Senior Softball Fun in Sunny Sarasota
By George Hawley 2005
My wife and I spent the winter in Sarasota last year (2004-05)for the first time. In prior years, one or both of us had jobs and could only manage to visit beautiful Sarasota for a week or two. Now retired, we have the luxury of being able to live here. We arrived on October 16th and enjoyed months of sensational weather and glorious Gulf Coast sunsets. The 2004 hurricanes, like ìCharleyî that slashed through central Florida, spared Sarasota for the most part. Local real estate people optimistically claimed Sarasota to be immune from hurricanes. We werenít so sure of that, but started in earnest, looking for ways to spend our new found leisure time productively. One activity that caught my fancy was Senior Menís Slow Pitch Softball.
I have played fast pitch softball and later slow pitch softball with some success, in a company league in New Jersey for more than 20 summers. The fact that the last time I played in a league 19 years ago I experienced a slightly torn knee ligament didnít dim the memories of those playing days. In the fall of 2004 at age 67, only 10 pounds heavier than when I was in my ìprimeî, I decided to try playing slow pitch softball again.
I was pleased to find that Sarasota has a very active Senior Slow Pitch Softball Association that plays on several levels year round. (See http://www.sarasotaseniorsoftball.org) Senior is defined as being 60 or over. Some leagues consists of players over 70. I decided to show up at 8:30 AM for a pre-season gathering that consisted of about 40 old geezers like myself taking round robin batting practice and then playing a pick-up game where players were picked out of a line-up just like kids.
I noticed that many of my future softball buddies wore medical appliances on various parts of their anatomy similar to my knee brace. I felt at home but was immediately identified as a ìnew guyî. The fellows were disarmingly solicitous: ìFirst time out?î Several asked. I replied that I hadnít played in about 19 years. ìBe carefulî, they warned. ìLots of guys hurt themselves by trying to do too much too fastî. Sage advice I thought.
My next experience was a personal revelation. Somehow the wires between my brain and my legs shorted out when I wasnít paying attention. One of the practicing batters hit a fly ball my way. ìCan of cornî, I thought to myself as I commanded my legs to carry me to where the ball was heading. I was surprised to find that the command was ignored. ìI got itî, I called and then watched in dismay as the ball thudded harmlessly into the Bermuda grass well out of my reach. This happened several times. ìIs there a cure for this?î I asked myself, as I noticed that some of the other guys were having similar experiences. They were smart enough not to call for the ball.
I picked up the ball to throw it back to the pitcher. It seemed to be heavier than I remembered. ìDoes this league use special, overweight balls?î I wondered, watching the ball bounce about 10 times before rolling to a stop many feet short of its intended target. So far, I was beginning to feel distinctly unprepared for this activity. The next experience occurred when I took my turn at bat. It had to do with equipment.
It wasnít the shoes. I asked the young lady in the sporting goods store where the baseball shoes were. ìAre they for you?î she asked incredulously, looking at my wife for confirmation of this unexpected information. Ouch!
It was the aluminum softball bat that I bought for $35. It was the type I remembered using oh-so-many years ago. It was bright green like a Sprite can. I felt good buying the bat. I was making a commitment to softball, I thought. This feeling evaporated when I noticed that all of the other guys had brought black bats with the names ìMikenî or 'DeMarini" printed boldly on the barrel. They looked with scorn on my painfully green bat. I was obviously a rookie. This was underscored when I connected with my remembered long drive swing only to watch a blooper fall just beyond the infield. I watched in awe as some of the bigger guys, armed with Miken bats, whacked the bright yellow balls to the fence and beyond, 300 feet away.
As it happens, technology not unlike the sort that has revolutionized golf clubs, has been applied to softball bats. The high performance bats are constructed with a composite of plastic resin and carbon fiber that flexes when one strikes the ball, and slings it fenceward at 10-20% greater velocity. If Barry Bonds were to use one of these super bats instead of a wooden bat, he would hit over 100 home runs in a seasonÖmaybe 200. It beats steroids.
I tried oneÖand sure enough the ball shot off the bat almost twice as far as my previous hit with the Sprite can. The fact that a composite bat can cost $200 or more is a real test of oneís commitment to the game.
Then we played a pick-up game. I decided to play catcher, a position that requires almost no skill in this brand of softball other than to be able to throw the ball about 45 feet back to the pitcher on the rare occasion that it gets by the batter.
On my first turn at bat, I slashed a drive through the infield for a sure hit. ìRun!î my randomly selected teammates shoutedÖìRun!îÖìI am runningî I replied as first base slowly appeared on the horizon. I was alarmed to see the right fielder throwing the ball toward first. I barely beat the throw to the bag. I must find a way to uncross those wires.
Next time up, I picked up another guyís Miken at his invitation. ìHeís using a Mikenî the opposing pitcher warned his fielders, as though something momentous might happen. ìThwock!î the ball shot out into deep right-center. This time I would have no trouble getting to first. I instinctively made my Ichiro-like turn out of the left-hand batterís box to begin my dash to first. I felt a sharp pain in the back of my left leg as I tumbled to the red clay infield. It was payback time. My left leg had been trying to tell me something all morning and had finally decided on a more drastic course of actionóa pulled hamstring muscle. I managed to struggle to first base and called for a courtesy runner, a luxury afforded running-challenged old guys. Someone quickly produced a chemical ice pack and I was on the DL on the first day.
My time on the bench afforded me the opportunity to observe some of the interesting rule variations that senior softball employs in recognition of our physical limitations. First base, for example, is twice the width of a normal base, half orange and half white. The orange half is for the batter and the white half for the first baseman to reduce the chance of collisions. Similarly, there are two home plates, the normal one for the catcher to use for force outs and another one about 8 feet away for runners coming home. There are no tag outs at home, only force outs.
The ball is pitched at a leisurely 25 to 35 mph and must land on home plate or on a large orange pad extension behind home plate to be a strike. The ball must be thrown with a maximum height of 6 to 12 feet. If the batter hits a foul ball after accumulating two strikes, he is out. Pitchers often wear protective shin guards and helmets as a defense against shots up the middle off those composite bats. One of the bigger challenges at our age, is remembering who made the last out in the previous inning.
Senior slow pitch softball has been a revelation to me. My knee is up and down and my hamstring is healed. I still have a lot of catching up and conditioning to do to play respectably. I even sprang for a composite bat to keep up with my peers. As I contemplate the beginning of the next fall season, one memory sticks in my mind. One of my teammates trotted back to the bench after hitting a home run, slapped me on the knee and said, ìYou know, thereís only one thing better than thisósexî. That about summed it up for me except that I keep thinking about the fact that not only is playing softball a lot of fun but when the game is over, Iím still in beautiful Sarasota.
EDITORS NOTE:5/2011:THE AUTHOR OF THIS ARTICLE HAS ENJOYED THE ACTIVITY SO MUCH THAT HE IS NOW AN ELECTED DIRECTOR OF THE ASSOCIATION...AND SERVES CURRENTLY AS PRESIDENT. HE HASN'T GOTTEN ANY FASTER BUT IS IN MUCH BETTER SHAPE FOR SOFTBALL, INCLUDING A STAINLESS STEEL HIP.