Major League Too
Boys of Winter Try to Recapture Their Summer
But unlike most casual, recreational ball players, Edelson isn't on a softball team. He plays hardball, baseball, the real thing. Along with about 600 other people in the Baltimore and Washington areas, Edelson belongs to the Ponce de León Baseball League, an organization that gives anyone over 30, regardless of their ability (or lack of it), a chance to play the same game the big-leaguers do.
"It's more physical than softball--you can slide, you can steal," Edelson says. "And you can pretend you're better than you are."
Gerry Babbitt had been running kids' baseball camps for three years when he founded the Ponce de León league in 1986. "I thought, Gee, I'd like to play some baseball, but I don't want to play on a high-competitive level," Babbitt says. He placed an ad in a suburban Washington newspaper and attracted about 40 men who felt the same way. "When we started, we called it the 30-plus league. The second year, some guy said, ‘You know, this is like the Fountain of Youth.' Hence the Ponce de León league," after the Spanish explorer said to have searched for the mythical Fountain of Youth in the early 16th century.
The league's Baltimore division, which has eight teams and about 120 players, has games Sunday mornings at various fields in Baltimore County. "The whole concept of the league is to play real baseball, but we have two very distinct rules that are designed to have what's known as a level playing field," Babbit says. "In this league, you cannot pitch until you're 36. [League officials say they check pitchers' ID cards.] That cuts the velocity down, and as a result everybody gets a much better opportunity to hit the ball. And number two: We have no standings. Each game stands on its own. Everybody doesn't come out here saying, ‘We're 1-1, we're 1-2. Who's going to win the championship?' We don't have to worry about that." And to assure that everyone plays, the league mandates that no player may sit out for more than one inning at a time.
Some players, such as Tom LaGrave, the league's Baltimore-area director, played ball professionally (he was a pitcher in the Atlanta Braves' farm system in the late '70s). Some, such as transplanted Brit Peter Bentley, have never played the game before. (LaGrave says Bentley has gone through a "trial by fire. . . . It was a challenge for him to pick up a game in his mid-30s that other guys have grown up playing.")
Women are allowed to join Ponce de León, and the league has had a few, including left fielder and pitcher Joyce Codd. The 40-year-old says she was chosen two years ago for a pro all-women team that was being put together in Europe, but it couldn't find a sponsor. So she joined Ponce de León instead.
"There are some guys who have a problem with me being there," Codd says. "But once they see me play, they soften up. I love the game. I don't want to play softball." She is currently sidelined with a shoulder injury but plans to play again this summer.
The league has three separate "seasons": spring, summer, and fall. Joining isn't cheap, compared to most recreational-softball leagues: the cost is $120 per season, and new players must buy their own uniforms (at about $90). But unlike competitive leagues, the time commitment is small. There are no practices; players just show up each Sunday for a nine-inning game.
During a pre-spring-season workout at Cardinal Gibbons High School, LaGrave tries to ease the concerns of two guys who aren't sure they're good enough to play. "Put your fears aside," he says. "No one's going to laugh at you if you drop a ball." He assures the 40 or so men on hand that "everyone who signs up has made the team. This is not a tryout."
"This is not a blood-and-guts baseball league," he adds. "It's designed [for players] to have a lot of fun."
Nelson Parker, 35, is among those at the workout who are short on confidence. He hasn't played baseball since high school, and he's not sure whether he'll join the league. "I wanted to see how good or bad I am," he says.
Like Parker, 43-year-old Bob Brill hasn't played for about 20 years, but "spring fever" has brought him out today. During batting practice the lefty whiffs at a few pitches, then slaps a sharp liner down the first-base line. A couple of pitches later he launches one over the right fielder's head. "Nice hitting," someone yells. Brill is also unsure whether he'll sign up for the league, but not because he's uncomfortable about his skills. "Everybody's on the same level here," he says. The problem: He needs permission from his wife.
"You play softball for a few years, and then you lose interest in that," says 40-year-old pitcher Jack Kelly after retiring his arm for the day. Kelly, who says he throws about 70 mph on a good day, says that after he'd been playing softball for two decades, the young guys "passed me by."
"I thoroughly enjoy" playing in Ponce de León, he says. "It's laid-back."
"Even if you might suck, nobody gives you a hard time," Pikesville resident Edelson says while packing up his gear after the workout. In his three seasons in the league, he says, he's only encountered a couple of "assholes"--players who take it too seriously. And they didn't hang around very long.
Even during the end-of-season tournament, the only games that "count," the competitiveness does not increase much, Edelson says. The players might be somewhat more intense, he says, but that's mostly because "you want to keep playing. You want to keep the little fantasy going."
