`Boys of summer' ready to play ball

Pastime: The Baltimore Beltway Senior Softball League prepares for its four-month, 42-game season.

April 10, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Cliff Gillespie swings and connects with a satisfying thwack -- a tremendous hit out to center field that should be at least a double.

Except that George Horn comes out of nowhere, feet sprinting over the dew-wet grass, glove outstretched, to make it an out.

Take away all the back, knee and wrist braces, and you would never know these guys are senior citizens.

On the field, the Howard County Reds are simply ballplayers. One of 12 teams in the Baltimore Beltway Senior Softball League, they're gearing up for a four-month, 42-game season (not counting the tournament and playoffs).

Players have to be at least 60. Some are older than 70.

"But we're not old," said Jim Cummings, a Reds player who will be 66 next month. "When I was young, 60 was old but it's not old anymore."

The other team in Howard County is the Maryland Old Liners, and 17 of the approximately 25 members are at least 70. More than half a dozen are 75 or 76.

They play hard.

"This is great -- this is what it's all about: to stay active," said Don Halas, a Linthicum resident and Old Liners player who will turn 70 after the season ends. "I played 107 games last year for three teams. My wife says: `Are you crazy? You could drop dead out there in the hot sun.' I said, `I could drop dead cutting my lawn on a hot day.' "

The league makes a few concessions to age: No sliding is allowed, and managers can put in "courtesy runners" -- who start at home plate -- for up to four players a game.

The men who've had multiple knee operations appreciate it.

Dan Blake, 69, a retired custom-home builder, takes the courtesy runner because he can't get on first base fast enough. ("The guys laugh at me," he jokes.)

But playing keeps him healthy, he said. He had bypass surgery on six blocked arteries 2 1/2 years ago. Now he's feeling fine.

"I'm going to play until 80," said Blake, who's in two softball leagues.

Fred Everhart, 74, is a courtesy runner. He's fast. He chalks it up to not having old injuries from playing the game years ago. His first foray into organized softball was when he joined the Old Liners in 1992.

"I'm getting better every year, believe it or not," said Everhart, a Columbia resident and retired veterinarian. "I'm surprising myself."

At practices, the Old Liners split up and play games on an Ellicott City field tucked between houses. The men -- women can join the league, but they haven't -- run and catch and yell and occasionally curse.

Mostly, they offer encouragement.

"Nice hit, nice hit!" bellowed Howard Upperco, 74, of Columbia, waiting in the wings.

A few minutes later, Blake hit a nice one and -- don't tell his doctor -- jogged to first.

"You see that blazing speed I had?" he said with a grin.

Many of the men stay in shape over the winter with volleyball, basketball and long walks. Now the Old Liners practice for two hours, three mornings a week.

Despite their long line drives and shoestring catches, this is not the best time to watch, Halas said a few weeks ago.

"What you're seeing is not what you'll see in a month from now," he promised.

The Reds, who practice twice a week on a Columbia field about 10 minutes away, are also thinking about the future. Their first game is April 24 against the Parkville team.

Parkville's good, said Horn, 69, the Reds' assistant manager. But the Reds aren't too shabby themselves. The team has won its division in the league for the past three years. Last year, it finished 28-14, with all but three losses from tougher teams outside its division.

Horn is optimistic about their chances this season. "Oh, yeah, we'll win it," he said.

"Of course, Carroll County won't like to hear that," he added quickly. "They're our biggest competitors."

Horn, wearing shorts and a red baseball cap, started the first practice of April talking about the pastime, about how the guys will play with the flu and travel all over for national senior competitions.

"The boys of summer," he announced as two team members walked in.

"Boys," chuckled Larry Knoll, 65. "We use that term lightly."

To join the league, call Skip McAfee, the commissioner, 410- 730-5847.

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