Cover Story: Just One More Season

Pushing yourself to the limit in Cincinnati's over-30 hardball league

 
David Sorcher


More than a feeling: The over-30 crowd plays ball at the Crosley Field replica in Blue Ash.



The year is 1969. An old man takes the tickets from my dad and allows my brother and me through the turnstiles. I've never seen so many people. At age 5, I'm attending my first Reds game — the only one I'd ever see at Crosley Field. Cigar smoke lingers in the air, and the noise of the crowd is unable to mask the hard smacking sound the ball makes when it hits the gloves of the men bathed in a halogen glow. And that big, black square clock over the scoreboard.

Fast-forward 30 years to a muggy June evening. I stare at that same clock, which reads a few minutes after 9 p.m. The physical dimensions of the field are identical, down to the infamous rise in left field that played havoc with Major Leaguers, including Babe Ruth himself.

But now I'm on the field playing first base with a strong case of butterflies, because Eddie Milner is waving his shiny blue aluminum bat.

I step back a few feet.

You'd think it would be a wonderful dream to play in this clone of Crosley in Blue Ash, against an ex-Red no less. The outfield perfectly manicured and smooth as a country club fairway, the pitcher's mound and base paths in fine shape, the well-constructed stands and dugouts ... snap out of it, buddy, or you'll loose your teeth.

Even without Milner, these Cincinnati Cubs have hyperactive bats. I just blocked a sizzling grounder off my shins to pick up the out, but runners advanced to second and third. We're able to keep these Cubs at bay only because we brought in a ringer, a 28-year-old en route to the minors, or so we're told. Anyway, he's strong with a sharp slider and a fastball in the mid-80s.

Milner stands back in the box, waiting. Experts say one of the hallmarks of a professional player is excellent bat speed. He certainly meets the criteria, even at age 44.

On the next pitch he whips that bat around like a toy and absolutely nails a bullet at our center fielder. Sometimes under these dim Crosley lights you can't even pick up the flight of a lazy fly ball, so I feel sick when I see the trajectory. Our guy first charges, then backpedals wildly, falling on his ass as the ball whistles by where his head used to be — a merciful act of God and a three-run inside-the-parker for Eddie Milner.

Welcome to the Roy Hobbs Men's 30-and-over baseball league.

Wanna play?
The league's mission is to hook those who know intuitively that softball is a weak imitation of baseball. After 20 years out of the game, one step into the batter's box instantly brings back that beautiful, spleen-tingling rush.

No fat grapefruits arching at 10 mph for you to pound. No sprints down a truncated basepath.

Hardball is a pure duel where helmets and shin guards ward off errant blows. The first line drive off your bat is like an out-of-body experience. Sliding into second base, the world suddenly seems right.

With approximately 350 men distributed on teams throughout the Greater Cincinnati area, what then accounts for the other talented thousands who choose the "make believe" form of the game? Yes, there are so-called softball widows, but one glance at this hardball schedule gives most married men reason for pause: 30-plus games spanning from late April to mid-September, many fields located 10 to 30 miles outside the I-275 perimeter (as far north as Lebanon, Ohio) guaranteeing over an hour's worth of road time. With nine full innings on Sunday mornings and seven-inning games on Wednesday evenings, well, most wives aren't that understanding.

During my own attempts at player recruitment, I invariably see that pained expressions indicating his marital harmony calculation is coming up negative. The league is expanding nonetheless, with a jump from 14 to 17 teams between the 2002 and 2003 seasons.

Although the national umbrella organization changes periodically, the core group of player-coaches who organize the local league remains fairly constant. When I started playing again in 1999, the teams were under the Men's Senior Baseball League (MSBL). A couple years later, then-League President Joe Caligaris, with the nod from team managers, switched to the national Roy Hobbs League — a seamless transition that saved each player about $50 in up-front expenses, which are $150-$300 depending on a team's willingness or ability to gain a sponsor.

At each game, players fork over an additional $5 to $6 each for umpires fees. Not as bad as golf, but with more than 30 games the dues can mount.

Sponsored teams typically go with their patron's name, but teams that forego financial support tend to pick one of the available big league monikers. A glance at the schedule will show back-to-back Wednesday night games at Crosley Field in Blue Ash: Deerfield Construction vs. Yankees at 6:30 p.m., followed by Rangers vs. Astros at 8:30.

