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Over 30's Play Ball

Once a Game Only for the Boys of Summer, Amateur Baseball Leagues Are Now Filled with Thousands of Men Over 30
Marc Wortman
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98

Baseball was good to Jim Barr, and 15 years after retiring, the former major league pitcher is returning the favor. Barr had a 12-year career in the majors, mostly with the San Francisco Giants. When he retired in 1983, he'd won more than 100 games and earned a reputation for precise control and for being a fierce competitor unafraid to knock down an opposing hitter. He used to hold his own against the likes of future Hall of Famers Henry Aaron, Roberto Clemente and Johnny Bench, and he still owns the major league record for most consecutive outs, 41 over two games. He made good money playing baseball and could have walked out of the clubhouse and never looked back.

Instead, at 50 years old, an age when the closest most former major leaguers get to a baseball is to autograph them for fans willing to pay for their scrawl or playing in an old-timers game, Barr pays to take the mound. He pitches in an amateur league with factory workers and stockbrokers, politicians and professors, guys with paunches and gray hair and kids in college, men who may have been benchwarmers in high school, as well as a smattering of former pros like himself. And he's having some of the most fun he's ever had playing baseball.

Barr is one of tens of thousands of men whose baseball days were supposed to end when their age and abilities moved them out of contention for a professional career. He stuck with the game longer than most baseball players, for whom the last out of their high school or college career was the end of hardball. At that point, the short base paths and fat pitches of softball are what traditionally followed for those who still wanted to play ball. Playing baseball just wasn't something that society believed was possible for men with full-time jobs. Supposedly, baseball is a game for boys who have all summer to shag flies and take batting practice. Age kills skill, and baseball is a skill game--or so they said.

Times have changed on the diamond. Maybe it's just that the baby boomers don't want to grow up, but lots of guys now insist that the real game has to have curve balls, changeups, bunts, pickoffs, base stealing and nine innings. They won't listen when anybody says that older athletes can't play ball. At least that's what Barr and some 40,000 other adults who play in some 300 senior leagues scattered around the United States are proving every summer.

Barr may be one of the few players in these senior leagues who can find his career stats in the Baseball Encyclopedia, but in many ways he is no different than his teammates on a Sacramento, California, team that plays in the Men's Senior Baseball League, an amateur league whose squads are composed of men who are at least 30 years old. (The Men's Adult Baseball League is for players ages 18 to 30.) Thanks to the explosive growth in these 10-year-old nationally organized baseball leagues, these men are part of the first generation of older adult players across the United States who've been able to continue playing the game they love.

Before the MSBL, only a handful of adult leagues operated around the country, with no national organization and little interleague play. Most adults who wanted to relive what it was like to face a fastball or steal a base needed to patch together a couple teams of Little League fathers to play a game.

In 1985, Steve Sigler, who was managing his sons' team on Long Island in New York, did just that. "Softball just didn't do it for me," says Sigler, now a wiry 49-year-old, who had hung up his spikes after a year of college baseball almost 20 years earlier. "Baseball is much more challenging. We played that one game, and that's all it took for me. I knew I had to play." What he didn't know was how many others shared that need.

The following March, Sigler put a notice in a Long Island newspaper, looking for other men interested in forming a league. That summer the first four teams got together and began playing weekly games. A newspaper story about an open workout toward the end of the summer brought 250 players out. "That's when I knew we were on to something," says Sigler. "Lots of guys still wanted to play hardball." At the opening of the 1987 season, Long Island had 17 teams. That summer, Sigler's wife, Connie, read that Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda's former husband and a California state senator, was playing in a Los Angeles adult baseball league. She told Sigler, who immediately called Hayden. Together, they launched a bicoastal challenge series between the two leagues. (Hayden, now in his late 50s, still plays outfield alongside former U.S. congressman Mel Levine.)

From the success of the series, Sigler got the idea for a national organization to promote the amateur game. The following January, Sigler, who was the chief financial officer of a knapsack manufacturing and distribution firm at the time, started campaigning to persuade sports editors to run notices about the formation of the league. Many did. "Before you knew it," he says, "we were off and running."

With the league's first real season in full swing in the summer of 1988, an article about Sigler and his organization ran in the July 4 issue of Sports Illustrated. The story described his dream of men playing a boys' game as long as their skills and desire permitted, and it listed his name, address and phone number. The response was overwhelming. "This was before call-waiting," Sigler recalls. "I'd hang up one call and the next came within seconds. The mailman arrived with sacks of mail." In the two weeks following the article's appearance, Sigler received 2,500 calls and letters. The Men's Senior Baseball League took off faster than a shot off Ken Griffey Jr.'s bat. That October, the MSBL held its first so-called World Series, an open tournament for players and teams from around the country, at the spring training camps of several major league teams in Arizona. There were 38 teams and about 500 players. "I was like the Pied Piper," says Sigler. "People followed me."In droves.

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