AGE STRIKES OUT : Over-30 Baseball Leagues Provide 12,000 Players With the Opportunity to Relive the Past and Have Some Fun

Times Staff Writer

Many of the baseball trophies and awards are in boxes somewhere now, replaced on the desktops by pictures of the children, or grandchildren. The scrapbook pages have yellowed a bit, and maybe some of the memories have, too.

But please don't bother Frank Jelincich with that sort of thing. That's for old men, and Jelincich doesn't consider himself old.

Almost every Sunday for the last three years, Jelincich has made his way to one baseball field or another, wearing his uniform proudly. And almost every Sunday his name has been on the starting lineup card as the designated hitter for the California All-Stars.

Jelincich is 72.

Welcome to the Mens Senior Baseball League (MSBL), a hardball organization that provides dreams for children over 30 who firmly believe that baseball diamonds are forever and softball diamonds are for never.

Jelincich, who plays with men about half his age, is unusual in terms of age. But the MSBL doesn't really measure age as much as enthusiasm, which is why Jelincich epitomizes the essence of a league that has only two requirements:

--You must be over 30.

--You must be under 30, at heart.

The MSBL is the brainchild of Steve Sigler, 39, of Jericho, N.Y., who created it in 1986 as an alternative to softball. Sigler had not played baseball in more than 20 years. "Just because a person is 30, 35, 40 or older doesn't mean he loves playing baseball any less," Sigler says.

The MSBL has blossomed to more than 12,000 players. The first league, made up of four teams, was on Long Island. Today, Long Island has 46 teams.

By July of 1988, the MSBL had grown to 150 teams in 20 leagues in 20 U.S. cities. Today, less than a year later, there are 825 teams in 80 leagues in 80 cities, including some in Canada, the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands.

"There are people organizing teams in Japan and Holland, too," said Sigler, a financial officer for a stationery company.

California, the state with the most MSBL participants, has 86 teams and nine leagues. The winner of these and other league titles will go to the second annual MSBL World Series in Phoenix to play six games in four days next fall. Last year, the Sioux Falls Mount Rushmores, a South Dakota all-star team, won the over-30 championship and, in the over-40 division, Woodland-Davis defeated Sacramento in an all-California final.

"The popularity of this is unbelievable," said Val Lewis, president of the 12-team Sacramento League. "The problem isn't getting enough teams, it's getting enough facilities. We've gotten so many calls that we have to slow down our promotions."

Lewis, 47, a civil engineer who has a baseball team living in his home--he has 11 children--condemns softball and its acceptance as the sport for middle-aged men. So do his friends. MSBL's motto is, "Don't go soft; play hardball," and the players figure that if they didn't play softball when they were young, why should they play it now?

"We're already looking toward developing a 50-and-over league because it's hard to imagine our future without baseball," Lewis said. "This is keeping a bunch of us young. Unless we're dead, I don't see any reason why we can't keep doing this past 60."

Some players say that over-30 baseball provides an escape from everyday pressures, and Sigler calls it "very therapeutic."

Most players, however, are playing for a different reason. They are rounding the bases in pursuit of the past, attempting to rediscover their youth.

"We're living out dreams and fantasies," said California Assemblyman Tom Hayden, 49, who plays for the Hollywood Stars. "This generation wants to bring baseball back. The baby boomer generation is holding onto its childhood."

Said Gary Zive, 32, a construction manager in Orange County and president of the 12-team Los Angeles-Orange County League:

"We're all kids again," Zive said. "There is a special feeling to putting on a uniform again. We have a new lease on our baseball lives, and I'm reliving a dream. There's a great element of fantasy here."

Said John Frietas, 44, president of the Northern California Old-Timers' League: "This is resurrecting our youth. It enhances your whole being to know that you can still do it again. It's an incredible, wonderful feeling."

The MSBL rosters are sprinkled with names of former major league players, although no ex-pro can play unless he has been out of baseball for at least three years.

"This has been a dream come true," said Ron Dunn, a former Chicago Cub who is president of the 20-team San Jose League.

Other one-time pros include former Cub Jose Cardenal, playing in the 13-team Chicago League, and former Boston pitcher Bill Lee, playing in the four-team Vermont League.

Jim Barr, once of the San Francisco Giants, and Lowell Palmer, formerly of the Philadelphia Phillies, play in the Sacramento League. Both Barr and Palmer are pitchers who prefer being on the hill to being over the hill.

"When I was in the majors, it was a combination of pressure and fun," Barr, 41, said. "The emphasis now is on fun. If I make an error, 4 million people won't read about it the next morning."

The league with the most former pros is the eight-team Old Glories League in the Dominican Republic, which features Rico Carty, Juan Marichal, Cesar Geronimo and Frank Taveras. Although most of the games are between teams who have no former pros, they still draw an average of 5,000 fans a game. The Dominicans will send an all-star team to the World Series, in which they finished third last year.

"At first, people thought it was just an old-timers' game and that we would drop balls and laugh," said Humberto Franco, the 48-year-old president of the league. "But this is serious baseball. We don't drop balls, and if we do, we certainly don't laugh."

Last year, former major leaguers Luis Tiant and Orlando Cepeda played for teams in Sacramento, but they have defected to a new over-35 league in Florida. That eight-team league will be made up exclusively of former pros and is scheduled to begin its 72-game schedule Nov. 1.

That former pros would play in the MSBL speaks volumes about how competitive it is, especially because they are often not the best players.

Last year, a group of San Jose all-stars without former pros defeated the University of Santa Clara, 11-6, in an exhibition game. Santa Clara, a Division I team, later finished its college season with a 43-18-1 record.

"They came out and some of their guys were overweight and our guys didn't take the game as seriously as if it were another college team," said Mike Cummins, Santa Clara assistant coach.

"But those guys had some tools and they got our attention pretty quick."

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