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
| By Marc Wortman | From 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.

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."

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.

San Antonio's Nelson Wolff can top that. He may be the only guy in any league who takes the field in a stadium named after him. A former two-term mayor of that city, he is now the chief executive officer of a Texas chain of natural food grocery stores. While in city hall, Wolff worked diligently to get a new 6,500-seat minor league ballpark built. After the stadium opened in 1994 as home to a Texas League franchise, the city named it after him. Now, teams in the MSBL occasionally play there as well. At 57, Wolff plays for a 40-and-over team when at home and a 50-plus team in the Arizona World Series. "It's just as competitive as when you're 18," he says. "I still get butterflies. You don't want to mess up. There's an enormous personal satisfaction of knowing you're doing things an 18 year old can do."

There's something more to it, too: the team. "They're no fans watching, except maybe some of the players' families," Wolff says. "You're out there solely for your teammates and yourself. There are few things like it when you're older. It pulls back memories of the boyhood magic of a bunch of guys coming together to play to win. Frankly, there are few guy things like this left. It's just a whole lot of fun." A cigar smoker, he adds, "If we win a game, I go home and smoke one. A Montecristo from the Dominican Republic is a perfect smoke after a baseball game."

Wolff played poorly during his early days in the MSBL, then compounded his problems by pulling a hamstring while running to first base. "It gets frustrating," he says. "You think you should do better." He started going to a batting cage and working out. He recovered from the injury and the quality of his play improved. "If you stick with it," he says, "you can pick up the pace."

Wolff plans to return to Arizona for the third time this October. He raves about the pleasure of playing on major league-quality fields and the excitement of playing against guys from all around the country, including some top-flight players. "It's one of those things," he says,

"that everyone has to experience at least once in a lifetime."

Last year, during a World Series game on his 57th birthday, he played what he says was just about the best game of his life, participating in three double plays as a second baseman and smacking a one-hopper 360 feet off the left-field fence. It was a treasured time that recaptured some of the long-lost joys of his childhood. "On that day," he recalls, "playing on a magic baseball field on a cool evening, I became young after being old. Time had flashed back to the baseball fields of my youth. And here I was, a free spirit, young at heart, physically stronger than ever before."

In an era when the game of baseball has taken some hard knocks at its top levels, old guys playing a boy's game just for the love of it make it easy to believe that summer will never end.

For information about the Men's Senior and Adult Baseball Leagues, check their Website at www.msbl.com, or call or write their offices at 516-753-MSBL, One Huntington Quadrangle, Suite 3 No.7, Melville, New York 11747.

Marc Wortman is a freelance writer based in New Haven, Connecticut.