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Over 50 and in the game

Softball players stay active in Washington County senior league

Softball players stay active in Washington County senior league

July 31, 2008|By MARIE GILBERT

Tucked behind Hagerstown City Park is a field of dreams.

You won't find "Shoeless" Joe Jackson prowling the outfield or Dizzy Dean throwing fastballs.

This isn't heaven.

But to about 70 men, it's close.

The field is home to the Washington County Senior Softball League - a recreational outlet for area residents 50 years of age and older who still love the scent of a leather glove and the feel of a bat in their hands.

It may be softball - the underhanded version of baseball. But these guys - and occasionally women - can still play. Some throw missiles hard enough to make the catcher's glove snap and others can pack enough boom in their bats to impress a younger generation.

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Many have played the game since childhood. Now, they're in a league of their own.

The Washington County Senior Softball League was organized about 15 years ago to help older adults stay physically active, said John Hawbaker, league president and treasurer.

Teams in the early years also had an opportunity to compete in the Senior Olympics.

Originally, the league was open to county residents who were ages 60 and older, Hawbaker said. As years progressed, and in an effort to develop a more competitive league, the age limit was dropped to 50.

It also made sense to open its rosters to players from throughout Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

In the early years, Hawbaker said, the league played at Pangborn Park. Several years ago, the teams found a new home on the two baseball diamonds at City Park.

It's here, from May to August, that you'll find older men feeling like kids again.

On a recent hot summer evening, players began arriving at the ballfields about an hour before their 6 o'clock games.

Donning baseball hats and team shirts, they joked during batting practice and took time to do the essential stretching exercises.

"Stretching is one of the most important parts of the game," said Allan Wexler, 66, a retired Washington County physician who plays outfield for the Maugansville Ruritan team.

"Most of our injuries are pulled muscles," he said. "The game is safe except when it comes to old men and muscles."

Hawbaker said there are five teams in the league this year with each team carrying 14 to 15 players.

Games consist of eight innings - "seven is too short, nine too long" - and all players are guaranteed playing time.

Hawbaker said rosters are distributed evenly so there is a competitive balance within the league.

"Each team has two to three players from every age bracket," he said. "That way, no one team is stacked with younger players."

While the game is played like any other softball game, Hawbaker noted that some of the rules have been modified to make the game safer and more enjoyable for the older player.

For example, there are two first bases, placed adjacent to one another - one for the first baseman and one for the runner - to prevent collisions. There are also two home plates. And sliding is not permitted.

Hawbaker said there are no league standings and no statistics are kept.

"We don't keep track of runs or batting averages. Most of us have no idea how many wins and losses we have," he said. "It's strictly recreational."

That's not to say there isn't any friendly competition.

"It's a fun league, but no one comes out to lose," he said.

The league's low-key nature appeals to people who love the sport but can do without the pressure, Hawbaker said.

Teams play two to three games each week "and regardless of who wins, we shake hands afterward, and we all have a great time," he said.

Hawbaker said the league attracts individuals from all walks of life - from attorneys and policemen to firemen and laborers, some retired, some still working.

"Many of these guys have played organized ball all of their lives," he said. "Some have played sandlot or on a church team. For others, this is their first time on the field."

Regardless of their playing ability, Hawbaker said, all appreciate the fact that there is a league for their age group.

"It definitely fills a need," he said. "If it weren't for this league, there would be nowhere for people who have reached a certain age to play organized ball."

Hawbaker, 74, said he has been playing in the league for more than 10 years.

"It keeps me young and in shape," the Falling Waters, W.Va., resident said. Gene Griffith, 67, of Greencastle, Pa., who plays for the Holcim Inc. team, agrees.

"I do it for the exercise," he said. "It's something to do and a lot better for me than watching television."

Griffith said being part of the league is enjoyable because of "the nice bunch of guys who are part of this."

"You develop a lot of friendships," he said.

Griffith's teammate, Mike Armel, 57, of Hagerstown, said he has been playing in the league for about six or seven years and is happy that he has found a place where he can continue playing a sport he loves.

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