HOOKER OAK FIELD, CHICO, CALIFORNIA.
It's mid-February and the Boys of Summer have started to arrive. The air is filled with the crisp sound of leather slapping leather and the solid clack as bat and ball collide. There are also the gentle groans when muscles grown atrophied during the short winter months are summoned to perform once again and the snap of elastic as prosthetic devices are applied to knees, elbows and ankles. But mostly the air is filled with friendly voices; lots of "howdys" and "good-to-see-yas". They've invited me to play with them even though I'm 59 years old. They know I have the same love of the game as they do and differences in age hardly matter when full-fledged passion is in force. These guys aren't ever going to be in the major leagues or even the minor leagues, but still they play with all their heart and soul. For many of them, just walking upright, being able to swing a bat and the having the ability to snag a lazy fly ball is enough. Welcome to Senior Softball.
Here in Chico, softball is a religion. The field is the cathedral; the players the parishioners and the umpire is the high priest judging right and wrong. From my perspective there is every bit as much praying on a softball field as there is in any house of worship. Probably more. There are dozens of teams in this town of 80,000. The teams are slotted into Church, leagues, City leagues and Senior leagues. For the truly addicted, there are traveling teams that go to venues throughout the state and into the far corners of the West every weekend from late February to early November. I'm on a traveling team, a Rotary team in the City league and a Senior team, which, in a terribly clever marketing coup, is sponsored by a local funeral home.
Today I've decided to enjoy the unseasonably warm February temperatures and take an extended lunch hour (I am self-employed after all) and see if anyone is over at Hooker Oak Field. Maybe I'll get a chance to hit a few balls and shag some flies. When I get there a few minutes after noon it appears that an AARP bus has jettisoned the entire upper division of Chico's Senior softball league. 76-year-old Gene is there with his easy smile and tricky underhand knuckleball. Al, who, as the result of a stroke, only has one fully functioning eye, is experimenting with new ways of judging distance without the use of three-dimensional vision. Gil, who has stripped to the waist to soak up the sun and add another shade to his already leathery-brown skin, has just announced that this is only a practice game for Christsakes and he's not running beyond first base. A voice from the outfield chides him saying, "You haven't made it to second base since 1983." The truth is, of course, that Gil can out-run most 40-year-olds. But softball practice wouldn't be right if everyone was civil and polite. A certain amount of elder abuse is required to keep things lively.
In a few short weeks winter will be over and April, with its promise of warm sunny days. will signal the beginning of a new season. The old men will take the field once again with their freshly laundered team jerseys sporting their very own number. Their steps are a bit quicker, because practice is over and even the most fun-loving players have a serious look on their faces. They are on the field of dreams; the field of their fathers; they are "between the lines" and there are rules and traditions that need to be honored. And for that moment they are not senior citizens, golden agers or old-timers. Look into their eyes and you'll see a ten-year-old boy with an expectant life of hope and adventure. There's queasiness in his stomach, because he knows he's on stage and this is IMPORTANT. As they trot on the field, look closely, and one by one you'll see the Boys of Summer turn around and scan the bleachers. They'll see their wives and friends and the curious passers-by. But mostly they are looking to see if mom and dad are there to see the first game of the game of the year. They are.