Adding to their years of fitness, good times

Seniors: Two Howard teams of over-60 `softball junkies' compete against 12 others in the Baltimore Beltway League.

Howard At Play

July 07, 2002|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

It was July 3, and so the Howard County Seniors, a team of over-60 softball players, thought a moment of patriotism would be appropriate before their game at Cedar Lane Park in Columbia against a team from Greenbelt.

Moments before the 10 a.m. start, Frank Beever, Seniors catcher and slugger (he had an inside-the-park home run that steamy morning) broke out his horn and played the national anthem. Nice touch, even though Beever's audience - not counting the players, the two umpires and the two journalists - was exactly zero.

"What other team can say it has an all-star catcher who also plays bugle?" said Seniors manager Ed Kirk, who lives in Ellicott City and would still be playing if it weren't for back surgery. Laughter rippled along his bench.

The Seniors and another, older - and over the years slightly better-publicized - team of Howard County softball players called the Maryland Old Liners are accustomed to that kind of turnout for their games. They play a lot in anonymity, at least 42 games this summer, not counting tournaments.

But both teams are emblematic of one segment of a nation getting grayer by the year - some old athletes just want to keep playing, and darn the years. Senior softball is a growing phenomenon, with two national organizations formed.

"It's growing because there's emphasis being put on fitness for seniors," said Kirk, adding that many of his players also bowl, although often on opposing teams, between Labor Day and Memorial Day. Some also compete in Senior Olympics events.

The Howard County Seniors reflect something of a concentration of softball interest in this county, in that they actually are Howard County's junior team of senior players.

The team spun off about eight years ago from the Maryland Old Liners, another team that competes in the 14-team Baltimore Beltway League from mid-April to September.

The Old Liners - whose roster includes 15 players 70 or older, nine of them between 75 and 80 - date to 1988, said Clarksville's Nick Hozik, 78, the team's manager.

That, give or take, was when the league was formed, he said. The Old Liners started with a core group of players who had been together as younger men in Montgomery County. The league includes teams from as far away as Harford County on the north and Prince George's County to the south.

"We're probably considered the oldest team in the league, although the team from Dundalk is right there with us," said Hozik, who acknowledges that his squad isn't quite as good as it once was, especially with the league getting, well, younger. "It's hard to find a good 70- or 75-year-old player."

Nevertheless, each Howard County team carries nearly 30 players on its roster, not all of whom play the twice-a-week league schedule, although a few play those two days and play pickup and other games on other days.

Kirk, whose Seniors roster includes 10 players 70 or older, refers to himself and all in the league as "just a bunch of softball junkies. Some of us have played all our lives."

In years past, the Old Liners have formed subteams of over-70 players to compete in tournaments as far away as Hawaii, although Hozik said such travel isn't in the cards now.

Senior softball is a slow-pitch form of the game with rules modified to avoid collisions, which, of course, can cause injury.

"Hamstrings get pulled all the time," Hozik said. "And we just lost our shortstop for awhile - knee surgery, probably arthroscopic."

Those altered rules allow no sliding into bases and there's an alternate home base a couple of feet away for runners to use in attempts to score. Teams put 11 players on the field defensively, with an extra infielder and an extra outfielder.

No bunting is allowed, and the league has a five-run limit per inning for each team, which helps keep scores in line for less competitive squads. Substitutes can be used any time, and courtesy runners can replace men on base or fill in for batters with running difficulty. Several Seniors wear knee braces.

Although players understand that the sun will rise tomorrow even if they lose, Hozik said, games are competitive - with flashes of skill honed over many years not unusual.

Several outs on Wednesday in the Seniors-Greenbelt game (an 18-5 Howard Seniors romp) came off nice catches of smashed line drives. Twice, Seniors infielders made crisp, moving pickups of ground balls and, after turning 360 degrees to get into throwing position, forced runners out on bang-bang plays at second base. They also turned two double plays.

Dugout humor and support for teammates is one constant that keeps both Old Liners and Seniors coming back for more.

When, for example, Bill Riley returned to the Seniors bench, receiving congratulations on a hit, he smiled and said musingly, "The game's a mystery. ... "

To which teammate Lloyd Knowles, a former County Council member who has been on the Seniors for eight years, added: " ... wrapped up in a paradox."

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