Softball field's odd shape tamed by wooden bats

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

July 14, 2002|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

AS SOFTBALL fields go, the one at Yingling-Ridgely Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 7472 in Ellicott City must rank right up there with any in terms of, let's say, eccentricity.

We went there looking for more information about a slow-pitch softball league that plays there and is unusual because of the bats it requires. But to appreciate the league, you have to appreciate the setting, first.

You'll know you've arrived, in the quiet Autumn Hill neighborhood off Old Columbia Pike, as you turn onto VFW Lane and see, aimed more or less straight over your head from the other end of the tree-shaded road, two howitzers.

Maybe 50 yards beyond them stands the ball field's chain-link backstop, just a few feet from a Korean War-vintage F-86 Saber jet fighter, sans engine, guns and anything valuable, of course.

The infield seems nice and smooth.

The outfield, a closely mowed, grass-weed blend, was parched and crunchy last week. Left and right fields are typical depths, a woods defining left field, deep right out near the howitzers.

Center field, though - you can't help but notice. It's short, even for slow-pitch softball. The distance from home plate to a low hill jutting into center field is only 220 feet. But hitting an out-of-the-park home run to center ranks as a feat, because on top of the hill, dangling from a series of utility poles is 50-foot-high netting that kicks softballs back into play.

Sort of reminiscent of Boston's Fenway Park, says Ellicott City-born and raised Skip Mercier, to a visitor.

Mercier and Dave Miller, a deputy sheriff, oversee the VFW Over-40 Softball League, which has about 120 men and one woman (a manager) on eight teams that play twice a week.

Besides the obvious, the difference between Boston's and Autumn Hill's ballfields, we'd say, rests in eccentricity. Fenway's Green Monster wall is in left field because builders ran out of land. VFW field's net, in dead center, outlines a family graveyard. It dates to the 1800s and, by law, the graves can't be moved.

And that's the root of this column. When aluminum, titanium, double-lined, wham-bam, $100-plus bats permeated VFW games, guys started dinging balls routinely into the graveyard and its tangle of trees, wild grape, poison ivy, deer ticks, and enough briars to make anyone forget a $4.50 softball.

And, says Miller, the league's commissioner and primary umpire, metal bats were making the game too dangerous for pitchers, some in their 50s and 60s, what with the rocket-like speed of balls ripped back through the middle.

"This field won't hold aluminum bats," says Frank Angelozzi, an Ellicott City resident and Catonsville saloon co-owner credited with the solution that has come to distinguish the Over-40 league.

Angelozzi's idea was an old one: wooden bats. Fact is, most balls hit the old-fashioned way don't carry as far as those off high-tech bats.

By a 7-1 vote, the 13-year-old league's teams agreed five summers ago to ban metal bats in favor of traditional ash, forget that they're hard as the proverbial hen's teeth to find in stores. A few guys quit, but Angelozzi and Mercier use exactly the same words in separate interviews: "Now, players love 'em."

"Wooden bats have not only made games safer, they're more competitive," says Angelozzi, 63, explaining that while he wasn't born on a ball diamond, "I went to one the next day and have been playing ever since.

"They've made it a game where infielders get to handle the ball more, so it's more fun. Wooden bats and this field go good together."

The league orders two dozen bats each season from the legendary Hillerich & Bradsby bat makers in Louisville, Ky. - at about $150 a dozen, Mercier says.

When the supply whittles down, because wooden bats can break in slow-pitch softball, players scrounge replacements from sporting goods stores as far away as Pennsylvania.

The bats get one modification - for damage control. Wooden bats crack if hard contact is against the grain. So with a laundry marker, Mercier prints on the tape on each bat's handle, "Face label up."

"You have to remind them," Mercier says. "Most guys in their 40s, before they come into our league, they've never even held a wooden bat."

Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or send e-mail to lowell.sunderland@baltsun.com.

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