The assortment of living baseball memorabilia that floated around Terry Park one morning last week was intoxicating.
Gold Coast Suns Manager Earl Weaver chatted with reporters, Suns pitcher Luis Tiant sat hatless and cigarless in the visitors dugout and Suns outfielder Paul Blair laughed about “my poor old knees.”
It was the perfect setting for a baseball-card show.
Instead, they played a baseball game.
On a clear, bright day in Southwest Florida, baseball history was made. At least, that is what the founders of the Senior Professional Baseball Assn. announced before, during and after the league opener between the Gold Coast Suns and Fort Myers Sun Sox.
In truth, that claim is not too farfetched. Before Wednesday, no one had put together a league for former ballplayers too old to succeed in the major leagues and too young to collect pension checks.
But there they were, two dugouts filled with players 35 years and older duking it out in double-knits.
The result of the SPBA’s opening game left little suspense: Fort Myers plowed under Weaver’s Suns, 13-0. But the final score seemed to be among the day’s least significant developments.
Of greater importance was that there was a game at all.
The idea of creating a league exclusively for older players never had been taken seriously until a Colorado real-estate developer, Jim Morley, got to work last January. In less than a year, he’d identified interested players, assembled eight owners and signed as many stadium leases.
Training camps opened two weeks ago and Wednesday, before a less than capacity crowd of 2,302 here, the games began.
In the Suns’ clubhouses, there was laughter, profanity and Weaver’s omnipresent voice--all features common to Orioles clubhouses of years ago.
Also, there was excitement about an idea that has meant new-found income for some and a place to play for all.
Blair, the brilliant Orioles center fielder from 1964 to 1976, was not working a steady job when the senior league called.
He had moved to Baltimore last year hoping to land a job with the Baltimore Orioles, he said. There was no offer from the team, so Blair has made due making personal appearances and working as a substitute teacher.
He says his new life with the Gold Coast team has been “a lot of fun.”
He said this even though, in his two weeks as a 45-year-old outfielder, Blair has a partial tear behind his left knee (after running into an outfield wall) and a nagging cramp behind his right (suffered while legging out a third-inning double in Wednesday’s game).
OK, so it’s not 1969.
“What have I lost (since his prime seasons)? I don’t know if I can hit the 95 m.p.h. fastball. But I’m kind of hoping that won’t be a problem in this league.
“Defensively, I don’t think my skills have eroded any. In Miami last week, Dave Kingman hit a ball to the wall--I ran it down and caught it.”
In this league, fitness--or lack of the same--is at the center of many conversations.
“We got a million injuries,” Weaver said of the Suns. Then catching himself in a statement with negative public relations consequences, he added, “Well not a million. But a lot.”
As expected, the seniors league inspires much dark humor about age and infirmity. Earlier this week, Sun Sox manager Pat Dobson was looking on as pitcher Dick Drago loosened up. Just then, Dobson spotted a small black tube, the kind that camera film is packaged in, on the ground nearby.
“Did that drop out of your elbow?” Dobson asked.
Drago didn’t think so, but in this league, who can be sure?
The game. Oh, the game.
No one knew what to expect of middle-aged men trying to play a young man’s game. Nine innings later, there still were no conclusive answers except that comparing the level of play here to that of major league baseball is a loser’s game.
Pockets of crisp play were surrounded often by the ragged and sloppy. In that way, the first inning was instructive. Suns shortstop and leadoff man Rafael Landestoy, 36, reached on an infield hit. Blair followed by reaching on an infield error, which momentarily pushed Landestoy except that he promptly was erased on a hidden-ball trick.
Three Suns batters later, the inning ended quietly when Sun Sox starting pitcher Dennis Leonard fanned Bob Molinaro, a former Orioles minor-league coach, on a ball that plunked Molinaro on the foot.
There were other oddities, most going against the visitors from Pompano Beach-Miami.
“If we beat them tomorrow, we’re both 1-1,” Weaver shouted as the Suns filed not-so-grimly into their their clubhouse after the game.
Weaver himself wasn’t crying, but he wasn’t yukking it up either.
“It’s very important to win, because if we don’t the people in Pompano may not come out,” said the 59-year-old former Orioles manager, who claims he was lured back into uniform by a salary that “will pay my greens fees for the rest of my life--which may not be a big deal because how long will I live?”
Whether fans and TV audiences will approve of this league and these players was not clear.
In the Sun Sox clubhouse, however, there was no doubt that senior baseball made friends.