The smell of fresh grass clippings and dirt floats through the air, as players step up to bat at the 17th Street Park Softball Complex. A pitcher winds up and tosses the softball to a focused batter. He’s got his eye on the ball and knows not to swing for this one.
“Ball one!” shouts the umpire, who is also a player. The pitcher winds up and tosses the ball again; this time, the batter swings with full force as the clinking sound of a ball hitting the bat echoes through the field. He sprints to first base, kicking up red dust and leaving cleat marks in the dirt behind him. An outfielder throws the ball to first base, but the batter is safe. This game of softball isn’t anything out of the ordinary except that the players are in their 60s, 70s and 80s.
“I can’t tell you the joy I get playing a boys’ game as an old man,” says 65-year-old Jay Wolfinger, a board member of the Sarasota Senior Softball Association.
The late Charles Huisking started senior softball in 1985, with the help of now retired 88-year-old Regis McCurry. In the beginning, there were only seven players. McCurry recalls that in the early days they only played games of round up because they did not have enough players. Within another year, there were enough players to form two teams. Today the association has 270 players; 16 of them are 80 or older.
“When I came out with the older guys and I closed my eyes, I imagined I was about 8 or 10 years old,” says softball player Mike McCoure. “But the level of playing is pretty amazing at this age.”
The Senior Softball Association has a draft in April for the summer leagues and another in October for the winter leagues. Players are rated on a scale from 1 to 12 and placed into the gold or silver league. Some leagues are also divided by age, such as the Monday 60s Gold League or the Monday 70s Gold League.
Despite the drafts and brackets, the association is inclusive and accepts players of all levels. The teams are balanced and competitive.
Wolfinger places players into a database and sorts players by ability and the days they want to play. Players must be 57 in the year they are playing to participate. Once the players are rated, team managers get together and choose players.
“We try to have an even balance of competition,” Wolfinger says. The percentage of games each team wins determines who the champions are and, unless there is a tie, the league does not have playoffs.
During the winter leagues, teams have sponsors, and their uniforms are branded with their sponsor’s name. For example, a clock-repair shop sponsors the team Father Time, and Syprett Meshad law firm sponsors another team. Summer leagues do not have sponsors because there are fewer players when the snowbirds return to their Northern homes. Players take breaks during the winter holidays and do not play in August because it is too hot.
The Sarasota Senior Softball Association prioritizes safety for players and has special rules. For example, there are four outfielders and five infielders, plus a pitcher and a catcher; having 11 players on the field instead of the usual nine means there is less space to cover. Players also have two first bases and two home plates to avoid collision when players run. Some guys use a pitching screen to avoid getting hit by a softball. Other players take special precautions and wear a mask and shin guards.
“Your brain thinks you are still 18 years old, but your body knows you are not,” says George Hawley, president of the Senior Softball Association.
Players joke and tease each other as if they were teenagers again. And, more than anything, they enjoy the friendships that can only be formulated while playing on a team.
“It’s exercise, but, most important to me is the camaraderie,” says player Chuck Cason. “I have a friend who told me, ‘By the time I get to the gate, I forgot who won.’ No matter who won or lost, you are still enjoying it.”
Chuck Cason stands over home plate yelling out commands and encouragements. The 66-year-old has been playing ball since childhood. His family moved to Sarasota from Columbus, Ga., when he was 16, and he played ball actively as an adult until he was 43. He stopped playing his own games so that he could attend softball games and practices of his son and daughter. Before he retired in 1992, Cason worked as the director for Parks and Recreation in Sarasota. He recalls when the late Charles Huisking first came to him in 1985 to start up “old man’s softball,” as Huisking would say.
“I thought it was a good idea,” says Cason. “They use the fields in the morning and it was good use of facilities.”
He didn’t realize that 23 years later he would be playing old man’s softball, too.
“If you make a great play there are a bunch of guys patting you on the back saying ‘great play,’” Cason says. “But, don’t make a bad play or you will hear about it. We call them ‘senior moments’ in softball.” Today, Cason plays almost every day of the week, whether it’s on his Sarasota teams or in Venice.
Regis McCurry got bored one week into retirement from a 25-year career as an insurance adjuster. The 88-year-old went to the Department of Parks and Recreation where he met Chuck Cason, who gave him a part-time job coaching children’s sports. Then, when the late Charles Huisking came to Cason wanting to start a senior softball league, Cason knew McCurry would be perfect for the job.
“We only had seven players in the beginning,” McCurry says.
In 1989, McCurry and group of ball players from Sarasota won the first Senior World Series in Greensboro, N.C. McCurry also started a softball league in Kalispell, Mont., where he spends his summers.
“I needed something to do and went to the recreation department there, and they looked at me strangely when I asked about senior softball. But, with their assistance, we started a senior softball program there, too.”
McCurry decided to retire from softball this year.
“I feel honored to have been a part of setting up the senior softball program. At 88 years old, I wanted to leave the game while I could still participate in hitting and in-fielding,” McCurry says.
George Hawley learned to play ball from his father and from playing with the boys in his neighborhood. His small West Chicago town did not have Little League. Neighborhood boys made up their own games when they did not have enough players and played ball every day on the street the summer.
At the age of 14, Hawley and his friends created a neighborhood team and called boys from neighboring towns to play with them. He remembers his whole team piling into one of their parents’ Chevrolet to get to one of the games. Then, at 15, Hawley and his friends convinced a florist to sponsor them, and they started an American Legion team.
“It was a formative and character-building experience,” Hawley says. “We had to convince adults.”
They also convinced the school board to start a high school baseball team his senior year. Hawley went on to play recreational ball at Northwestern University and, in 1960, played on a team in the Marine Corps. In 2004, Hawley began playing senior softball in Sarasota.
“To tell you the truth, senior softball clenched it for me. It was one of the reasons I wanted to move here.”