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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

(continued from page 2)

Barr may still look mean on the mound, but he no longer is fighting the other players to keep his paycheck coming. It's just for fun. "Even if you're not successful," he says, "after playing, you feel like you enjoyed it. We played a 17-inning game one time in the series in Phoenix, and we were joking back and forth across the field about how none of us could get that winning run in. After games, we can laugh about it and shake hands. We all sit together under a tree and talk about it and have a drink."

Barr has traveled with his Sacramento team to the Arizona World Series every October but one since the tournament began. Other former professionals who have played on MSBL teams around the country include Bert Campaneris, Orlando Cepeda, Ron LeFlore, Bill Lee, Jose Cardenal, Tito Landrum, Jim Willoughby, Luis Tiant and Bob Oliver, to name just a few. Although playing with or against guys who once made a living at the game is a thrill for many MSBL players, they learn pretty quickly that they're just overgrown boys who still love the game. "This isn't our life anymore," says Barr. "We've all got a family at home and have to get up and go to work the next day."

Dave Von Ohlen threw relief in the majors for the St. Louis Cardinals, Cleveland Indians and Oakland Athletics before retiring with a blown-out elbow in 1988. He rehabilitated the elbow, then joined the MSBL as soon as he could, and he still pitches for a Long Island team from Oceanside. A supervisor at North Shore University Hospital in Glen Cove, New York, Von Ohlen is celebrating his 40th birthday this October by going to the Arizona series for the fourth time, this time bumping up to the 40-and-over division. He loved playing in the big leagues but says, "That's a fantasy world. This brings you back to reality and makes you appreciate what a wonderful game it is. As the years have gone by, the league has gotten more competitive, and Arizona is absolutely awesome. It's a whole week of nothing but baseball. We play on gorgeous fields, the weather's great and the competition is absolutely outstanding."

A town with a rich baseball tradition, Sacramento is home to almost a dozen former major leaguers who play on MSBL teams. "When you have a few pros, it draws others," says Jerry Karnow, a 56-year-old teacher and administrator in the city's public school system, who is president of the Sacramento MSBL. "It's a lot of fun to play with them. Guys love to play with and against them. They're like the rest of us--very competitive players who love the game and want to keep at it for as long as they can."

Former professionals enjoy it as well. Says Von Ohlen with a rueful laugh, "Everybody can hit me. Some guys come up to me and tell me it's a real thrill to face me. It's fun for me, too."

For both the ex-pros and the guys who have trouble judging a fly ball, a big part of the fun is not just the game, but hanging out with other players and talking about the game. "It's always nice to be recognized," says Barr. "People love to talk about baseball. The more I'm around the game, the more I tell stories and," he says with a laugh, "the better they get. It's really fun when we get three or four ex-major leaguers together. The stories really get going then."

Hanging out in the dugout and sharing the lore and legends of baseball is a long tradition. At least one player in the senior league returned to the game for professional reasons related to that tradition. Roberto González Echevarría is a professor of Hispanic and comparative literatures at Yale University and one of the world's leading scholars of Spanish and Latin American literature and culture. As a boy growing up in Cuba, he played baseball year-round, and as a teenager, he played catcher in a semipro league in Florida. When he set out a few years back to write a history of baseball in Cuba, a country whose citizens take the game as seriously as Americans do, he decided he needed to face the challenges of hitting against hard-throwing pitchers again in order to write compellingly about the game. He'd been playing softball for 25 years but says, "Softball is a completely different game. I had to feel what it was like swinging at a hard, curving pitch again." He started playing for a team from Madison, Connecticut. "Then I was hooked."

The resulting book, The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball (Oxford Press), is due out next February. The title comes from the nickname for a great Cuban pitcher, Adolfo Luque, who starred in the major leagues as well as in the Cuban league and who got tagged with the name after a renowned Cuban cigar that was popular in the 1920s.

While the quality of play in the MSBL has improved over the years, the quality of the diamonds has sometimes lagged. Most local leagues play on recreation department, high school or college fields, some of which may not have seen a groundskeeper in weeks. "Our home field is not that good," Von Ohlen says. "We wouldn't have practiced on fields like this in the majors. So I take along bottles of water, rakes and shovels with me from home and fix the field up before a game. The guys'll bust my chops sometimes: 'Hey Dave, you didn't have to do that 10 years ago.' Hell, 10 years ago I didn't have to pay to play." No matter, he says despite the gripes, "I love it. I will play this until I physically cannot."

A few leagues have managed to upgrade conditions. In August, Barr, who is the vice president of the Sacramento MSBL, was scheduled to help inaugurate a two-field ballpark built specifically for the league.


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