Senior Ball

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Meet Sacramento senior league softball players, most of whom insist they’ll play on their field of dreams ’til the day comes they’re dreaming for good.

There were 600 members at one time. But in the past year that number has dropped recently by a hundred or so.

Not due to lack of interest.

Not hardly.

Even during those scorching days in July, the fields were filled with Sacramento’s finest senior ballplayers, playing in 103-degree heat.

No, there are fewer players these days because . . .

Guys die, explains Sierra League player Jerry Doc Jones.

He looks me in the eye and laughs. Ha Ha Ha!

It’s not that he has a strange sense of humor; he’s telling the absolute, 100 percent truth.

It’s Tuesday afternoon at Folsom’s Lembi Park. It’s about 120 degrees in the shade. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but it sure doesn’t feel like one. And yet, men in their 80s&emdash;their 90s, even&emdash;men hobbling about on hip and knee replacements, men recovering from bypass surgery, are warming up for their chance at bat.

Senior softball is serious business in Northern California, make no mistake. There are commissioners, league presidents, drafts and scouting&emdash;even a World Series, held every year in St. George, Utah.

Senior softball in the Sacramento area was initiated by Fred Rainey back in the late ’50s, when, the story goes, a bunch of old-timers got together in Land Park to hit a few balls around. Word got out, and more and more retirees who were driving their wives crazy gathered at more and more area parks: Tahoe Park, McKinley Park, Carmichael Park. Now, most Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and evenings, they compete in area parks from downtown to Hangtown.

And betcha didn’t know that some of the area’s finest senior ballplayers in the world hail from Sacramento on up, Woodland on over.

What, you’ve never heard of the Old Age Mikens? California Gold Rush? The Blue Jays? The Hangtown Hunchos? The Roseville Sun Dogs?

Barry Bonds might learn a thing or two from senior softball players, who can’t use steroids because it would probably interfere with their heart and blood pressure medications.

Teammates prefer not to single out players, I’m told, but some names of note&emdash;players who, if there were senior softball playing cards&emdash;would have their pictures on one include: Mike Smith, Lee Ramirez, Joe Saiz and Tom Todd.

OK, the last one is my dad. He runs for some of the older players who can’t run bases themselves, has been spotted by talent scouts (other players) and was even recruited to play on one of the better traveling teams (teams made up of senior players within the league who still are able to travel) in the area.

But Mom won’t let him go.

She allowed him to accept the club’s nomination for vice president, though&emdash;so he gets to distribute and even help design the team uniforms.

My dad. A retired firefighter who buys his ties at thrift stores and garage sales. A softball executive and a fashion designer.

Who knew?

Doug Brewer, 65, volunteers as manager and pitcher for the Placerville Hangmen and a traveling team, driving all the way to Sacramento and as far as Salinas for practices and games. His wife happily lets him go. As far as he knows, most wives do. After you’ve been married 40 years, they’re happy to get you out of the house, he says.

A lifelong athlete, Brewer plays for the camaraderie. You find you have things in common with men you wouldn’t think you’d have things in common, he says. Attorneys, for example. I have two on my team right now. He likes the competitive spirit that lacks&emdash;he says happily&emdash;the do-or-die aspect of it. Brewer, a former special education teacher who retired in 2000, insists senior ball keeps you active and on the go.

• The boys of late summer hit the road, just like they do in The Show, most operating under the hat of the Northern California Senior Softball Association. Leagues are divided up by area, the teams by age. On the young end, men who haven’t retired yet&emdash;men in their 50s&emdash;play at night to accommodate work schedules.
Men ages 60 and older are teamed and compete by age.

It’s a cheaper retirement pastime than golf, players claim.

(Although many play golf as well.)

And men of all professions, from all walks of life, come to play. There are retired judges, carpenters, doctors, teachers, even a pastor or two. There are retired cops and a strong showing of retired firefighters&emdash;coveted because they’re usually in such good shape, even after they retire, explains Jules Morganstern, a member of the Sierra League’s team Folsom.

Some haven’t played since their Little League days. More than a few played minor league ball, including Norman Blackwell, a member of the Sacramento Golden Senior League. Blackwell was once offered a contract to play semi-pro ball but turned it down on the advice of his relatives, he tells me. I would have had to go down to Savannah, Ga. at the time&emdash;not the place to be for an African-American in, this was 1952. It was hard for African-American ballplayers back then, Blackwell says.

 

He never missed a year of ball, though, playing mostly for a work-related tournament team for McClellan Air Force Base. Now retired, Blackwell plays with a diverse group of men, some of whom he might never have met otherwise. We don’t really talk about what we did while we were working, though, he says. We just play ball.

Blackwell enjoys senior ball because, while some of the players are still as competitive as they were in their younger ball-playing years (and others are just downright crotchety), At our age, we just want to
have fun.