A lot of these guys would not be able to play and compete" in a competitive-baseball league, LaGrave says as he scans the field at Harry Grove Stadium, the home of the Frederick Keys, the Orioles' Class A farm team. The Ponce de León League has obtained use of the facility for an entire Saturday in late April to give its players a chance to play in a pro ballpark.
About 140 participants have been assigned at random to rotating squads for the Blue and Gray teams. It's not a tournament; as with regular-season games, winning means nothing. But the thrill of playing baseball where the big boys do means everything.
"These guys are just ecstatic over it," LaGrave says. "It's great."
"Geezers living out their dream," Gray player Kirk Geary says in a mock TV-news voice after spotting a reporter in the dugout. "No film at 11."
About 40 spectators dot the stands for an evening game, which starts promptly at 5:40 p.m. even though the umpire is not quite ready to go. He gets there a few pitches into the first inning. Not that it matters--every toss so far has been well out of the strike zone. The batter eventually gets one to hit and pops it up behind home plate. The catcher gets off slowly and fails to reach the ball. "Good try," a teammate yells.
Only nine players have shown up for the Gray team, which means no one has to sit at all. They rotate positions from inning to inning. "I've played on church softball teams that are cutthroat," Gary Carr says amid the click-clack of metal spikes on the dugout's cement floor. "But this is fun."
The announcer makes up nicknames for the batters: "Killer" Kirk Geary, John "J.T. Hollywood" Taylor, Garry "Go-Go" Reese" (who is the most animated of the Gray players; he yells, "Fuck!" in disgust after striking out with two runners on early in the game). The game is scoreless until the third inning, when Blue puts a run on the board. Later the same inning a ball-four pitch sails past the head of Blue batter Joe Best of Catonsville and gets by the catcher, allowing a runner on third to score. Best goes on to score a third run (the maximum allowed in an inning today; usually six are permitted) on an infield single. The Grays battle back with one run in their half of the third.
"Most adults think in terms of softball," says Tim Ferguson, a state senator (R-Carroll and Frederick counties) playing on the Gray team. In his third season with Ponce de León, Ferguson says he hopes the league will attract more grownups to baseball. "I hated softball," Geary chimes in. "The ball's too big."
By the fifth inning the Blues have added three more runs and the Grays have pushed a second run across the plate. Blue 6, Gray 2. "Come on, let's get some runs this inning," a Gray player yells at the start of the fifth, but to no avail; the Blues' 53-year-old pitcher, Don Frisby--a dermatologist by day, and the Baltimore division's oldest player--retires the Grays in order. "He's got a very good curve that breaks outside," a Gray batter says after striking out. "It's very good. I wasn't ready for that."
But Gray scores three off of Frisby in the sixth to pull within one. Blue manager Babbit, visiting the enemy dugout, offers encouragement: "Gray is not out of this yet."
In their final at bat, still down a run, the Grays get a man on--the lead-off batter walks, putting the tying run on base. He then takes second on a passed ball and steals third. "Come on, Gray team," the third-base coach yells. The next batter, Mike Reese, walks too, bringing his brother Gary to the plate. A long fly ball to left field gets the Gray players on their feet, but the ball goes foul. Reese works the count full. "He's gotta pitch to you," a teammate yells from the dugout, clapping his hands. But Reese strikes out swinging, then flips his bat to the ground and watches it tumble end over end. The next batter pops out, and Mike Reese is caught off of first base and doubled up, ending the rally and the contest. "What a way to end the game," a disappointed Gray says in the dugout as his teammates climb onto the field to congratulate the victors. A couple of kids ask for autographs from the players, who seem more than happy to oblige.
In the first inning of the day's final game, with the stadium lights now on, pitcher Dan Peightel, 37, of Halethorpe gives up a lead-off home run over the ad-plastered left-field wall. Later in the inning a runner steals second without a throw from the catcher. "It takes a while to get these guys' wheelchairs goin'," a spectator says. But Peightel prevents further damage in the inning, and he catches a pop up for the last out.
"I played softball, but it's not as challenging," Peightel says from the dugout, as teammate Mat "The Equalizer" Edelson flies out to left field. Regardless of how good you are, Peightel points out, you will have your share of failures in hardball. "Baseball beats everyone."
Peightel tried out for the baseball team three of the four years he attended Mount St. Joseph High School but never made it--good-field, no-hit, he says. Now, in the Ponce de León League, it doesn't matter.
"When you go out there, it feels like you're playing for real. You know it's not. You know it's geriatric Little League. But you play like it's real. I think everyone in this league does." n
For information about joining the Ponce de León Baseball League, call (410) 531-9434.
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