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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."