It’s Never Too Late to Play Ball
For these 60- to 80-somethings, age is no barrier to playing the game they love
The Cubs won the World Series last fall and their oldest player, “Grandpa” David Ross, retired at the ripe old age of 39. Meanwhile, actual west suburban grandpas twice his age are still playing softball three mornings a week.
This, however, is no ballgame for “old” men.
People who walk by with a dog or a stroller often stop to watch as the mostly 60-somethings through 80-somethings play two-hour-long games at Naperville’s Gartner Park.
Teams are chosen after players show up Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 10 a.m. from April to October for the 12-inch, fast-pitch games, played with mitts … and practicality.
“If you don’t move so well, you’re a first baseman. If you have a sore or weak arm, second base. Those who can still run are outfielders and stronger arms are shortstop or third base,” says Rich Fleming, 71.
Each team includes someone who can pitch; players with physical limitations are distributed somewhat equally. The “very inclusive group” includes skill levels from “really good” to “not so good,” but most have some organized ball in their past.
Players umpire themselves. “We do have a lot of calls that people complain about, a couple of guys who get overzealous about the call, but in five minutes everyone has forgotten and realizes there are close plays,” says Fleming.
Of course, many of the player/umps in these games actually are, ahem, a little vision compromised.
Eighty registered players are from Naperville, Woodridge, Sugar Grove, Batavia, Joliet and New Lenox. Fleming recently moved to Warrenville.
“Not too many other park districts offer this,” says Fleming.
The league’s email list has 100 players, some who no longer live in the area and others who can’t play anymore, but all of whom still like to “hear what’s going on.”
“Some of the news isn’t happy, like when someone’s wife dies,” says Fleming. “But they get letters and cards of condolences. Some of us go to the funeral home.”
Players watch out for each other on the field, too.
“If someone’s having a tough time, we tell them to sit down and get in the shade. We’ve had some emergencies — six years ago we had a heart attack on the field. The police department had just put on a CPR class and one guy gave CPR in the outfield until emergency personnel could come.”
The Naperville Senior Softball League was started 20 years ago by Fred Ynestad, after he retired from teaching and from coaching baseball at Naperville Central and softball at Naperville North. Wintering in Florida in 1994, he signed up to play softball in a league there. “It felt great,” so he and teammate George Pappas decided to start a league when they returned home.
“I put an ad in the paper and we got three people,” he says. “It gradually grew — the guys just kept coming. I was out of the house three days a week and then we’d go to lunch — it was great camaraderie.”
Ynestad, 84, with new knees and a recent ankle surgery, didn’t play last summer but hopes to get to the field this season. “I’m still on the roster,” says the former Maywood Recreation League player.
Back in the day, “We’d ride our bikes to the field with our bats on our handlebars. Afterward, we’d go to Prince Castle,” recalls Ynestad, who played baseball at Proviso East, in college and the Army.
Fleming, who now runs the senior league, joined in 2005 after retiring, though he hadn’t played baseball since his Navy days. “My wife encouraged me to do it, to get out of the house,” he says, a familiar theme emerging.
“What makes this group is the quality of the people you’re playing with — guys and ladies — three women play with us who are in their 50s and just as good as some of the guys,” says Fleming.
The games, he adds, are competitive.
“But when we get in the car to go home no one cares who won — you have the same aches and pains and the same stories as the other guys have got.”
Players have various backgrounds — they’re former pharmacists and engineers, executives and teachers, car dealership owners and lawyers. Softball games made them teammates … and friends.Edit Module