Opinion Columns & Blogs

Bruce Maiman: Take me out to the old guys ball game

Years ago, when you got to this part of October, the World Series was long over. Now, it looms ahead, not just for major leaguers, but for guys twice their age.

Within days, 50-, 60-, and even 70-somethings nationwide will gather in Phoenix for a weeklong tournament to determine a national champion in the Men’s Senior Baseball League World Series.

The teams have nicknames like Salty Dogs, Hogs, Skunks and Scorpions. Others are more traditional: Yankees, Red Sox, Astros and Dodgers. The players are teachers, lawyers, plumbers, salesmen, cops, accountants and retirees. Men in their autumn years still playing like boys of summer.

Each spring, nearly 100,000 players sign up with organizations like MSBL and the National Adult Baseball Association, in age divisions ranging from 18 to 75-and-over. Both organizations have teams in Sacramento, and it’s not unusual to find players playing for both: NABA games are Sundays; MSBL, weeknights.

They play hard and surprisingly well.

“I made a Willie Mays catch during the championship game,” boasts Barry Forman. The Grass Valley resident plays for the NABA/Sacramento champion Gold Country Buzzards. “Back to the field, over-the-shoulder catch. I’d done it before in my life, but I never dreamed of doing it at 61 years old.”

I hadn’t played baseball since the 1970s. Back then, you couldn’t. Adult leagues barely existed. After graduating high school, everybody graduated to softball – beer leagues and keggers. Yuck.

Back then, baseball was for kids; softball was what grownups did.

Some of us are still kids.

The popularity of senior leagues today makes sense. It dovetails neatly with aging, health-conscious baby boomers – “60 is the new 40,” et cetera. Besides, who says you can’t play baseball and enjoy your grandchildren?

So here I was, 35 years since I last hit a curveball, spikes laced, glove oiled, bats boned. Wooden bats. Not that pansy aluminum or composite junk that goes “dink” when you make contact. Few things beat the sound of a wooden bat hitting a baseball.

I’d always kept my gloves – I have two – sort of the way grown men hang onto other boyhood mementos – comic books, maybe. You don’t need them, but it’s important to have them.

My wife doesn’t understand that, naturally, yet she was the one who connected me with her business colleague, Ed Krampf, who lured me out of “retirement.”

“I saw that you loved the game,” he tells me, “If you love the game, it’s a great blessing to come out and play again.”

The longtime radio executive stopped playing after injuring his shoulder years ago. He never had it repaired.

“I figured, ‘Why bother? My playing days are over,’” he said. “But it’s like the Mickey Mantle quote: ‘Had I known I was gonna live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.’ If I knew there was life at 60 to play baseball, I’d have gotten the surgery.”

Despite years away from the game, the training, the instincts, it all comes back. No, you can’t hit that 95 mph fastball anymore, but at this age, no one throws harder than 80 to 85. You can’t run as fast as you once could, but who can?

“With older guys, you’ve got Bermuda Triangles,” said James Jenkins, an outfielder with the Astros playing his first season of 55-plus ball after years competing in younger divisions. “Ball goes up and you think, ‘That should be an out’ and older guys just don’t get to it. But playing with these guys over 60 with passion and talent – that, to me, was amazing.”

And there’s the camaraderie.

“The most fun thing is all of the friends you can talk baseball about,” said John Mason of Elk Grove. The retired CHP officer manages the Solons, named after a now-defunct Sacramento minor-league team. “I’ve been playing baseball for 12 years in this league and have friends on every team.”

“When I moved up here to Roseville from the Bay Area last winter, I didn’t know anybody,” said Jenkins, “but through playing ball I made a bunch of new friends.”

With so much in common, it’s hard not to. We all know our limits but often acknowledge an opponent’s remarkable effort. “Good pitch,” you say, when someone strikes you out. “Great catch,” says the hitter you robbed of a double.

Slide hard into second, taking out the shortstop, and the first thing you ask is, “Are you OK?” because we all share something else, too: We’re older, we’re breaking down more. Like the baseball scout says in the film “Moneyball,” sooner or later, we’re all told we can no longer play the children’s game.

The hints are many: Nicks, bumps, bruises, sprains, strains and tears on a body that doesn’t heal like it once did; ailments and illnesses lurk – cancer, diabetes, heart conditions. Or worse.

“We’ve actually seen guys die on the field,” said Buzzards manager Dan Wukmir, recalling a game on his team’s home field in Auburn when an opposing player died.

“The Royals have refused to play on that field ever again,” said Wukmir, “Yet, guys on my team say, ‘That’s how I wanna go! While playing ball with my friends!’”

“Maybe it’s because we’re beating Father Time a little bit,” adds Mason. “Look how old we are, still playing and still having fun doing it.”

It’s fun even if your team is bad – and mine was – and especially if your team is good.

“The most fun I saw you have,” Ed reminds me, “was the All-Star game that night. And you bunted with two strikes that got a rally goin’.”

Well, c’mon! The third baseman was playing so deep his shocked look after laying it down had me laughing all the way to first. That night I went 2-for-3 and a walk, 2 RBIs and a run scored. We lost, but still, a fun game and truly flattering to be selected to play with the league’s best.

At season’s end, another honor: Mason invited Ed and me to play in Phoenix for his World Series team. Not every player can make the trip, so roster spots need filling. Major-league facilities – the same fields the pros play on in spring training – the best players across the country, a chance to make new friends. Heck yeah, I’ll go!

Then the league changed the age limit to 58 and older, and I was ineligible. The good news: At 57, I’m still a young guy.

Until next year.