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The Hitman
Paul Wilson

"Professional softball player Jeff Wallace"


The tan house with bright red shutters on 3 Beaver Lane in Phoenix, New York is the only house on a short dead-end street. A street with a marshy grove of trees on one end and a highway on the other. It stands out sitting next to a dilapidated and gutted blue building that looks like it once could have been anything from a house to a bar to a gift shop. The owner of the house stands out too.

As a professional softball player with Long Haul TPS, a professional slow-pitch softball team sponsored by the bat company Louisville Slugger, Jeff Wallace, 33, is in a league of his own. Last year, the first baseman hit 129 home runs and had a batting average of .738. Those 129 home runs included 32 he hit in the two-month long Softball World Series tournament last September and October in Daytona Beach, Florida. His team made history too, becoming the first professional softball team to win all four tournaments of the Softball World Series.

Despite all the personal and team accolades, success, as the old saying goes, hasn’t gone to Wallace’s head.

"I don’t keep track of stats," he says flashing his 2001 championship ring, which looks like nothing more than a bigger, gaudier version of a high school class ring. "I worry about how the team is doing. As long as the team wins and has fun, I’m happy.

Fun and competition drive this former radiation technician at Nine Mile Point nuclear power plant. Softball consumes his schedule from mid-March to mid-November, as does coaching young kids, a hobby he took up this year to help some youngster become the next Jeff Wallace of the softball circuit. When the season is over, he takes up power lifting. On his best days, he says, he can bench press 520 pounds, dead lift 620 pounds and squat 650 pounds.

"Given bad knees, that’s pretty good," he says.

Upon meeting Wallace, it’s hard to say if big is an accurate description of the man. He isn’t really tall and he isn’t really wide and he’s isn’t much of a cross between the two either. Burly would be the one word that comes to mind. He looks like a logger or someone who should be wearing a construction hard hat, which he did for a while after graduating from Oswego High School in 1988.

His construction background allowed him to build and remodel his house out of what used to be nothing but a trailer. When you walk into it, you enter a living room/den with a big multi-paned glass window looking out onto the 60-acre yard. He finished the room as an addition to the house last month. It comes complete with a guestroom and walk-in closet.

Also upon walking into his house, you notice Wallace is a fan of crème-colored surroundings. The ceilings, the drapes, the carpet, the furniture, the appliances, the tile, everything. Even the family dog is crème colored. The only things that appear to be out of place because of their bright orange, silver, blue and black color are his bats.

The bats are how Jeff Wallace has made his living six months out of every year since 1995. Professional softball is not a career he chose, he says, it’s a career that chose him.

"I didn’t know slow-pitch softball existed," he says. "Looking back, I wouldn’t trade it in for anything."

A good athlete in high school in Oswego, he tried out for the Cincinnati Reds after high school, but failed to make the cut. Instead he returned to Central New York and worked odd jobs while going to Onondaga Community College.

Tragedy struck during his tenure at OCC. Both his parents fell ill and died within a short time of each other. Wallace and his six siblings were left on their own and though Wallace is one of the youngest, he had to drop out of school and lend a hand for the sake of family.

"Life sort of took over," he said.

As he talks about this time in his life, I look for some sign of regret, but the only visible emotion I detect is a nonchalant nothing-I-can-do-about-it-now attitude. The death of his parents was a low point in his life, but the bond he has with his siblings has been made stronger because of it.

All his siblings but one live in the Phoenix area. His oldest brother lives in Salt Lake City, but is a frequent visitor to the East Coast. Then there is his wife of 15 years, Colleen, a bus driver for the Liverpool school district and his children, Erica, 17, Hope, 11 and Brooke, 7.

For all of his tough, stout, outward appearance -- firm handshake included -- there is a soft interior where his family is concerned. His anniversary is Valentine’s Day. He brags about his oldest making the honor roll and wanting to go to college and becoming a nurse, though he suspects ulterior motives. "She just wants to get out the house and away from us," he jokes.

He is slightly rueful, as are most jocks, that he doesn’t have a son, but he "wears his nephew out" and his youngest, Brooke, he says, inherited some of his athletic genes. "She does flips all over the house," he says.

His family comes to some of his tournaments in the summer, especially the one held near DisneyWorld in Florida, but he admits leaving them to go on the road is tough, especially when school is in session. Softball takes him to Florida, Minnesota, Las Vegas, Arizona and California, among other places, where he is usually gone four days a week, Friday through Monday. That adds up to a lot of missed opportunities to watch his children grow up, he admits.

Introduced to slow-pitch softball by his father-in-law (he grew up next door to his in-laws, but never knew his wife Colleen, who’s five years his senior, until after high school), Wallace played on local teams for a couple years beginning in 1990. In 1995, he went on to play with a semi-pro team from Rochester, the Pace, where he traveled the country and barnstormed against other semi-pro teams.

While he was on the Pace, he played against a professional softball team called Steele’s Silver Bullets, a barnstorming team that plays all over the world. After Wallace’s Pace got beaten badly, the owner of the Silver Bullets asked Wallace if he was interested in joining them. Wallace jumped at the chance and two years later he signed a contract with Louisville Slugger and the rest, as they say, is history.

"He’s probably the best overall player player in the country at this game," said his coach, Gary Jost, of Long Haul TPS. "I don’t think you’d find anyone who would say anything differently."

He might be considered the best player around by those on his team, but Wallace is realistic and knows he can’t play softball forever.

As a youth, sports and running wreaked havoc on Wallace’s knees. There are some days, he says, when he can hardly walk because of the pain. He takes close to half a dozen pills a day and visits the doctor regularly. He has had multiple surgeries and doesn’t rule out more in the future. As long as he can play until he’s 40, he says, he will be happy.

"I’ve given serious consideration to coaching when I quit playing softball," Wallace says. "I want to work with kids."

Wallace currently is an assistant coach with the baseball team at Phoenix Middle School. He teaches them the fundamentals of hitting and the basics of playing the field. It’s a job that allows him to pass on his knowledge and have an impact on other people’s lives, though he admits, sometimes he is tougher on the kids than he should be.

"I bet they have some good nicknames for me behind my back," he smiles.

Its doubtful the 270-pound Wallace gets called many names at all, but those who have played with him call him unselfish, amazing and one of the best softball players they have ever seen.

This even after the 1999 Softball World Series game in Cocoa Beach, the final game of the series in which Wallace was responsible for the final out. It was a dream opportunity: bottom of the ninth inning, two out, bases loaded and his team down by only one run. All he needed was a short hopper into the outfield to score the tying run. A hard single might score two. Instead, Wallace hit a weak grounder to second base and was easily thrown out. Game over. Series over. Season over.

Wallace, ever the competitor, still thinks about that game, but the memory has faded in the glow of the championship ring he won last year. Softball has fueled his competitive urge for a long time now, but Wallace knows the end is coming soon. He doesn’t regret playing the game because it has kept him from getting "a shitass job" like so many of his friends. The $60,000 he makes a year from softball is more than enough to live a comfortable life with his family, keep the bills paid and even send his oldest to college, depending on where she chooses to go. He even put in a pool a few years ago that he was in the process of cleaning and getting ready "before the temperature goes back down to forty" when I showed up at his front door. He lives a good life and wants to ride the wave as long as he -- or his bad knees -- can.
"I’ll worry about what I do when I grow up later."


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