Diamonds are Forever

September 11, 1994|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Sun Staff Writer

A beaming Tom Wilson bops back to the dugout having accomplished a rare feat of sports perfection at any level: five hits in five at bats. His softball teammates high-five him and slap him on the back.

After the game, a lopsided victory, the players gather at the manager's truck. Cold drinks and animated conversation flow. But the celebration ends early for Mr. Wilson. He must hurry to the hospital for radiation treatment of prostate cancer.

Mr. Wilson is one of seven members of his Howard County-based seniors team who will turn 70 or older this year. Doctors discovered the cancer after his quadruple-bypass surgery in January, which followed a major heart attack in November.

Open-heart surgery couldn't sideline him; he was hitting and fielding with his teammates three months later. Cancer couldn't either; he scheduled his radiation treatments in the afternoons so that he could continue playing softball in the mornings.

"When I quit playing softball, I'll be admitting I'm half-dead," says Mr. Wilson, who will turn 70 in November. "I've oftentimes said: 'If I drop over running to first base, just dig a hole and put me in it.' "

That attitude is typical of his Maryland Old-Liners teammates and their wives. They charge through life providing a portrait of the elderly often overlooked in this youth-oriented culture.

Like players on a softball team late in the game, they all want their turn at bat before the final out.

"One reason we don't dwell on getting old is we don't have time to think about it," says Virginia Varner, 70, wife of Karl Varner, a vigorous Old-Liners outfielder two months shy of 71.

A younger person occasionally remarks on the quickening flight of time, but older people watch incredulously as it steals away every day.

Maurice "Mo" Mercier, 70, has a first baseman's stretch as elastic asthat of any man his age. He also has a grandfather clock in the hallway of his Ellicott City home.

"I wind it every Sunday of my life," says Mr. Mercier, a former salesman for a drug company. "But it seems like it's only been three or four days and I'm winding that thing again."

They don't bemoan the inevitable; they take a different tack. As young people they squandered time on pursuits of passion, ambition and materialistic fulfillment. But now they fill their days with satisfying and meaningful ventures.

"As you get older you can place some of the things you once thought important in perspective," says Mr. Varner, a Catonsville resident retired from careers as a juvenile-services counselor and a United Methodist minister. "I'm talking about sex, the pressure of getting your next job, of making more money.

"You're released from some of those competitions. You're better able to draw back from the forest and see some of the trees."

The trees, more often than not for this bunch, rise beyond the outfield fences of ballparks near and far. Although softball hardly defines this group of full-speed-ahead seniors, it is the activity that unites them.

The Maryland Old-Liners play an astonishing 70 to 80 games from April to October. Thirty-two are against their eight competitors in the Baltimore Beltway League, an alliance of 60-and-older teams from Bowie to Dundalk to Westminster.

The Old-Liners' home field is Cedar Lane Park in Columbia. They play Monday and Wednesday mornings. And then they practice Fridays.

Their manager, Nick Hozik, who turns 70 in December, thinks his team is the oldest in the league -- and the team with the warmest camaraderie among players and wives. Many have played together since 1988.

A string of medals

Along the way, they won four consecutive gold medals, 1990 through 1993, in the Maryland Senior Olympics 65-and-older division, and a silver medal in the 1991 National Senior Olympics in Syracuse, N.Y. They have competed twice in the Seniors Softball World Series.

Their wives travel to the tournaments and attend softball outings but don't usually attend the weekday games. Nor, mostly, does anybody else. The Old-Liners usually play on isolated fields with empty bleachers -- simply for the joy of it.

The contrast to the strike by major league baseball players is apparent.

"Those guys are getting paid for doing what most of us would do for nothing," says Mr. Wilson, who grew up playing sandlot baseball. "And here we are out there at our age just because we enjoy it."

'It means everything'

How much does softball mean to these men?

Ethel Hetzner, 75, wife of the oldest player on the team, Paul Hetzner, 72, drills an answer as if it were a throw from the hole at shortstop:

"It means everything."

Mr. Hetzner, a first baseman resembling Boog Powell in size and spirit, doesn't deny it.

"I've had two operations since playing in this league," says Mr. Hetzner, who lives in the city and operated a crane in an East Baltimore steel mill for 35 years. "I blew my arm out the first year. And my knee, I blew that out too."

He tore cartilage in his right knee in early summer 1991, three months before his 69th birthday.

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