Thursday, August 20, 2015

Senior Softball: Where 14-year-olds play alongside 88-year-olds

By Trevor Hass

ALAMEDA – An 85-year old man sits at a picnic table at Tillman Park munching on some baseball peanuts on a gorgeous Monday morning in the middle of August. 

He’s wearing the same outfit he does every week – a worn-out sweatshirt and sweatpants, a pair of snazzy shades, New Balance shoes and an Oakland A’s hat.

He’s been coming here, playing Senior Softball, since 1991 – before I was born.

Sam Wales, the umpire, pauses before he shares who’s older than he is here. He can’t quite remember at first.

“Jack’s got me beat,” he says. “He’s 86 now. I’m 85. Forgot about Jack.”

Meet Jack Moore. He’s the man. He was recently honored on the big screen at the A’s game on his 86th birthday for being a long-time season ticket holder.

I haven’t found official rankings anywhere, but Jack just might be the best slow-pitch softball southpaw in the state of the California. He’s come here nearly every Monday for 10 years, and he pitches essentially every time.

“Oh, I don’t miss days,” Jack says, looking me right in the eye. “Every Monday. Maybe I was sick once.”

Jack’s been known to wear a Bras & Mattos hat, but on this particular day he’s sporting an emerald green Explore Idaho shirt.

He points out all of his protégés. There’s Barry, who asked Jack how to improve his stance. Jack molded Warren into a consistent line-drive hitter. Then there’s “Big Ed,” as Jack calls him, who Jack is determined to turn into a first baseman.

If you need help on the softball field, Jack’s your guy. He’s been doing this for decades and he knows a thing or two about hitting.

It’s a few minutes before first pitch and everyone’s mingling and laughing, as usual. Yeawa Asabi, a 17-year-old from San Leandro, chats with her grandma, 64-year-old Yvonne “Maxie” Wayne, an Oakland resident who has been coming here for three years. Walter McQuesten, a charismatic, well-traveled, vivacious man who graciously lent me his 1983 Mercedes-Benz earlier in the summer, converses with Charlie Wanczyk about a mutual friend they have from decades ago.

It’s just like any other Monday. The beauty of California is that the weather almost never gets in the way. This has been going on for decades, in the same place, with many of the same people.

It doesn’t matter how old you are. Dick Bellefeuille, a spunky outfielder with some pop at the plate, once brought his middle-school aged grandson Jared. I’ve brought my friends Oliver and Jake, and one of my best friends Joe will play next week. They don’t care who plays, as long as the newcomer respects the game.

They just want to play softball and have a good time. Nothing is more complicated than it has to be.

John Busby, an easygoing, approachable man who often smokes a cigarette and plays some mean defense, makes the teams, which change every week.

“I try to stack the teams as subtly as I can without having anyone notice,” John says with a hint of a smile. “Usually it works out.”

The game gets started a few minutes after 9:30. I was planning on taking a step back and just watching and writing, not playing. But when I told John, he seemed disappointed, and everyone else chimed in encouraging me to still play.

It's been pretty neat to be an integral part of something my amazing aunt Abbe Kalos (who has unbelievably kindly let me stay with her for the summer) had told me about. I knew it would be fun, but I had no idea just how fun it would be. So I decided to play this time around, like I have most weeks since late May, and I was in the field to start the game.

Jack deals Ron Kimmel what seems like a juicy changeup to start, but Ron takes a mighty hack and swings and misses. Then Ron crushes one, starting a string of seven consecutive hits.

Kevin Dundon smacks a ball to right-center and motors all the way around for an inside-the-park home run (they’re pretty common here). He holds his hat in place. Usually it falls off while he’s flying around the bases and he has to go retrieve it from short after the play’s over, but this time it stays put.

The Red team scores five runs (the max you can get per inning is five until the seventh and final frame). Jack paces off the field, ball in glove. “We got ‘em right where we want ‘em,” he says, drawing a laugh.

Believe it or not, Jack isn’t the oldest player here. In fact, he’s not even the oldest pitcher. Don Young, a gentle and patient man who turns 89 on Oct. 18, has been playing Senior Softball since 1992 when he retired at the age of 65.

“I pitch because I can’t do anything else,” Don says. “I can’t see the ball as good as I used to. I’m getting too old.”

Don throws a ball, and Maxie, who’s playing first, compliments him on the pitch. Tom Nolan – a soft-spoken, warm man from Indiana with whom I played tennis a few weeks ago – shouts to Maxie: “I’m surprised you thought that was nice.”

Maxie turns and responds, “It’s the first inning. Don’t start, Tom.” It’s all in good fun. Always is.

Clare Kruse, a conversational, baseball-crazed man with a tremendous dose of well-timed sarcasm, creeps up to the plate. The area to the left of the dish is covered in sand – more than usual – and Clare takes notice.

“I thought I was too old to play in a sandbox,” he says.

The game moves forward, and the Red team holds a 7-2 lead in the third. At one point, Jack turns to Ed and says, “I’m tired, Ed. All I want to do is lay down.”

“I’d say you’re doing OK, Jack," Ed, a tall man who wears a mask when he’s in the field for protection, replies.

I hit a sharp grounder to short and legged out an infield single despite a nice play from Kevin. “Anyone else, I would have had him,” Kevin, who has even better speed than I do, yells to me from across the diamond.

I shrug, smile and give him a point, and two batters later Clare and I come around to score when Abbe – who’s usually an opposite-field hitter, but picks her spots – hits a beautiful ball down the third-base line to cut the deficit to 7-5.

The two teams trade runs. At one point, Kevin hits another inside-the-park homer and his hat falls off this time. “Why don’t you nail it to your head?” Jack inquires, mostly kidding, but perhaps a tiny bit serious.

Jack pitched for years in multiple leagues around the Bay Area. Once he found out about this league, he never stopped coming. He only remembers two legitimate quarrels in 10 years. For the most part, everyone else gets along despite minor spats here and there.

“It’s so much fun. Everybody’s bitchin’ elsewhere,” Jack says matter-of-factly. “I decided I was going to start coming here every Monday. Its worked out really well. They let me do whatever I want.” 

For Maxie, her favorite part about coming every Monday and some Thursdays is the camaraderie. Just something about the atmosphere and the people makes her always come back.

It’s the same cast of usual suspects nearly every Monday, and around us there are people who often occupy the park at the same time.

“Seeing people doing Tai Chi, the children, the old gentleman playing soccer. Eighty-something years old,” Maxie said. “It’s great to see who can continue to come back and deliver and make the play. Any given week you don’t know who’s going to do what.”

On this particular day the Red team beat the Black team, 24-17. We made it close with a monster 10-run seventh inning, but ultimately the deficit was too sizable to surmount.

I’m a very competitive person and I love to win, but that’s not really what it’s about here. It’s about the people, all sorts of different folks who come from entirely different backgrounds and range from 14 to 88.

Moving to a new city can be overwhelming, but it’s a lot less so when you have something as steady and sensational as Senior Softball to look forward to every week.

I’m sad to be leaving Oakland in a few weeks. Everyone here has treated me extremely well, living-wise, socially and at my internship covering the Oakland A’s for I had high expectations for the summer, and it’s exceeded them by a long shot.

In 65 years – when I’m still younger than Don Young is now – and my grandkids ask me about my summer in Oakland, I’ll be sure to tell them all about Senior Softball.

And who knows, maybe it will still be going on in 2080 and I’ll come back, sit on that same bench and chew some peanuts while a reporter asks me about the good ol’ days at Senior Softball back in the '10s.

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