The Retired Boys of Summer were not going to let a pandemic — or a little rain — interrupt their game.
They had already endured a pause in their season, not unlike the ones most professional leagues have faced, because of a player’s positive test for the coronavirus.
So when the first official game of the new year arrived on Jan. 4, the roughly 90 players on seven teams of the Golden Years Senior Softball League were ready to go, drizzle be damned.
“I’m not as good as I used to be, but I’m alive,” my 83-year-old father, Sy Ellin, said as he wrapped a support belt around his waist like a corset. He has been playing for 60 years, 25 as an avid participant in the Golden Years league in Florida and with EMass Senior Softball in Boston.
The virus may rage, but in senior leagues across the country, softball is an essential lifeline.
According to the International Senior Softball Association, there are 5,000 teams of players 50 and older in the United States, about 1,800 of them competing in tournaments.
Many of those tournaments have continued to draw dedicated athletes throughout the past year. In late January the World Tournament of Champions, co-sponsored by I.S.S.A. and played in Tampa, Fla., drew 172 teams.
“The virus stuff is out there, and we still managed to get it up to 172,” said RB Thomas Jr., 79, executive director of the I.S.SA.
On my dad’s team in Boston, the catchers, batters and umpires are required to wear masks, and players must use only their own bats. But, as my father pointed out, “that seems strange, since we’re all handling the ball.”
In Florida, though, the vast majority of players go maskless. The laxity has had consequences: The league has officially shut down three times for two weeks, because players tested positive.
When I watched a game in Boca Raton in early January, few players were wearing masks, though my father kept one on the whole game.
Baseball was an escape, but talk of the virus still circulated around the bases.
“You get the vaccine?”
“I keep trying, but every time I go to the website it crashes.”
“The Democrats are keeping the vaccine for political reasons.”
“That’s a conspiracy theory!”
Then there was movement on home plate. “I need a runner!” yelled batter Carl Slutz, who at 86 is one of the league’s oldest players. It was a good day for Slutz (“It’s pronounced ‘Slootz,’” he stressed). If he got a hit in this at-bat, he would be 5 for 5.
“It’s been a long time since that happened,” he said.
He smacked a grounder. His pinch-runner landed on first base, but another player was forced out at second. Slutz flipped up his palms. “That’s the way it goes,” he said.
My father was up next. He swung. Striiiiike. Another strike. Two balls. Finally, the bat slapped the ball with a thwack, and he trotted to first. The bases were loaded.
“Nice one, Sy!” his teammates called.
My father has always been athletic. Trophies from the 1950s onward line the shelves in my parents’ den: ones for soccer, tennis, basketball, baseball, Ping-Pong. The best day of his life, I suspect, was not when any of his children were born but when he got a hole in one in golf.
“He can run, he can hit. He’s a really good fielder,” said his friend and teammate Rich Bloom, 73, who manages and umpires in the EMass league and also umpires and plays in Florida. “Some guys, you can see that they never played when they were kids.”
Not my dad.
Playing sports has centered him for the past eight decades. He has been voted the most valuable player a few times. He was out on the field the day after one of the worst moments in his life, when my sister died. The camaraderie and oxygen were more critical than ever. Besides, what good would staying home have done?
“It’s not going to change anything,” he said. “I didn’t play well, let’s just say that.”
It reminded me of something Neil Lewis, 87, one of the Golden Years’ commissioners, told me last year. “When you get old, if you just lay around and watch TV you’ll go to hell, in plain English,” he said. “You’ve got to keep your mind going.”
A few months later, Lewis suffered a debilitating stroke.
On this Monday morning, my dad’s team won, 17-11, moving into first place. The playoffs are scheduled for April; God willing, they will actually happen this year. Hopefully, everyone will make it.
But it’s a weird thing, watching the infallible falter. Bloom recalled the time my father ran for a pop-up and his hearing aid fell out of his ear. The game stopped while everyone searched for it.
“We got 12 guys looking for the hearing aid on the dirt ground,” Bloom recalled. “A guy goes, ‘I got it!’ I’m thinking, ‘Now, that’s good teamwork.’”
As a child, I went to almost all of my father’s games, but as an adult I hadn’t seen him play much. In my head, he is still zipping around the bases like a young Carl Yastrzemski. (Of course, in my head, I’m still 10.) When you don’t have children, one of the few ways to witness the passage of time is by watching your parents age. Compared with other guys his age, my dad is in great shape. And yet.
A couple of years ago, he injured his thumb, then his wrist. His shoulders hurt. One of his knees is missing cartilage. Without his hearing aid, the world would be silent. His memory is shoddy, and he knows it. He is wiped out after a tough game — especially if there is a doubleheader.
My father estimates his batting average is around .400, but he’s not sure. And it doesn’t matter. “Some managers keep statistics, some don’t,” he said. “I don’t care. What for?
“You do your best. It’s not important. Keeping active and playing is important.”