Back in 2013, Baldwin resident Carlos Torruella was riding his bike when he stopped at a park where a bunch of people were wearing team shirts and playing softball.
“I’m watching the game and thinking back to when I used to play ball and wondering whether I could hit,” recalled the retired Greyhound bus maintenance supervisor and father of five grown children. At the time, he hadn’t played softball for more than 30 years because of work and family obligations.
Learning that the players were members of the Long Island Senior Softball Association, a league for the 60-and-over set, Torruella approached the team manager for an application. Two weeks later, he was on the field, batting up.
But in the era of COVID-19, his love of the game, including the thrill of “getting a home run or making a winning hit,” has taken a backseat to his health concerns. A diabetic, Torruella, 74, said he was all set to play in the New York Senior Softball Association, a coed league for ages 68 and over often referred to as the “over-70 league,” until his doctor advised him to sit out the season.
“I’m missing it terribly, but I want to stay healthy to play next year and the years to follow,” he said.
Although many of Long Island’s senior softball players were gratified to return to the game this month, the pandemic has broadly impacted the sport.
Despite the delayed start, revised field permits and a raft of measures to keep players, as well as spectators, safe (see sidebar), more than 650 senior athletes aren’t playing this summer — either voluntarily or involuntarily, according to estimates by league executives.
Some longtime players, fearing their vulnerability to COVID-19 because of their age or underlying health conditions, are opting to watch the games from the sidelines. In other instances, leagues lacking enough players to fill the same number of teams as last year have been forced to turn away willing participants — unless the athletes could assemble their own teams.
At NYSSA, which plays in Nassau County but accepts applications from throughout the state, 90 of its 140 registered members have signed on to play in the 2020 season, and 12 new participants have joined the fold. Still, the league is down to six teams from eight, said NYSSA Commissioner Joe Ditaranto, 82, a Bayside, Queens, resident who formerly served as a senior vice president at Marsh Inc.
POPS (Past Our Prime Softball), a league for men from over 40 to over 60 in age, has experienced about a 20% decrease in its number of players, from 500 to about 400. This decline is mostly because its revised permit schedule extended its playing season from Aug. 31 to Oct. 31 — and other athletic groups have long-standing permits for the ballfields that POPS used in the past. Consequently, the league, with fewer spaces to play, had to turn away seven teams. On top of that, two additional POPS teams opted not to play because of COVID-19 concerns, said POPS founder and East Atlantic Beach resident Dr. Keith Pastuch, 66, a retired chiropractor who formerly owned a sports rehabilitation center in Hicksville.
Because of the coronavirus and its high risk to seniors, the Town of Brookhaven has canceled the playing season for its two senior leagues — one comprising 18 teams for ages 60 and over, the other five teams for ages 65 and over, said Port Jefferson Station resident Pete Eaton, 77, the town’s program director and softball supervisor. In all, the decision impacts about 365 players.
Brookhaven’s senior games, which aren’t limited to residents and include Huntington and Smithtown teams, ordinarily start in May and culminate at the end in August “because many of our players head to Florida in September,” Eaton added.
Until COVID-19 struck, more than 1,400 older adults regularly played senior-only softball on Long Island, according to players’ estimates. The region is home to more than 12 leagues, including Caledonia Senior Softball, the Over the Hill Gang and Sayville Senior Softball. Men represent the majority of players, even on coed teams.
As in the past, work schedules and household and family responsibilities dictate players’ game participation, but they tend to play anywhere from one to five weekly league and pickup games, including doubleheaders twice a week.
“When players pull a muscle, they have a short recovery time because of the doubleheaders, and it can be rough — unless there’s a rainout,” said LISSA Commissioner Joe Pellechi, 73, who played three years in the Detroit Tigers minor league system. A Westbury resident, Pellechi is a retired area service manager at communications technology firm Avaya.
Down 50% for national tourney
A range of factors influences each league’s prices, including the frequency of an individual’s participation, the amount, if any, local municipalities subsidize senior games and whether the group pays for umpires and to use ballfields. As a result, player outlays usually run anywhere from $5 for a single game to a $100 for membership.
The groups also vary in how they choose players. LISSA requires an application and driver’s license for proof of age, although it gives no guarantee of actual playing time; each team’s manager has the final say in who plays, Pellechi said.
NYSSA, on the other hand, assesses older athletes in five categories — hitting, hitting for power, fielding, throwing and running — to help managers select team rosters. Those who haven’t been drafted land on the waiting list.
Nationwide, senior softball scores about 1.2 million players today, compared to about 700 two decades ago, estimated Terry Hennessy, CEO of Senior Softball-USA, a Sacramento, California-based organization that writes the game’s rule book and sanctions tournaments, championships and leagues, including on Long Island.
Like Long Island leagues, the national group isn’t immune to the pandemic’s impact. Courtesy of COVID-19-induced travel angst, Senior Softball-USA is forecasting participation to plummet 50% — from 650 teams last year to 325 at its upcoming Las Vegas tournament, slated to run from Sept. 17 to Oct. 4, Hennessy said.
