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My Turn: Later innings, but still in the game

A onetime stickball player on the streets of

A onetime stickball player on the streets of Brooklyn, Jack “Pepi” Pepitone of West Hempstead started playing senior softball after he retired in 2000, and he continues to enjoy it. (May 1, 2013) Credit: Handout

I was born and grew up in Brooklyn on a street lined with apartment houses on one side and vacant lots on the other. Our neighborhood was called East New York, and in the late '40s and early '50s we played stick ball or punch ball in the street and baseball in the lots.

How we had fashioned a "baseball field" among a mass of rocks and tall weeds was an acknowledgment to our passion for playing ball. When a baseball cover would loosen and fall off, we'd wrap white adhesive tape around the inner core so we could continue playing -- year round, in all kinds of weather.

After graduation from high school, I continued playing baseball, and although I was pretty good, I was not talented enough to pursue it further. My grades got me into a city college, where I majored in accounting. Some years after college, I married, moved to the suburbs, raised two children and worked into my 60s.

In the summer of 1999, I was 63 and working on Long Island. One day, I decided to have lunch in a nearby park where a softball game was being played.

As I approached the field to watch, I could tell something was different. The players were "old guys" shouting and playing with amazing intensity and competitiveness. I had discovered the world of senior softball.

I retired the following year, and after making some inquiries, I found that there were more than 20 teams comprising a softball league called the Long Island Senior Softball Association (LISSA). There were more than 500 players, all at least 60 years old. The teams were split into four divisions, but Division 5 also had been created for players 68 and older.

A few weeks later, I saw an ad in the local paper that read "Looking for players for Senior Softball." I called and spoke with the team manager, who told me to come to the ballfield the next day for a "tryout." I had not played ball competitively for more than 30 years. Although I was in fairly good condition, how would my body hold up? What if I couldn't make the team?

My wife, sensing my anxiety, asked, "Are they going to pay you to play?" I said, this is for fun. "Well," she said, "if you don't make the team, I have some fun things that need to be done around the house."

The next day, I arrived while the teams were warming up. The manager gave me a quick look and asked what position I played and when was the last time I had played competitively. "I play the infield, but I haven't played for a long time," I said.

He told me to go to second base, adding, "Buy yourself a pair of spikes if you want to play in this league; no sneakers." I trotted over to second, and he hit me a few ground balls, which I fielded cleanly. He seemed pleased and said, "OK, go over to where the guys are hitting and take a few swings."

As I approached the group, all eyes turned in my direction. What was wrong? Was it the sneakers? The manager yelled, "Let him hit a few balls."

With all these guys watching, was I going to make a fool of myself? I picked up a bat and took a few practice swings. The pitcher threw the ball toward the plate in a high arc. It seemed like it would never reach me. Please God, let me at least make contact.

As the ball reached home plate, my swing just barely hit the top of the ball, and it rolled slowly in front of the pitcher. Oh no, I thought, I've got to do better than that. Fortunately, after the next few swings, I was able to make better contact, and soon I was hitting the ball on a line to the outfield.

"Pretty good," the manager said. "I'll get you on the roster so you can be eligible to play next week, and I'll have a team shirt and hat for you."

I did it, I made the team! On the day of the game, I arrived at the field for practice. My manager introduced me to the players, and I sensed a less-than-friendly reception from some of them. After practice, the teams assembled to their dugouts, and our manager announced the lineup. I was starting the first game and playing second base!

One of the players approached me and said, "Listen, fella, I got nothing against you, but I've been on this team for the last eight years, and it's not right for him to put a new guy in the lineup and sit some of us older guys."

I asked his age. He was 72 -- older than most players in Division 1. "But the teams all want to win so bad they are always looking for younger guys, like you," he said. Now it was clear. The uneasiness I had sensed from the players was the threat of being sent to a lower division and replaced by the new and younger versions of what they had been before age lessened their abilities -- but not their will and desire to keep playing a game they loved.

The player explained that Divisions 1 and 2 had the strongest teams, so as the younger guys entered the league most of the older guys would "drop down" to Divisions 3 or 4. Eventually, guys just give up playing or end up in Division 5 where some guys are in their 80s, "but the level of play is not so good. . . . It's pretty much the last stop," the player said.

The game was ready to begin, so I wished him well, and I ran to second base thinking: 80-year-olds -- I could be playing forever!

By the end of the 2011 season, I had been in the league for 11 years playing in Division 1. However, now at 75 and playing against mostly 60-year-olds, balls were slipping under my glove or through my legs. My batting average started to fall, and any power to hit the long ball had diminished. I found myself wondering when I would be told to move on.

Over the years, I had observed managers using various techniques to accomplish this. There was the direct method: "We can't guarantee you any playing time this year." The more subtle approach was, "We decided that you only have to pay half of the $100 player fee this year."

I wanted to make a graceful exit and leave on my own terms. I approached the manager and said, "I'm finding it more difficult to compete in this division, so I think I am going to move down to one of the lower divisions." With obvious relief, he said I should play in Division 5.

"You'll be one of the best players in that division."

That wasn't what I had in mind, but after some thought, I joined Division 5 last year. Although I found the level of play slower, the players showed the same competitiveness and desire to win as their younger counterparts. Our team missed winning the division by one game but came in first in the playoffs. I was one of the players picked by my teammates to play in the All-Star game.

As my 78th year approaches, I question how long I can play this game I love. But I am determined to stay as long as I am able. That same attitude is expressed by fellow players. They inspire and support me to keep going.

Perhaps we are all longing to recapture part of our youth and imagine we are like those kids playing on the lots of East New York so long ago.

Jack (Pepi) Pepitone,West Hempstead

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