Jim Delzell stepped into the batter's box at LaVerne College, twisted his back foot into the dirt and settled into his stance.
The left-hander was just getting comfortable when the home-plate umpire could no longer control the urge to ask the designated hitter for Occidental College a question:
"Geez, it seems like you've been with this team for 12 years. Aren't you ever going to graduate?"
Actually, this is Delzell's senior year and he has played only three seasons for the Tigers. And yes, he will graduate in May with a degree in physical education.
But when you're a bearded 28-year-old college senior playing on a team that includes a bunch of fuzzy-cheeked freshmen--well, people do ask questions.
For example, this season, upon seeing Delzell come to the plate, a Claremont freshmen turned to Claremont Coach Pat Murphy and said, "Hey Coach, can my dad still play college ball? I think he still has some eligibility."
Athletes at National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Division II and Division III schools such as Occidental are not bound by the Division I rule, which allows athletes five years to complete four years of eligibility from the time they enroll in a college.
Delzell is somewhat unique in college athletics in general, and Occidental in particular, because of his age, because he's married and because he is older than his coach, 27-year-old Jeff Henderson.
"Jim doesn't challenge my decisions and he's a lot easier to coach because he's more mature than most players," Henderson said. "He's a great asset because he provides leadership and he understands situations beyond the emotional state. His experiences in real-life situations make baseball realistic to him."
Delzell, in fact, is a kind of player-coach for the Tigers. Because he serves solely as designated hitter, Delzell spends practices working on his swing and helping teammates perform defensive drills.
"Jim is kind of like a father figure for everyone," said Kevin Salaiz, a junior and the first baseman. "My grandfather is 80 years old and sometimes Jim Delzell sounds just like him."
To Delzell, a well-muscled 5-11, 185 pounds, jokes and comments about his age are part of the game. He handles it much like he handles a slider on the outside part of the plate. He doesn't try to fight it off. He goes with it.
"The guys I play with seem to understand that--just like themselves--I'm trying to get my degree and have some fun playing ball," Delzell said. "But I'm sure other people wonder why I'm out here. They never come out and say it directly, but a lot of times when they ask me something, it's like they're really saying, 'Why the hell aren't you out there working?' "
Opposing coaches in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference are among those who would like to see Delzell begin his teaching and coaching career. Last year, batting at the bottom of the order for most of the season, Delzell hit .333 with one home run and 15 runs batted in. This season, he is batting .392 with 3 home runs and 18 RBIs."He's probably one of the best hitters in the league," Whittier Coach Hugh Mendez said. "We couldn't get him out last year. He takes a beautiful cut."
Teammates call Delzell the player with the smooth and easy New Age swing and the Stone Age birth certificate. They say that the apparent generation gap in the batting order is bridged mostly by Delzell's ability to tell a story.
"He keeps everyone entertained," said senior catcher Tim Klement. "He has a story for every occasion about things that have happened to him and players that he has known throughout the years."
Delzell was born in Glendale and lived there until he finished the fifth grade and his family moved to Danville, Ill. After graduating from high school in 1977, he earned a baseball scholarship to the University of Illinois but left after one semester when he hurt his back.
"Let's be honest," he said. "I was there to play ball."
Delzell worked different jobs while bouncing back and forth between Glendale and Danville for a few years until 1981 when he played baseball at Danville Junior College. During that year, he also worked as a teacher's aide at a school for disabled children. It was there that he met another aide named Karen Sharkey. They were married in 1982.
Delzell returned to Glendale in 1983 and attended Glendale College while working as a teacher and coach at a private school for developmentally handicapped students in Pomona. In 1984, with the blessing of his wife, Delzell enrolled at Occidental.
Occidental teammates say they reap the benefits of Delzell's presence whether he is talking about baseball, pontificating about the Grateful Dead or extolling the virtues of comic-strip character Zippy the Pinhead. The attitude Delzell brings to the dugout is the one emblazoned on a sticker that adorns his locker: "Are we having fun yet?"
"The other guys see me relax out there and realize that baseball isn't the end of the world," Delzell said. "I don't go home every night and figure out my batting average. I don't want to hit .150, but numbers don't mean a whole lot to me.
"We filled out a personal goal sheet at the beginning of the season and a lot of guys put that they wanted to hit .400 or something like that. I just put that I wanted to have fun and get the most out of it that I could."