Extra Innings

In this Baltimore softball league, you have to be competitive, tough -- and at least 60

Senior Life

July 04, 1999|By KEVIN COWHERD | KEVIN COWHERD,SUN STAFF

It's 9:30 in the morning and the sun is already baking Lou Karpouzie Field in Highlandtown, turning the base paths into a dust bowl and the outfield grass into a dry green hibachi.

But the old softball players gathered on this parched diamond seem not to notice the heat.

You watch them for a few moments and realize these are not your generic old guys. They're not wearing Bermuda shorts and knee-high black socks with loafers, and they're not standing around talking about the Early Bird special at some seafood restaurant or how does Slick Willie get away with it.

Instead, these old guys are wearing shorts and crisp black jerseys with smart red lettering that says "Dundalk Seniors," and right now they're in the middle of batting practice.

In a half hour, they'll take on the team that's limbering up on the sidelines, the Harford County Seniors, in another game of the Baltimore Beltway Senior Softball League.

To play in this league, you have to be 60 or over, and the Dundalk team has a lot of "overs."

Frank Usher, the crusty manager and second baseman who is built along the lines of a small oak door, is 79.

Bill "Doc" Anderson, a pitcher and former pediatrician, is 74. Outfielder Bud Gensler is 73; and Mario Silvestri, the fleet-footed assistant manager, is 72; and Charlie Nurkiewicz, another outfielder, is 70.

Still, when you ask Frank Usher if the heat ever bothers him, he gives you a look as if you'd asked him how often he wears a dress.

"Put it this way: I'm an ex-Marine," he growls. "Nothing's too hot for me."

A funny thing happens when you stand behind the backstop on this steamy summer morning and watch the Dundalk players take batting practice: With the contentment clearly visible on their faces, the years seem to melt away from their frames.

When they hit the ball, it jumps off the bat. They don't bend as fluidly for ground balls as they used to, but most of them seem to have strong, accurate throwing arms.

Sure, some of them run as if they'd lose a race to a guy on crutches. But this is what age and a lifetime of playing ball and osteo-arthritis deposits the size of stalactites will do to a man's joints.

Anyway, the more you watch them, the quicker you arrive at this conclusion: They might be old guys, but they sure aren't geezers.

They can still play this game.

"This keeps us young!" Silvestri, a retired highway department official, says, as he downs a cup of water. "I love it!"

Now it's game time. As the Dundalk Seniors take the field and the first Harford batter steps in, you think about that classic Milton Berle joke.

I know a guy who's so old, Berle used to say, that when he orders a three-minute egg, they ask for the money up front.

Yeah, you think, these guys might get a kick out of that one.

Or they just might beat you to a bloody pulp for telling it.

The slo-pitch Beltway Senior League is made up of 12 teams, located from Greenbelt to Westminster.

The league has a 50-game schedule and makes a few nominal concessions to the aging process.

Eleven players play the field at one time. A base runner can over-run second and third and not be tagged out. This, of course, makes perfect sense: A guy slides in this league, they could be vacuuming up what's left of his ankle and rushing him into surgery an hour later.

And if a player can't run at all, a pinch-runner is provided, a guy who stands behind home plate and takes off as soon as the guy with bad wheels hits the ball.

Dundalk takes a 3-0 lead in the first inning, sparked by Ernie Adornato's double that rolls out to the Greek Monster sign in left. (Greek Monster is a play on words that has to do with the famous Green Monster left-field wall in Boston's Fenway Park, although of this Greek Monster third baseman Rex Fulghum insists: "They named it after a girl from Highlandtown I used to date.")

But Harford roughs up starting pitcher Jim Melton, a big, gregarious fellow, and quickly ties it in the bottom of the inning, a scenario Dundalk is all too familiar with.

This year, the Dundalk Seniors are hurting, both literally and metaphorically.

Champions of the league for eight of the past 15 years, they're in last place, with a 6-8 record, in the Blue Division.

They lost 11 players from the team that lost only eight games last season; six went to play for the Harford County team, five retired from softball.

Nevertheless, it doesn't take long to realize how competitive the Dundalk players are, and how much they want to win.

"Oh, yeah, we are competitive," says Doc Anderson. "There are a lot of good players, and real good hitters, in this league."

Then he smiles softly and adds: "But we're not in the World Series, either."

"They wouldn't even be here if they weren't competitive," says Rex Fulghum of his Dundalk teammates. "Nobody would risk the injuries. If you aren't competitive, you shouldn't be playing organized sports."

After a moment's reflection, he adds: "I wish they'd let us play so you could slide."

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