Monday, July 27, 2009

Play Ball

Play Ball
Tryouts! This must be a misprint I thought as I read the ad in the local newspaper. I was 50 years old and in SW Florida they had tryouts to play senior men’s softball. The ad read tryouts for the upcoming league would be held at BMX Park. I had quit playing ball at the age of 39 thinking I was getting too old and ran the risk of serious injury. However, having played since I was 6 years old, the love of playing the game would never leave me.
Curious, I told my wife that I was going to go to the tryouts. I jokingly laughed and said this will be funny to see a bunch of old geezers trying out. What would it be? To see who could get their wheelchair to 1st base the fastest? My mind danced around with visions of elderly people with dementia running around a ball field repeating over and over, I got it, I got it!
I dug out my old ball glove and made a quick trip to Wally World to find a bat. When I last played wooden bats were the bats of choice as aluminum bats had not yet become popular among players. There were no wooden bats so I picked the cheapest aluminum bat I could find.
Arriving at the park for the try outs I was a bit nervous. Though I was a good player when I played, some rust had accrued now that I was the ripe old age of 50. I didn’t want to embarrass myself. Slowly, I approached the entrance to the field where numerous players were shagging fly balls, while each took turns batting. There were 2 others walking around with clip boards taking notes. I walked up to one and asked what the routine was. His heavy Brooklyn accent was difficult to understand. Being a Southern boy, I needed someone to speak a little slower. I was instructed to go into the outfield and shag some balls and then wait until it was my turn to bat. He took note of what positions I played or desired to play.
Standing in the outfield waiting for my opportunity to impress those around me with my fielding prowess, I was transformed. I was taken back in time like Ray Kinsela in Field of Dreams. Freshly mown grass, the smell of leather, popping of gloves as fly balls were fielded, and the idle chatter of players reminded me of days gone by. Instead of seeing middle aged men, I now saw boys. Men will always be boys, and boys will always be boys. The fun and love of playing ball was not lost today. Instead of seeing men with gimped up knees, and slowing gaits I saw boys with enthusiasm, lightning speed, laughing, kidding one another. Some had sunflower seed pouches protruding from back pockets, while others had their favorite dip of bubble gum. The intensity of competition was evident as balls were fielded and tossed back in. This was serious business.
A lot of the players were either retired from the North, like New York, Jersey, or snow birds. Snow birds were the ones who came to live in Florida from April to November and return back to their Northern home the remainder of the year. They got the best of both worlds. Playing slow pitch softball in the grapefruit leagues in Florida was heaven come to earth.
There was big Jim Dollar. Standing 6’4” weighing 250 pounds, he was the epitome of the game we all loved. He played the game with passionate exuberance. A spirited and fiery field general that barked out orders to those under his charge, He ignited the passion and competitive drive that we all had. He liked to win as much as anyone but to him winning was in the trying. Losing was not as important as the effort put forth and if we lost due to poor effort we heard about it. He reminded me of many coaches I had through the years never quite satisfied, winning or losing. “Winners never Quit and Quitters never Win.” was his daily mantra.
There was Bob Faulkner, equal in physical presence as Jim Dollar. Bob’s passion was as great as Jim’s but his tactics were different. Bob was cunning, a true discerner of talent. Bob’s observant skills of player’s strengths and weakness made him an outstanding coach and player. He was gifted with selecting the perfect palette of players, enmeshing the correct balance, of power, speed, ability, emotion and camaraderie amongst players. His teams played like a finely tuned orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Bob was the maestro of softball.
Fast Eddie, Eddie Steinwahn, was an elementary school principal. Eddie and I played next to each other in the outfield. We quickly bonded as fellow outfielders, vowing to never let a fly ball hit the dirt, not in our territory. This was blasphemous! Eddie had blazing speed for a man in his late 50’s and endowed him with the ability to catch up to fly balls that others may not be able to. Equally gifted running the bags, he was a hard out to come by and was always a leadoff batter. A consummate cheerleader on and off the field, Eddie’s gift for encouragement and his always present, “will get em next time” attitude was a reminder there would be other days.
Dave Joseph was a power hitter. Strong, agile and defining the word competition, he lived sports. Besides softball, he refereed hockey and other sports. He was a product of Buffalo, NY, the frozen tundra as I often chided him. When he stepped to the plate mostly as a cleanup hitter, we often saw balls sail over 300 foot fences. He and I would bond off the field as well. We played together in the Florida Half Century League, a state league with monthly tournaments. He and I would room together when our wives’ did not make it. We shared our beliefs, our faith, our weakness, and disappointments like true friends do. We still enjoy a great friendship of encouragement and support today.
Going to those tryouts gave me a fresh approach to the cycles of life. Meeting new people, playing a game I love, interacting socially on and off the field invigorated my spirits. The soul of the game is still alive in me and others. Age has not defied us our passions. It has rather spurned us on to take on new challenges, not to quit. This elixir we call playing ball cannot be matched by other potions. Many players had lost their wives through death so ball became their companion, a healing salve to mend the wounds of loss. Standing on a field taking in all that life has brought us, remind us of who we really are. Just boys with dreams and hopes, now aging men, we count the blessings of our lives and the opportunity to play again. In our minds, we still hear the roar of the crowd gathered, we feel the freshness of the breeze on our face, the warmth of the sun on our brow as we gather to------- Play Ball.

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