'Field of dreams ... without the corn'

These boys of summer may be past their prime, but it hasn't lessened their love of the game

July 27, 2013|By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun

The ball leaps off the bat, kicks up dust and bounds toward right field, a sure hit.

Tom Coffin reckons not. The second baseman glides left, gloves the ball cleanly and throws the runner out. Coffin's teammates on the Colt .45s explode.

"Woo-hoo!"

"Way to go, Mr. Tom!"

"You showboat, you!"

Why the fuss? Coffin, a great-grandfather, is 73.

It's Sunday morning in Dundalk and, on the American Legion baseball field, geezers like Coffin are feeling their oats. Once a week, nearly 150 players — from middle-aged men who still cherish the game to 70-somethings who inspire the rest — compete in the 10-team Eastern Baltimore County Over 40 Baseball League. The melange of teachers, lawyers and truck drivers suit up in expansive double knits, swing bats with patriarchal gusto and swap good-natured banter as in days of yore.

They are not alone. In the Baltimore area, senior baseball leagues have also blossomed in Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties. Nationally, two organizations — the Men's Senior Baseball League, with 45,000 players, and Roy Hobbs Baseball (8,000) — hold postseason tournaments with age-group divisions ranging from 18 to 75-and-over.

"Baseball does a great job of keeping guys fit and extending their lives," said Brian Sigler, national coordinator for the MSBL. "You hear the same chatter in a 65-and-over game — 'C'mon, kid, let's strike him out' — that you'd hear in high school.

"Guys still have that itch; they never want to give it up."

Men's softball, Sigler said, doesn't cut it.

"Our motto is, 'Don't go soft, play hardball.' You've got to be more in shape for this," he said. "And you don't walk away [from softball] feeling that you've really competed. Playing in shorts is just not the same."

'One more summer in the sun'

Some oldtimers, like Coffin, stray from baseball but return. A retired steelworker, he hadn't played in 50 years when he dug out his cleats in 2010 after signing up his grandson for Little League.

"My first game back, I pulled a hamstring and thought, 'Why am I doing this?'" said Coffin, who starred at Dundalk High in the 1950s. "I've got children older than a lot of these guys. But it gets better every year. My arm is still weak, but I stole a base. I hit a double.

"Now if I can just get my timing back, maybe I can put one over the fence."

Coffin plays alongside first baseman Rex Frost, 69.

"The right side of my infield may be 142 years old," said Brian Weir, the Colt .45s manager, who is 53, "but they know the fundamentals and they make the plays."

Frost bats cleanup and, on this day, hit two singles and knocked in a run in his team's victory. He's hitting .389 despite an aching back (spinal stenosis), for which he takes four anti-inflammatory drugs before each game.

"Am I nuts? Probably, but there's no place I'd rather be," said Frost, a retired psychiatrist who lives in Phoenix. "Six months ago, my doctor told me I was dying, that I had killed my kidneys taking so many pills and that I needed dialysis."

Quit baseball, the doctor ordered. Frost refused.

"You only live once, and I don't have that many seasons left," the onetime Kenwood slugger said.

A month later came good news: The lab tests were wrong. Frost would be fine. In hindsight, he said, he'd have reacted no differently:

"If I knew that I'd die tomorrow, I'd be out here today."

His teammates understand. Some, like Eugene Beres of Glen Burnie, can hardly wait for game time.

"Every Sunday is like Christmas to me," said Beres, 47. "I can't sleep Saturday night. I'm like a little kid, coming out here. We're not 17 any more, but in my head I can still do it all.

"It's all about having a good time, one more summer in the sun."

Some would rather go out with their cleats on.

"Keeling over on the mound, or while running to first base, wouldn't be the worst way to go," John Wright said. "My father always said, 'Take my ashes and spread them on diamond No. 3 at Patterson Park.' That would work for me."

Wright, 69, plays first base and pitches for the A's in the Baltimore Senior Baseball Over 40 League, an eight-team loop out of Towson. Here, as elsewhere, rules bend for the elders. Metal cleats are out; likewise, metal bats.

"The ball comes off those bats too fast and our reflexes aren't what they used to be," commissioner Larry Solins said. "The mind says yes, but the body says nuh-uh."

Most pitches are clocked between 60 and 70 miles an hour. One pitcher throws 80. His nickname is Rocket.

The league has quadrupled in size since 2000 and now has a waiting list of graying wannabes.

"We're old guys. Nobody's fooling anybody," said Wright, of Hunt Valley. "I have neuropathy [numbness and tingling] in my feet and can barely run. And, at my age, these benches are so damn hard that I bring my own lawn chair. But look, the sun is out and we're playing baseball. What more can you ask?"

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