The league is about as varied as it can be in terms of social and professional backgrounds. Once the uniform is on, bricklayers and doctors transform in to ballplayers, and for two or three hours that's all they are. Pollyannaish though it might sound, racial harmony is the reality on the ball diamond. Many teams in Roy Hobbs are fairly integrated, and when a mostly white team plays a mostly black team, only good feelings seem to come from it.

"The league is fundamentally ethical," says Northern Kentucky Orioles player-coach Todd Pugh. "It's a good bunch of working men, most with families, coming together to play the game they love."

With a few exceptions, the Roy Hobbs' bylaws mirror those of the Major Leagues. The biggest deviation is in base runner substitutions, which are fairly liberal and aim at preserving the legs of pitchers, catchers and any number of players hobbled by injuries.

Coaches are allowed plenty of leeway on the lineup. On any given day they can bat the starting nine, use a designated hitter or let the whole roster take a turn at the plate. A contentious automatic five-inning 10-run rule is alternatively perceived as an act of mercy or needless short-circuiting of the game.

Aluminum bats are generally used with two "wooden bat only" games during the season. These days, of course, aluminum bats aren't just aluminum. They're $250 aircraft-grade, titanium-enriched, nitrogen bladder-infused war clubs that convert a 75-mph pitch into a 115-mph blur. In order to cut down on the unnatural velocity of batted balls, the league has adopted a new limit on the length-to-weight ratio of high tech metal bats.

With injuries and age slowly siphoning the pool of players, each team is allowed to bring on two 28-year-olds. The remainder of the players must be 30 or older, and most are indeed older. Managers are also allowed to pick up new players well into the season — so it's not too late join. (For details on the league, see www.sportscombine.com and click on "Adult Baseball.")

Player talent ranges from average to superb. There's an air of seriousness about the games you simply won't find in your company softball league. Most in Roy Hobbs have played either high school or college ball, a fair number carry minor league credentials and a handful made it to the big show.

Anyone who's played professionally must wait a year before joining Roy Hobbs. A few years back, the league was home to Eddie Milner, former Reds outfielder in 1980-86 and 1988, and Doug Bair, Reds reliever in 1978-1981.

Tom Kramer, fire-baller for the Cleveland Indians during the 1991 and 1993 seasons, pitched last year for the Astros 40's. At 34, Kramer still had a 90-mph fastball that's all but un-hittable. I'm just glad he had good control.

The blend of age and talent seems a good mix. The former minor leaguers and college players mix it up with those naturals who, for whatever reason, never played past high school. Anyone new to the league quickly learns that physical appearances are deceptive and that the best play is frequently exhibited by those with gray heads, big bellies or both.

Prior to the 2001 season, the league divided itself into three divisions based on the previous year's team records. The idea was to weight the schedule so that teams of similar talent would play each other more frequently, resulting in fewer lopsided scores and greater competition for everyone.

So far the experiment has worked. My team, the Northern Kentucky Orioles, inexplicably bounced back and forth from the upper to lower divisions, skipping the middle tier altogether.

Interchangeable parts
With the exception of Jim Bowden, everyone knows you need good pitching to win games. And it was solid pitching that aided the ascent of the Northern Kentucky Orioles last year.

Between the 2001 and 2002 seasons, player-coach Pugh made some important acquisitions, picking up two experienced pitchers — Vern Goodman, a former New York Mets minor league prospect-turned-Christian pastor, and Jim Demler, varsity baseball coach at Ryle High School. Goodman is 49 years old and has pitching knowledge that comes from playing professionally. Demler, at 33, has that fatal combination of velocity, movement and control that leaves many hitters swinging for air.

Most teams in the league carry a 15- to 20-man roster with a core of 10 to 12 players who show up to most games. To offset losses due to family vacations and the injuries over a five-month schedule, teams tend to carry players who've mastered several positions.

Certainly the Orioles wouldn't have fared as well last year without ample, built-in versatility. We were above average defensively, especially up the middle. And when you talk about the middle, you start with your catcher.

At 35, Jeff Sevier was having a damn good year, both behind and at the plate. He calls an exceptional game, stops the wild pitch, nails his share of base thieves and moves about with a good deal of hustle.

In 2001 he struggled somewhat at the plate, but in 2002 he was making solid contact, and it showed in his batting average as well as our win-loss record. Unfortunately, Sevier became the victim of one of those freak accidents — about two-thirds of the way through the year he slipped crossing home plate and broke his right fibula.

Were we in trouble? I thought so, because I believed Sevier was our only real catcher. In stepped Carl Grayson, 44, a partner in his own Edgewood, Ky., law firm, a humorous non-stop prattling machine and a league veteran.

