, standing a regulation 39 feet 6 inches away. Barger is all concentration as he winds the pitch and delivers sidearm. Veteran league players swear that bottle caps in flight reach a velocity of 90 mph or more, and Barger's pitch looks to be a prime example. Down the length of asphalt, the squinting batter swings a broomstick at thin air. The cap is caught by the catcher. "Dang!" barks the batter, stalking from the plate amid catcalls and jeers. Back on the mound, Barger gingerly rotates his pitching shoulder, readying for the next opponent. Someone yells, "Next batter!"
It is Thursday evening in Overland, and the Shamrock Bottlecap League is in full swing. Between players and spectators there are perhaps 55 people gathered in the parking lot of the San Bar, a modest little tavern in the 9400 block of Lackland Road. There are buckets of beer -- in bottles, naturally; this ain't no pop-top league -- and free hot dogs and popcorn. There is a lot of good-natured razzing and a helluva lot of talent. "This game is the ultimate in hand-eye coordination," says Kevin Riner, league batting leader, with a .590 average in mid-August. "If you can get a hit against a guy like Paul Barger, you're doing good, real good." What Riner doesn't mention -- probably because at 42 he's an old pro and has forgotten the travails of rookiedom -- is that a neophyte facing a Paul Barger can't even see the cap as it zips across the plate. It takes time to develop an eye for the tiny, speeding bottle cap, but meanwhile it's tough because you can't hit what you can't see.
In its 24th season, the Shamrock Bottlecap League is a throwback to earlier, less complex times when folks easily amused themselves with whatever was at their disposal. Danny O'Connor, league president, says the game of bottle caps, a cousin of corkball, was invented in St. Louis. "It began in downtown alleys during the Depression and was called 'bum's delight,'" says O'Connor, 59. "They played it at the brewery during lunch; that's when they had corks in the caps. The game gradually moved north." Today the game is played in the vicinity of St. Ann and Overland, always within easy distance of a nice cold one.
Still, the league has been somewhat nomadic, moving from tavern to tavern some seven times over the years. This bar owner didn't care for the exhaustive postgame policing of bottle caps, and that bar owner may have had a problem with the crowd's drinking outside. Whatever, the game goes on. This is the league's second year at the San Bar, and owner Kay Genail hopes they stay forever. "I love it!" she says, meaning the brisk trade in longnecks on Thursday evenings but also the players and the camaraderie they bring. As for cleanup, Genail pays "some kids a few bucks to pick up the hundreds of caps scattered around the lot." It's a high-tech operation -- they use a stick with a magnet on the end.
There are a minimum of five guys on a team, and there are seven teams in the league, up one team from last year. The league runs from May-September, and the ultimate prize is the Shamrock Cup, contended for in mid-September playoffs. As with the Stanley Cup, the victors take the coveted trophy back to their bar, clubhouse or wherever and get to keep it for one year.
The game is somewhat like baseball in that a guy with a stick tries to hit a fast-moving object, but because it is really hard to hit a whizzing, dipping bottle cap, there are some strange rules. In terms of fair and foul, for example, the cap is played where it stops, not where it hits. The games last five innings. There are no balls or strikes. There are no home runs, only runs. But there is no running of bases. Four hits score a run. And there are four ways to make an out: The batter swings and misses and the cap is caught by the catcher; the batter swings and misses and the cap hits any part of his body; the batter hits a foul tip; or, finally, the traditional catch of the cap on the fly. There is no ref or neutral party on hand to settle disputes. "There's been many an argument," says O'Connor, "but the catcher has final say."
The pitcher is certainly an important player. Because of the peculiar aerodynamics, a cap thrown by Barger -- upside down to gain more velocity -- can curve like a question mark or drop 3 feet in the last 8 feet from the plate. Randy Johnson would kill to be able to throw like that. But just as Barger throws the hardest, his pitches are the hardest to catch -- and, as O'Connor will tell you, catching is vital, more so than pitching. Remember the rules: If the catcher catches a cap on a missed swing, the batter is out. So, says O'Connor, "The batter can swing all night, but if the catcher don't catch it, it don't mean nothing."
Riner not only holds the high batting average, he is widely considered to be the best catcher in the league. He's a hands catcher, snatching the cap in flight with his bare mitts. He doesn't miss many. "A lot of other guys are body catchers," he explains. "They let the cap hit their body, and then it dies in their hands. A hands catcher has more range -- you can go low or high. A batter up against a good hands catcher, it's going to be a one-swing deal. That's my job, not to drop the cap all game. A perfect game to a catcher is, nobody swings more than one time and I catch it every time."
The league goes through a bucket of caps during the course of play, and it's probably a good thing that the old cork-lined bottle caps, with that extra ounce of heft, became obsolete in the 1960s. "Every now and then," says Kevin Lavin, league commissioner, "someone will bring a bucket of those old corked caps that they found in a corner of their basement. They're vicious -- stick in your arm, slash you in the face like a razor blade. You'd be bloody at the end of the day." Yet, even today, there are a few mishaps. "One guy was hit in the eye with a pitched bottle cap," says the commish. "He had to go to the hospital, but that's rare."
A half-dozen bats lean against a brick wall directly behind the plate. Actually they are wooden broomsticks, which, according to league rule, must be a regulation 39 to 40 inches long, with tape on one end. And it had better be a broomstick you take to the plate, warns O'Connor, a plumber by day: "We don't tolerate any nonsense. Some people, you know, try to sneak them commercial mop handles in."
The league comprises mostly blue-collar types -- roofers, painters, a ceramic-tile installer and what have you. Pat Grady, 65, a first-year rookie with the Top Cats, owns a Hallmark shop in Bell Center downtown. "C'mon, Pat, reach out and touch someone," yells fellow teammate John Curtin to Grady, at bat. And though there are some young turks on the lot -- 16 is the minimum age -- most of them are in their 40s and 50s, getting a kick out of keeping alive a novel game their fathers and grandfathers played.
It seems as if every other player has some familial connection here. Paul Barger's father-in-law taught him to pitch. "He got me to practice throwing strikes starting at half the distance to the plate," says Barger, a sweat-soaked blue bandana around his neck. "Then, when I got that down, it was 'take a step back,' 'take a step back,' 'take a step back' until I'm throwing tolerably well from the regulation mound. But that took 10 years."
On one league night, O'Connor brings the Shamrock Cup and sets it on the trunk of his car. O'Connor says that this year the trophy will get another tier added because there's no more space left for the little bronze plates with the names of the season victors. Riner points to several plates dating from the early '80s. Though Kevin lived out of state at the time, the Riner name was well represented. "You see that?" he prods, pointing to the 1980 plate bearing five names, among them Tut, Tut-Tut and Tut-Tut-Tut. "That's my grandfather, father and brother," he proudly notes, "three generations playing at once. My grandfather, Tom Riner -- the original Tut -- played until 1996, when he died at 84. And he was no handicap case -- he won a lot of games for us."
No one knows how many more years the league will last. One thing is for sure: The game gets in your blood, and you can't seem to shake it. "I've been around this game forever," Riner says. "I was weaned on this. In '98 I thought I'd try something different. I joined a golf league. Halfway through the season, I knew it wasn't right. My life felt empty. I missed my Thursday-night bottle caps."