Albert Morales, 73, plays second base and pitches for several teams in the Golden Seniors League, and also plays on a traveling team. His team took home the Bronze in the Senior World Series Games in St. George, Utah in 2001 and 2003. In 1989, he was named to the Mexican American Hall of Fame for senior softball. His wall of fame&emdash;devoted to his senior career&emdash;has become so packed with awards and memorabilia his wife made him move it out into the garage.

Morales has been playing for nearly 20 years, following in the footsteps of his father and uncles. That’s how I got interested in it, says the retired Sacramento city employee. And he’s hoping to be playing long into his 80s, like my uncle did, he says, admitting that injuries all too often sideline players. While pitching a game last year, Morales was hit by a ball, suffered a concussion and spent the rest of the afternoon in the ER, sitting for X-rays, an MRI&emdash;the works.

To prevent injuries, league officials discourage sliding and enforce the mercy rule: They play only seven innings, and when a team scores five runs, the opposing team comes up to bat automatically.

Injurywise, there are other grave concerns. Specified players&emdash;usually a retired EMT&emdash;come to all practices and all games with not just a first-aid kit, but a defibrillator. As it’s being carried away with the rest of the equipment post-game, Mike Henning, president of the Sierra Valley Senior Softball League, points to it and states that it has in fact saved lives.

That thing saved one guy in Yuba City. They paddled him five times, he says, recalling another game in Florida where a man actually died on the field.

It was the reason that during this summer’s heat wave, teams that usually play two games played only a game and a half.

It’s the reason wives usually go with their husbands on the traveling team, just in case something happens to their husbands while they are playing on the road, adds Morales.

To clarify, that’s just in case the last game of the season turns out to be their last ever. One of the league’s most well-known and beloved players and wearer of a championship ring, Gilbert Mashburn, was the retired EMT who actually introduced and for years operated a defibrillator for the entire league. Mashburn saved many lives, recalls Brewer, but was unable to save one player, Steve Zupan, who had hit a triple during one tournament game. A lot of us guys would like to go out that way. Zupan died with his rubber kleats on, we like to say, says Dante Ciardella, a member of Team Full Cam.

Cordia Wade, a self-described senior softball widow, was present at the game. Of course it’s sad, but you know, that player went out doing exactly what he wanted to do, she points out. He went out hitting a triple.

Wade is one of the wives often in the stands, watching her husband, John, play ball. These men do get a little psycho about this game, she admits, adding that the wives do, too. We’ll say things to the referee like, ‘You want to borrow my glasses?!’ she laughs, adding quickly that, for the most part, the heckling that goes on is pretty civilized when compared to, say, what goes on at your average pro&emdash;or little league!&emdash;game.
Wade believes that for all the players the game may ultimately claim, as far as the rest are concerned, It keeps them alive. This game keeps these boys alive.

It also provides a social network that eases the transition into retirement&emdash;and, for some players, widowhood. Women have an easier time making friends, says Wade. These men come and play ball together, but they are friends. They meet each other at barbecues, they travel together, and they even attend each other’s funerals. When one player, a diabetic, died earlier this year, teammates had his coffin draped in his jersey and the player buried with a game ball signed by his teammates.

And while Wade agrees it’s true that the wives do worry about their husbands on the road (and thus often accompany them), the other reason is the chance to . . . go shopping? Yes, in fact, it’s why she and other softball widows made a recent trip to Italy. We didn’t [go] all the way to Italy to watch a baseball game, Wade says.

She proudly adds that when their husbands go overseas, or even to Canada, they’re treated like, well, star athletes.

The children come up and ask them to sign balls. They really enjoy watching the Americans play. You would think these men were big-time ballplayers, the way they are treated.

Admittedly, senior softball lacks the kinds of scandals that shroud the big leagues. You won’t read about debauched cruises, unwanted sexual advances, arrests, illegal performance-enhancing drug use or illicit drug abuse in senior softball.

No, the controversies rocking this no-rocking-chair-allowed league swirl around such pressing issues as the banning of hot bats&emdash;bats that, when used, can knock a ball faster and farther than a regular wooden bat. (Several have specifically been banned by the American Softball Association, an organization that’s not been good to seniors, growls Henning).

The other hot-button issue besides hot bats?

The way some players sneak players who are actually in their late 70s onto 80-and-up teams for key plays. Despite the claims of toned-down competitiveness, some scoundrels, say players, still will do anything to win.

But that’s about as dirty as the game gets. In the end, we’re just a bunch of old guys playing a game we loved as kids, says Morganstern. Most of us want to keep playing as long as we can.

I tell people I play double-A ball, jokes Ciardella. In the major leagues, there’s double-A, triple-A and the majors. I tell people I play double-A ball and they get a look on their face and say, ‘What?! You play double-A ball at 78?’ And I say, yep, arthritis and Alzheimer’s. You got one or the other or both!

Indeed, it’s true: Build it and they will come to play&emdash;steel hips, replaced knees, pacemakers and all.