Growing up in the 1960s, when baseball mattered to kids more than today, I worshiped the stars of the day — Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax.
At 62, I have a new slate of heroes — including Del Drake, Jim Johnson and Mike Lancaster of the White Sox. Not those White Sox. I’m referring to three of my White Sox teammates on the senior softball team (for those 60 or older) in Meridian.
“It gives you some of your youth back,” said the 67-year-old Johnson, who worked 34 years with the Department of Water Resources. “It’s like going back to playing like a kid again.”
Johnson makes my list of heroes, because he’s probably the best athlete on the team and he’s more than willing to help the “rookies” (such as me). He’s getting both knees replaced, but hopes to return “better than ever” next year.
I like what Johnson says about playing like a kid again, because that’s what motivated me to play senior softball this year. I remember those wonderful summer days of baseball cards, Little League and Babe Ruth baseball. I had success in adult softball leagues, playing almost anywhere in the field and getting my share of hits. So the question I had entering the season was, did I still have it?
The answer was a resounding, “No.” In general, I found that I can’t hit, field or throw worth a lick, and judging a fly ball — which was so easy at age 12 — is almost impossible at 62. That’s what 16 years of not playing softball can do to an old geezer like me.
But as the season progressed, I realized that senior softball was not about how many hits I get, errors I make or team wins (the White Sox finished the fall league at 3-8, last place). It’s about being around people with incredible outlooks on life. The atmosphere, especially in the dugout, is no different than when I was playing softball in my 20s.
“This is something I’ve done my whole life and enjoyed,” said Lancaster, our 65-year-old pitcher and the team’s most fierce competitor. “People look at our ages, but I figure that as long as I can play, then why not?”
Lancaster, a retired barber, definitely plays to win. If a player makes a mental mistake, such as poor base running, he’ll let you know it. He’s more forgiving on the physical errors.
“The problem is being able to accept the fact your body won’t do what your mind tells it,” he said. “All you can do is laugh. In the end it’s too many years and too many beers.”
We all can thank the 74-year-old Drake for that experience. He started senior softball in Boise in 1998 with one team. He since went to Meridian, where there are three leagues and 15 teams.
“I’ve seen people who have had knees replaced. There are three or four who are 80-year-olds and six or seven who had open-heart surgeries,” Drake said. “We call them the zipper club.”
That’s my kind of club; I had open-heart surgery eight years ago.
“There’s not a person who thinks he’s old,” said Drake, who still slides into a base on close plays. “If you go by the numbers, we’re all old, but none of us go by the numbers. Skills become diminished, and especially after 70, but we’re lucky to be playing.”
That’s why Del is one of my heroes. There are so many guys his age, and even mine, who wish they could play.
Chuck Malloy is the Statesman’s editorial page assistant.