Close your eyes a moment and listen to the sweet sounds of a late September morning at the ballpark.
It’s a little after 8 and early sun hasn’t yet begun to bake the handsome new fields at Lorenzi Park. Players named Tommy, Eddie, Charlie and Manny are chattering, swinging for the fences and fielding grounders. Their girlfriends are in the bleachers.
The ping of a line drive off an aluminum bat is followed by a smattering of applause. Then the coach calls for a pinch runner.
Open your eyes, and Tommy, Eddie, Charlie and Manny aren’t kids. They are playing in the World Masters Tournament of senior softball. These are the boys of late summer.
Their hair has gone white, or gone for good. Some received their AARP cards a quarter century ago, but they’re not looking for any senior citizen discounts at the plate. The lucky ones have been married to their best girls more than 50 years.
And that pinch runner?
He’s 81-year-old Charlie Adams of the Chiefs, a visiting team from the Bay Area. Adams, who turns 82 in November, scoots home on a base hit and in the next inning slashes a booming, two-run triple that rolls to the fence in left-center about 300 feet away. I break a sweat just watching the guy born in 1927 run the bases.
He joins Manuel Hernandez as the Chiefs’ oldest players, but age is relative on this field of dreams.
Every member on the Chiefs is at least 75.
At that age, players have been known to go on the disabled list and never return.
But you don’t have to mingle with the crowd for long to appreciate that senior softball is as close as most will get to the Fountain of Youth.
As young as they might feel when they step on the field, septuagenarian reflexes aren’t what they once were, and Joe Callo of the host Las Vegas Senior Softball Association says certain safety accommodations are made. That’s why some of the pitchers dress like catchers, with helmets, facemasks and shin guards. Other pitchers use a small screen to deflect screaming line drives. There’s a no-collision rule, and precautions are made to ensure no one gets tangled up at first or home. The idea is to bust base hits, not bones.
The armor isn’t mandatory but, “The ones that do it are smart,” says Callo, who at 66 is a kid with peach fuzz. “The ones that don’t have good insurance policies.”
This year, 125 teams representing a couple dozen states and Guam compete in age brackets that start at 50 and end only when the body is no longer able to carry a player from home to first.
Callo estimates, “Over half have played ball their whole life with maybe a break in between.” You know, for things like fighting wars, starting businesses, raising families. That’s another thing that separates these boys of late summer from many of their Big League counter parts. Credibility.
Their knees might be arthritic and wrapped in braces. Their times from first to third might have slowed. And those who sport Ruthian waistlines are forgiven if they lack the Babe’s power.
But they bring a little life experience to the Every Man version of the great American pastime.
“They’re still competitive,” says Tom Hutton, president of Las Vegas Senior Softball. At 71, he plays more games on his summer schedule than a lot of major leaguers. “For me, softball is also a big part of my social life. The people I worked with, I don’t see anymore. But softball gives me a social life.”
Back in 1959, Dave Musco played for the University of Connecticut’s College World Series team, then spent the summer in the minors with the Milwaukee Braves organization before setting his glove and spikes aside. At 78, Musco plays and manages a local senior team. After all these years, he still moves like a shortstop.
“It’s just something you did all your life,” he says.
As if sharing a secret, Callo says, “We haven’t changed. We’re just young ballplayers in old bodies.”
On the field, a boy of late summer ambles up to the plate on ancient knees, then takes a hack and hits a long fly that drops for a double. He’s off and running.
In this light, it’s hard to tell whether he’s 15 or 75.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.