Leave it to the Australians to come up with a great American idea: indoor softball!

What began two years ago as two young men were talking over beers in Sydney will become a reality tomorrow when the first indoor softball stadium in the United States opens in Alexandria.

"Indoor cricket is extremely popular in Australia and we thought 'wouldn't it be great to introduce the Americans to indoor cricket,' " which is a game similar to softball, said Russell Hanna, who along with Peter Summers and Belinda York formed Indoor Softball Stadiums Inc., the organization bringing the idea to the Yanks.

Summers said once they realized how popular softball was in the U.S. they patented an indoor softball game that is slightly different from what is played on an outdoor field. Two teams of six players each play with a softer ball that bounces off a large, trampoline-like net that encloses an indoor playing court. The game is played with two bases and a home plate, with all other aspects the same as outdoor softball. There is a small space for spectators.

"One of the big differences is that the ball is constantly in play and it can be played off the net," which is 20 feet high, Summers explained. The softball court is 80 by 60 feet, or roughly the size of a tennis court.

The Alexandria Planning Commission unanimously approved a special use permit last week for the two-court stadium, which will open tomorrow in a former furniture warehouse at 801 S. Pickett St. The facility will also have locker and shower rooms, as well as a 40-seat restaurant called The Dugout.

"We understand that beer and softball are like cheese and crackers here in the United States so we're providing the beer and food," said Summers, 33, a father of two who moved his family to the U.S. earlier this year to oversee the business.

"We like it here and plan to live here for at least 10 years," said York, 28, who is married to Hanna, 31.

Finding financial backers for the business was not easy in the United States. "All the people we talked to thought it was a great idea, but they were reluctant to put up money for something that's never been tried in the U.S. before," Summers explained.

"So we went back to Australia, which was the best place to look for {investors} because they know how successful indoor cricket is and we "We understand that beer and softball are like cheese and crackers here . . . . "

-- Peter Summers

didn't have any trouble finding people to back us," Summers said. The endeavor is supported by a group of five Australian investors. So far one of the biggest expenses has been the $300,000 renovation of the warehouse.

Hanna explained that seven years ago indoor cricket was first introduced in Australia and since then its popularity has skyrocketed.

"Now there are about 200 indoor {cricket} facilities with two or more courts, and more than 400,000 people play at them about once a week . . . . That's about 2 percent of the population in Australia," Summers said. Before starting Indoor Softball Stadiums Inc., Summers was operations manager for five years for Indoor Cricket Arenas Inc., which he says is the only company in Australia to franchise indoor cricket arenas.

The Washington area was not the original choice of the group as a place to open their first indoor softball stadium. After looking at Detroit, Atlanta and St. Louis, their American attorneys suggested Washington since softball is so popular here and because of the demography of the area. They hope to expand the business to cities in the Northeast if the concept is successful here.

The indoor stadium will be open to teams of all ages, with up to 12 members per team. A $450 fee will allow a team to play competitively once a week for 12 weeks. The fee includes equipment, umpires, electronic scoreboards and locker room facilities. Each team will play in a division against five other teams. Fifteen teams have already signed up to use the facility, which is not air conditioned.

"This can't be all fun and games," said Summers, referring to the lack of airconditioning. "We've got to make them sweat a little bit."