Still, with many of the country’s local parks having reopened, “we’re hearing that players are thankful they can get back on the field,” Hennessey noted, adding that he has personally returned to the diamond, and “it felt great to chase the fly balls and hit the line drives.”
The chance to re-experience those kinds of triumphant moments fuels many Long Island seniors’ desire to get back into the swing of things. Pandemic or no pandemic.
Farmingdale resident Bill Hoffman, 74, has returned to playing about two games a week — despite his wife’s wishes to the contrary. Hoffman, a retired CBS/Viacom director of payroll accounting and tax compliance who is now the assistant field manager and communications manager for the Boys of Summer, a year-round senior softball group, believes the game’s social-distancing rules help to minimize the virus’ risk to players.
“I’m closer to other customers when I go shopping than I am to my fellow ballplayers,” Hoffman said.
Bonding on the ballfield
For many of Long Island’s senior athletes, their ball playing days date to their youth — when summers were either spent playing ball on Long Island’s sand lots or stickball on the city’s asphalt.
As grown-ups, some continued to play softball on corporate and community leagues or in weekend pickup games. Others took a break from adult softball but coached their kids’ Little League teams.
These days, arthritis, cataracts, diabetes, coronary stents and hip and knee replacements remind many of their advancing age. But their enduring enthusiasm for playing softball and the friendships it has fostered go a long way toward keeping thoughts of aging at bay — at least on the field and during informal postgame pizza parties and lunches at coffee and bagel shops.
North Merrick resident Patricia Klammer, 76, had back surgery in 2017 and returned to the ballfield 14 months later. And although a recent circular-saw accident has left her with an injured — albeit healing — hand, the retired high school physical education teacher hopes to be back on the ballfield in September.
A regular player in NYSSA, the Boys of Summer and travel tournaments, such as the Huntsman Senior Games in Utah, Klammer said that her motivations for returning to softball run the gamut — from her competitive streak to the good feeling that comes with being with people who share her passion.
“I’m hooked,” Klammer said.
According to Roslyn psychologist Gayle Berg, group games — whether softball, canasta or mah-jongg — provide multiple mental health benefits.
“Shared activities stave off social isolation, and as we age, they inoculate us against loneliness by giving structure to a day and a social network” of longtime and new friends, Berg said.
To that end, athletes recently supported one another in mourning. The Boys of Summer’s opening game began with a minute of silence to remember four people who died this year — a player and his wife, both from COVID-19, and the wives of two other league mates who died of other causes. And not long ago, to convey their sympathies to his family, POPS’ members created a car caravan to the home of an individual who had died from the coronavirus and had been a director, manager and player.
“We consider ourselves a brotherhood,” Pastuch said.
Beyond fostering supportive friendships, team sports can provide physical benefits, including improving and maintaining bone health and balance. They can also increase testosterone levels, which strengthen muscle development and help the libido, enabling seniors to be sexually active with less medication, said Dr. Russell F. Camhi, a Northwell Health sports medicine specialist who serves as assistant professor at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell and head team physician for Hofstra University athletics.
The game has its sore points, however. Repetitive motions can lead to rotator cuff tendinitis and a further progression of osteoarthritis, particularly in the hips and knees.
“It’s important to choose the right volume of participation, based on medical conditions,” Camhi advised, “and check with your doctor before doing any new activity.”
Beyond recent regulations to protect players from COVID-19, various senior-only leagues have long had play-it-safe rules, including using softballs with softer casings and no colliding. And while many senior leagues play seven-inning doubleheaders twice a week, POPS reduces the possibility of injuries with a nine-inning game once a week, Pastuch said.
Still, sprains, breaks and falls happen — regardless of a player’s age.
About 25 years ago, while playing in a non-age-restricted league, Franklin Square resident John Ferro, 74, said he broke his foot sliding into second base. And then just two years later, he broke his leg running into the catcher.
“I started that summer in a wheelchair and my wife said, ‘You’re done,’” recalled Ferro, who serves as the Boys of Summer treasurer.
But imbued with an everlasting affinity for the sport, the retired CPA and former CFO of a commodities company has continued to play.
“When I get on that field,” Ferro said, “I’m 18 again, especially in the spring when you get outside and smell the freshly cut grass.”
Senior softball leagues have come up with new rules during the pandemic to keep players and spectators healthy and safe — before, during and in-between games. Here are examples:
• Players must maintain social distancing before and after games and, whenever possible, during them.
• Players and coaches must stay six feet from one another in the dugout.
• Foul territory can be used in-between innings for players to sit six feet apart.
• Players must use their own bats and not share equipment with each other or with coaches.
• Spitting is prohibited.
• Softballs must be kept in their original packaging until they enter the game.
• Masks or face shields are recommended for players and coaches during games but are required between games.
• Handshakes, high-fives, hugs and elbow and fist bumps are prohibited with teammates and opposing players in favor of tipping caps or saying, “Good game.”
• Managers must provide their team with hand sanitizer.
• Spectators must maintain six feet of social distance during games, are recommended to wear masks and requested to bring their own chairs (bleachers are reserved for players).