COLUMBIA — When the Missouri softball team takes on UCLA in Los Angeles on Saturday for a shot at the NCAA World Series of Softball, a Columbia couple will be part of the crowd, rooting them on as they have for nearly 116 straight games.
No matter where the team plays, in sunshine or rain, Steven and Charlotte Meiners are in the stands to show their support.
They don't have a daughter or anyone else in the family on the team, yet the couple has spent the past two seasons traveling to games across the country, from San Diego to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to Atlanta.
"This is our retirement," Charlotte Meiners said. "We decide where we're going and when."
Following the softball team has given them a chance to make new friends, the Meiners say. For years they worked nights in Columbia, which limited their ability to socialize.
Steven Meiners said he finds the sport entertaining, and Charlotte Meiners said she likes the sense of teamwork the players display. But both agree that the sense of camaraderie and community they find hanging out with players' parents draws them to the games.
"We just enjoy each other, and when it's time for the parents to be with their kids, we get out of there," Steven Meiners said.
In addition to air miles, the couple's vehicle logged 15,000 road miles during the past season, according to a new GPS system they picked up in December.
"But don't tell my insurance company," Steven Meiners said.
The team schedule has also taken them to offbeat places they wouldn't ordinary visit. They made a side trip to Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, Fla., for example, when the Tigers were at a tournament in Boca Raton.
The Meiners' devotion has earned them free tickets to a number of games, and they are often included on the team's family list.
They sit with players' parents in the stands, are invited to tailgates and often stay at the same hotels. Doug Schneider, whose daughter Gina is on the team, calls them "honorary parents."
Now in their mid-60s, the Meiners have a grown son and daughter and four grandchildren of their own. Yet, according to Missouri coach Ehren Earlywine, many softball players know little if anything about them.
Schneider said the couple are reserved and quiet during the games.
"You probably wouldn't know they were there," he said.
It's rare for them to be absent from a game, but when the women played in Houston last March, an unexplained allergic reaction sent Steven Meiners to the hospital before he left Columbia. He was released later that day but decided to sit out the three-game series.
Although they maintain a steady interest in softball games, the Meiners have been following women's athletics for years. Eight years ago, after Steven Meiners retired from 3M as a toolmaker, the couple went to every women's basketball game, even trailing them to Europe for a tournament.
But, Steven Meiners said they stopped going much last year when the team posted too many losses. They would return home after the games "tired and frustrated," he said.
Even if they are humble spectators at softball games, their presence is noticed. Because a number of the players live out-of-state, attendance by some of the parents can be "hit or miss," Schneider said.
"It's nice to know we'll have at least two fans at every game," he said.