Though Grayson represents a more extreme case of defensive flexibility, several Oriole players filled multiple roles. At 38, Teal Nally is a smooth shortstop who makes the spectacular play look routine and also pitches in relief. He's a natural hitter with a compact, Austin Kearns-style swing.

Frank Schmitt, a solid outfielder, plays an even better second base or shortstop. Pugh, who's built like a linebacker, typically plays at first but platoons himself in centerfield and occasionally fills in as catcher.

Mike "Goldy" Goldenberg is quick and dives for balls with the agility and accuracy of a circus acrobat. While he can easily play anywhere in the infield, he also pitches and can catch in the pinch.

Pat Roesel is a fiery lead-off batter and plays an aggressive outfield. As a starting lefty, Demler is also an excellent outfielder. I play outfield and occasionally pitch in relief. Don "Dutch" Schiederer plays second and first as well as outfield. And clean-up man Chuck Gentry, who seems to specialize in hitting line drives against the top of fences, plays outfield and first base.

With the stature of a small tank, Bill Vogt, 41, is a fearless third baseman and a powerhouse at the plate. In the bizarre first game of the end-of-season tournament, he dove to tag a base runner and broke his shoulder.

Vogt played the rest of the game but realized something was wrong when he could barely raise his arm. After helping us win that game with a line drive hit, he took himself to the doctor — and that was it for him, at least for 2002.

The big games
Everybody gets a little hopped up at tournament time. Running throughout September, it's one-and-out for the first round and two-and-out thereafter, with six or seven wins needed to grab the title. Teams with poor records view this season finale as a second crack at glory, while the top teams strategize on how to maximize their pitching staffs.

Last year we had high expectations. Although we were in the lower division, we finished the regular season at 21-7 and had beaten upper division teams on more than one occasion.

All games go the full nine innings during the tournament. We struggled in our first game to eventually beat a lower rung team that we'd man-handled just a few weeks before. The game itself played itself out on two separate days due to an inability to turn on the lights at Lawrenceburg High School's field on Wednesday night.

We thumped a team the next day principally on Grayson's bat and glove, placing us in front of the reigning champs, the dominant Cincinnati Astros. This team doesn't really have a weakness I can point to, other than the fact that they sometimes platoon a barrel-chested 50-year-old at first base who can still pound the hell out of the ball — more an insult, I suppose, than a weakness.

To beat a team that has a lefty with superb control and throws in the 80s and a right-handed ex-minor leaguer who can reach the upper 80s to low 90s ... whoa! Most people who sit in front of a computer screen all day can't get up, shake off the corporate fog and smack a knee-high 90-mph fastball, and I'm one of them. The bitter whiff of a foul tip was it for me. We got drilled.

All season we'd played with a happy tune in our heads. But that game deflated us a bit and forced us into a primitive, fearful state. We faced our nemesis the Witworth Knife Company with a vague sense of self-loathing and reverted to a confused, angry style of ball in which a pitcher and first baseman can collide horribly, face to back of head, over an easy pop-up.

The game went into the 10th inning and both Pugh and Goodman, who nearly knocked each other cold, played on. We won on a dramatic defensive play by Nally — a full sprint basket catch in shallow center field. But the game left us physically and psychologically spent, and we had to play the Rangers the very next day.

These Rangers were in the middle division. We'd beaten them easily, perhaps too easily, on a steamy Sunday morning a few weeks back. It had been a 10-run rule defeat that left them with a certain debt-to-pay mentality.

The Rangers are a fun-loving sort, with good players who've played with each other for some years. Sometimes they're too loosey-goosey for their own good, and sometimes they're just perfectly loose. And when that happens, they seem to crush the ball.

Demler was throwing hard, but the Rangers were all connecting. We couldn't work up the energy to sustain the blows. The game started around 7 p.m., and by the seventh inning the air was wet and the sky black.

On my last at-bat of the year I hit a line drive single. It felt good, but we lost early via the dreaded 10-run rule. That ended it for us.

On the walk back to the car, though, there's always this chatter between players from both teams. We told the Rangers how well they did and give them a quick "good luck in the next game" sort of thing.

In the dark among our own, before we drove down I-71 listening to Marty and Joe, we sort of cross-checked each other, earnestly but briefly, to make sure we'd be back next year.

It'd been a good, long season, at times a great season, and we all knew it. Just one more season, though, is all I wanted. HOT

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