I had not played softball in 25 years when a friend told me about the City of Los Angeles Senior Softball League. Did I really want to subject myself to the aches and pains of a workout involving metal sticks that are potential deadly weapons in the hands of geriatric players whose grips are worse than their gripes? Did I want to track down balls in the outfield that, like objects in vehicle mirrors are closer than you think? Or brace myself for an incoming set of spikes as I stood on second base waiting for the agonizingly slow throw from an outfielder who chose to field the ball on the bounce rather than log the three steps necessary for the catch and the out?
Of course the answer was yes! I love softball, always have. Sentimental soul that I am, I still have a newspaper clipping from 1956 about my team winning trophies for the district championship in Michigan when I was ten years old. And when I moved to L.A. 30 years ago from New York I won another trophy with a team that won the city championship. I displayed them proudly until the Northridge earthquake turned them into broken shards that I now keep in a bowl.
My new field of dreams was the Hjelte Field in Sherman Oaks, so I found my old baseball glove in the black hole of memorabilia that I amusingly call my garage and headed out to the try-outs. I joined a group that ranged in age from the minimum 55 years for men, (45 for women) to a maximum of… well, I don’t think there is a maximum because I swear there were a couple of players who must have been around when Mickey Mantle still had functioning knees.
During this try-out I learned several new rules specific to this league, most of which were designed to keep the players out of local ER’s. There is no sliding allowed, which eased my fear of being spiked. Designated runners are allowed for a player who may have drawn a walk, and can’t move faster than a walk, presumably due to knee operations, arthritic conditions or heart complications. There is absolutely no running into another player, so a runner is not actually required to touch a base or home plate but run to the side. All these safety rules are designed to avoid any possibility of knocking the pine tar out of each other.
Okay, I was excited! I could play the game I loved as a kid without the fear of blowing my Medicare deductible. Then I found out I was drafted by the manager of the Mudhens. Seriously now, uttering the phrase “I’m a Mudhen” was never high on my bucket list but I knew that the Toledo Mudhens team is one of the most famous in minor league baseball. And hey, it’s Klinger’s team, and if it’s good enough for Klinger it’s good enough for me! Play ball!
The regular season ran 14 games but there was little that was “regular” about it. In one game, a runner accidentally crashed into our shortstop, knocking him silly. The runner was called out, our shortstop correctly guessed the number of fingers held in front of his face and we kept calm and carried on. An outfielder on another team fell flat on his back, not moving. Paramedics were called. Tension rose. A crowd gathered. The outfielder finally woke up and wondered what all the fuss was about. For my money, the guy had probably reached his nap time and damn if he’d miss it!
The Mudhens played on, winning every game we played except one. That was the game where my bad hearing possibly cost us a run. I was on second when my teammate hit a grounder up the middle. I bolted for third, planning to head on home. My coach said “No, no, no!” but I heard “Go, go, go!” and was thrown out by ten feet. Needless to say, in all subsequent games our coach was told to wave his arm like a whirligig if I was to go home and stand with his arms raised like a Nazi border guard if I was to hold at third.
We made the playoffs, which we breezed through handily, and managed to get to the championship game despite (or because of) our knee braces, arm braces, back braces, hearing aids, bifocals, Ibuprofen, aspirin, and Ben-Gay.
The big game started at 5:15 p.m. and the summer sun was slowly setting in the west, while we boys of summer were being put to the test. After six innings it was a very close game and I started thinking about Casey at the Bat, The Mighty Casey, the one who struck out. Were we going to choke as well?
The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudhen team that day,
The score was very close with but one inning left to play.
There was no Casey at the bat, just one of our Mudhen boys,
But we played with lots of gusto and we made a lot of noise…
And when the game was over and the ump had made his call,
There was some joy in Mudville, ‘cause the Hens had won it all!
Yes, our ragtag ragamuffin medicated Mudhens came out on top by the closest score of any game we played all season, winning 10-7.
The best thing about it was the camraderie. We all cheered for each other, ran for each other, helped each other and laughed with each other because we knew were a bunch of old guys playing a young man’s game, and why the hell not? We were having a great time. Although our bodies belied it, we were still the boys of summer.
At our celebratory barbecue our first baseman suggested that we get together every five years for a reunion. Our pitcher, somewhat older, said “let’s make it one year, we may not last that long!” But for this season and this summer, we lasted long enough. And I’m very happy to say that I now have a new trophy that I don’t need to keep in a bowl.