Sore knees, softball and smiles

Older players shrug off aches in spirit of fun, competition

April 23, 2006|By JEFF SEIDEL | JEFF SEIDEL,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Henry Lichtfuss experiences the same worries as many other softball and baseball managers.

He's trying to please a roster filled with experienced players and get everyone a fair amount of playing time and at-bats. Lichtfuss works hard at soothing their competitive egos, continually teaching players more about the game and helping them win.

The sole difference is age.

Lichtfuss runs the Carroll County entry in the Baltimore Beltway Slow Pitch Softball League, for players over age 60. The Carroll team was marking its 13th year when the season began April 10.

Baseball and softball have long been a part of Lichtfuss' life. He played high school baseball at Franklin High in Baltimore County and later while in the service. Lichtfuss, who lives in Westminster, joined the Carroll team at the age of 62, and says he's happy to still be on the field.

Lichtfuss, now 75, usually plays first base, but knee problems have sidelined him for much of the past two seasons. He had knee replacement surgery in recent weeks and hopes to get more playing time when he recovers fully.

"There's some very good teams in this league," Lichtfuss said. "We have a couple of teams that play ... in tournaments."

Lichtfuss retired after working as an educator in Carroll County for many years. He said he still enjoys being on the ballfield.

"What we're trying to do is make it possible for more players to play," Lichtfuss said. "The purpose of the league is to have as many people play as possible. We're seniors ... and a lot of people get upset when they play designated hitter. They're from the old school."

Harry Griffith of Hampstead retired after working as a comptroller for the state. The team's third baseman played his high school baseball in Johnstown, Pa.

Griffith, 73, said he still loves to play.

"It helps me keep in shape," he said. "It gives me something to look forward to, and I have to stay in shape a little bit."

Griffith was part of the group who started the Carroll squad in 1994. The team began in a simple way - with an advertisement placed in a local newspaper asking if anyone was interested. A good response helped the team become reality.

There are still three players from that original group, and Griffith said new players sign up on a regular basis.

Lichtfuss said there will be about 26 players on this year's roster, with at least 18 showing up for every game. That can make things a bit ticklish for the manager.

Lichtfuss said he can put 11 players on the field at a time for defensive purposes. But the batting order can have as many players as a manager wants.

For example, if a team lists 16 players in its lineup, all of them get a chance to bat on a regular basis.

Managers also can use pinch-runners or courtesy runners in a variety of ways. Lichtfuss recalled a player from the Dundalk team in Baltimore County going 4-for-4 in a game several years ago - but never having to leave the batter's box. A courtesy runner took his place on the base paths.

"As a manager, I always try to get players in to at least pinch-hit, if nothing else," Lichtfuss said. "You can have pinch-runners or courtesy runners, and the purpose there, again, is to get people into [the game]."

The league now has 14 teams, including one from Carroll County and one from Greenbelt in Montgomery County. Three teams are from the Bowie area, and three from Baltimore County (Parkville, Catonsville and Dundalk). Two teams each are from Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties.

All 14 teams play a 39-game schedule in a season that runs through Sept. 11. Each team plays at 10 a.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, with a split between home and away games. There are two sets of doubleheaders in May, with single games scheduled for the rest of the season.

This season will feature all 14 teams playing in one division, a change from recent years in which there were up to three divisions in the league. Lichtfuss said the playoff schedule hasn't been finalized yet.

The slow-pitch softball league has a number of basic rules. Slow pitches with a 13-foot arc are allowed, Griffith said, but flat pitches like those in baseball are not permitted. Teams play nine innings for single games but shift to seven-inning contests if playing a doubleheader.

Some teams and players seem to put more stock in victories, while others just love being on the field.

"When it first started, it was just a bunch of guys having fun," Griffith said. "Every year now, it gets stronger and more competitive. There are more teams in the league now that just like to win."

He said the Carroll players often carpool to road games and meet for breakfast or lunch afterward. Each year, the players can hardly wait for the new season to get under way - for the practices and games to begin.

They love getting together and having fun - simply being out on the field and playing as a team - with winning being a nice side dish. Griffith said he likes to get to the field about an hour before game time to loosen up.

"It's very good competition," Griffith said. "It's fun and it's sports.

"When you get a big hit or you make a nice play, it's very satisfying," he said. "And I'm still enjoying it."

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