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
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98
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The 10th rendition of the Arizona series in October 1997 brought together nearly 5,000 players on more than 260 teams for what was billed as the world's largest baseball tournament. Simultaneously, another MSBL-sponsored event, the Fall Classic, was held in major league spring training parks around the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, where 90 teams with 1,500 players participated. In addition, annual winter tournaments are played in Puerto Rico and Las Vegas, and about 30 different regional tournaments are held each summer by local leagues.
Baseball is still a sport handed down from father to son, and this year, for the first time as part of the Arizona tournament, there will be a side series for about 20 teams composed exclusively of fathers and their sons. Between weekly league games in the spring, summer and fall and travel to tournament play, a dedicated player can play virtually year-round. At about $150 per player for a 20-game regular season--once a week, Sundays in most leagues--and $1,000 per player for all expenses (except travel) to compete in the World Series, playing in the MSBL beats the stirrups off most major league team-affiliated fantasy camps, which usually charge $3,500 per week for the privilege of whacking a baseball thrown by old timers who'd probably rather be on a golf course.
MSBL play is divided into three age divisions: 30 and older, 40 and older, and 50 and older. The oldest players include some guys who were growing up when Babe Ruth was still swatting balls over major league fences. The tournaments group teams by ability divisions as well, assuring some balance in the competition, especially since some of the teams come stacked with former pros and top ex-college players. (Unaffiliated players--those unable to form a team from their own area--are tossed into a pool and added to teams needing to fill their roster. Not surprisingly, in a week in which each team will play at least six games, including two doubleheaders, pitchers are in big demand.)
To encourage play by all team members, substitution rules are relaxed, permitting courtesy runners for injured players and unlimited defensive substitutions, and the batting order can be lengthened beyond the defensive lineup. Older bodies are more fragile, and runners must slide to avoid collisions on the bases. However, this is no beer league. Professional uniforms are a must; umpires are high school- or college-sanctioned and know the game; unsportsmanlike conduct will get you tossed fast; and there are no ringers: former pros who played for pay at any level must be out of the game for at least three years--as well as being at least 30 years old--before they'll be allowed to pay to play. "We insist on maintaining the purity of amateur baseball," says Sigler, who doesn't like the dominance of money and ego in the major league game. "Everything that Major League Baseball represents, we try not to represent."
For most of the league's first decade, Sigler ran the organization out of his home with the help of Connie and the local president of each league. "Sometimes I was working 14 hours a day on the league while working another job," he says. Three years ago, Sigler had built up the MSBL and the younger sibling Men's Adult Baseball League to the point where he could quit his job to run the baseball business full-time. He hired a small staff and moved into an office suite in Melville, on Long Island. Various sports equipment manufacturers have backed the venture from early on. Rawlings, an official sponsor of the league, ships some 8,000 dozen official MSBL baseballs with Sigler's signature to league teams each year. There's even a quarterly magazine, Hardball, covering the leagues around the country and offering hitting and fielding pointers, which is mailed to all players.
Sigler may have a national organization to run, but he's still in it for the game. He plays second base and allows himself to pitch only one game a year because of the pain from a rotator cuff tear three years ago. "Playing helps keep me young," he says. "I have five hours a week--including an hour of warmups, an hour hanging out after--where I just don't worry about what I have to do tomorrow or didn't do yesterday. It's that great childhood feeling of focus. It also provides the impetus for a middle-aged guy to stay in shape."
The typical MSBL newcomer stopped playing baseball
five to 10 years earlier. Baseball is a tough sport, but, says Sigler, "once you're back on the field, you find the skills come back. You may find you're even better than when you were younger. Guys in their 40s and even 50s are still athletes who can play at a competitive level."
Age, however, is a great equalizer in adult baseball. Even
the most skilled players can face stiff competition and sore muscles. "Each year," says ex-big leaguer Barr, "you have to work harder to stay in shape. There are teams where I have to be on top of my game. I've got to get my game face on for them when I leave the house in the morning."
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