A match for any weather

Tennis: A group of retirees has been playing at the Towson YMCA for years, no matter what the conditions.

April 02, 2003|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

It was a bitter 43 degrees outside, one of winter's last gasps before spring. The wind whipped through the trees surrounding the Towson YMCA, and bundled, morning gymgoers hurried through the front door.

But on the Y's tennis courts, "The Commish," 77, gave a macho shrug.

"This is warm," he said, tennis racket in hand. He was wearing wind pants, a blue winter jacket and a white baseball cap. "You should have seen us in the snow."

The "Commish" -- short for Commissioner, a title earned when he remembered the score one day -- also goes by the name of Andrew A. Lioi, a retired attorney from Hamilton. He and the others on the court that chilly morning are Towson's reigning tennis die-hards, a group that has played every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning for decades.

This week, with the sun smiling on Towson, Lioi and his group of septuagenarians and octogenarians probably look like typical retirees out for a bit of tennis.

But in last month's frigid wind, The Commish and his friends showed the mettle that has made them mini-celebrities, at least at the Y on Allegheny Avenue.

"They'll be out there in the rain, they'll be out there when it's 20 degrees," said Tanja L. Thomas, 31, the Y's member services supervisor, who can watch the group from her position at the front desk.

When it snowed this winter, Thomas said, the group nagged her -- in a nice way, she said -- to get the courts cleared. When most of the snow melted, they started shoveling the remainder themselves.

There is a group rule about the weather, the men said. No matter the precipitation, if it is 25 degrees or higher, they play. But they were quick to point out that they have matched up on colder days.

Five of the nine or so regulars were on the Y's courts last month.

There was 78-year-old Frank "The Lip" McShane -- so dubbed because, according to the other men, he always has something "smart" to say. There was 74-year-old Roy "The Quiet Man" Luebbe, who earned his nickname because, well, he is quieter than the others. And 74-year-old Bob "Tap Dance" Epstein, who actually tap dances. Keeping everyone in line was 86-year-old Oscar G. Sinibaldi.

"The story of my life," he said. "Start off with `sin' and end up `baldi.' "

Sinibaldi, who wields a mean racket, offered words of caution when he realized his picture might be in the newspaper, lest there be any heartbreak among the ladies.

"Girls," he said, strutting out to the serving line. "I have very disappointing news. I'm married."

Sinibaldi is one of the original members of the group, which evolved from the regular racquetball game he played with Lioi and McShane about 35 years ago. As the men's knees started to weaken, the trio switched to volleyball. And then the Y built its tennis courts.

"I had never played before," said Lioi, grinning.

By the early 1980s, they were playing regular weekday matches and were starting to pick up more players. They take newbies: Luebbe, for instance, is a rookie. The former marine engineer from Cockeysville has been playing with the group for four years. Epstein, who carries the member log to keep track of who brings the game balls, has played with them for six.

The group has also seen some leave its ranks.

"We lost a few by attrition," McShane says. "The guys are dying off."

The men are models of good sportsmanship. They have a system for everyone to get court time. They do not seem to care much about the score, and they do not get upset if somebody takes a morning off. They even let women play. One of "the wives" joins the group some Wednesdays.

They do not socialize much off the court -- once a year, they and their wives meet for dinner, they said. While that's always a fun evening, they said, the tennis is what keeps them going.

And they play a pretty good game, with hard serves and impressive gets.

By 10 a.m., the group, which usually starts playing about 8:30, calls it a day.

"I have to leave," said McShane, as he zipped up his racket. "I've got to go play golf."

In 48 hours, he would be back.

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