The league focuses the enjoyment of the game, for as long as players want to compete.
Someone's phone was ringing.
It was not a typical ring. Somewhere in the string of athletic bags that lined the fence at 17th Street Park softball field No. 2 on Wednesday morning, muffled by material, blared an orchestral song, with swooning strings and rising tension.
Yet it also served as the perfect score for the moment at hand: a tie game, 12-12, between the Sarasota Senior Softball Association's Blue and White teams in the association's 'A' League, the top league for talent. It was the bottom of the seventh, the final inning in SSSA games. The Blue team was at-bat. A run would win the game.
It wasn't quite movie magic: the phone stopped ringing while the inning was still being played. But the Blue team did score, making league president Ken Shepard and his Blue teammates quite happy.
Shepard's Blue team is tops in the league currently, but you wouldn't know it by the way the team talks in the dugout. The players rag on themselves as much as they do players on the opposing team — which is often, but always in a charming, sarcastic way. The level of play is high in the SSSA, but as any of the league's more than 350 players will be happy to tell, it is the players and mix of personalities that make the league worth playing in year after year.
"It's a good group of guys enjoying themselves," Dan Martin, 73, said. "Occasionally you will see guys arguing and you're like, 'Hey, come on. Why?' We're out here to have fun. There's no reason to argue or get on a teammate. And mostly it's great. It makes it worth coming back, as much as playing game itself."
Jay Wolfinger, 74, was not playing Wednesday, but was in attendance cheering on, well, everyone. Wolfinger plays in the association's Monday 'B' League, which is a step down in competition from the 'A' League. It's not necessarily by choice; the league selects teams for each season by holding a draft. If a player is not selected for the 'A' League, he will fall to the 'B' league, and so on. Wolfinger does not take it as a slight. In fact, he loves the system. Wolfinger said it is great for players who either don't want to face elite competition or were once elite but are no longer. A player may be upset about the situation at first, but players often find that the more appropriate level of play makes for more fun games.
The Blue and White teams in Wednesday's game certainly seemed even. Pitchers threw underhand from behind a screen, which was not placed simply out of precaution. The seniors were hitting rockets all over the field. No one hit a home run, but a few players came close. Lenny LoCastro, the Blue team's third baseman, always got down into a 'ready' stance before each pitch in case a liner came smashing toward him. It's the kind of thing that players are taught in youth ball, then take for granted as their reaction skills improve. But players can't take it for granted in senior softball. LoCastro, who has 20 years of travel softball experience with the Florida Hitmen, would know.
"This league is like fun practice for travel ball," LoCastro said. "It's also great for recruiting new players (to travel ball). I'll watch them a bit and invite them to a batting practice session. I try to get more than one look at them because anyone can have one good day, you know? But it's great for making friends and since we change teams every season, it keeps it balanced and fair. I end up rooting for people on the other teams to do well."
After a few minutes postgame to recharge and get a drink of water, the players went back on the field. Yes, the 'A' League plays doubleheaders. by the end of game two, the players will be exhausted. But they'll be smiling, too. When looking for a sport — a community — to fill your week, that counts for a lot.
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