By Lindsay Toler
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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."