The Boys of Autumn : Baseball in the Middle Ages a Popular Pastime

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"Everybody wants to be a little boy again. Everybody needs an escape from their routine. For these guys, it's baseball. This allows them to run around with a jockstrap and a uniform on. They play ball, drink some beers, get together, and return to their childhood. They're all just looking for a thrill."

Bill Bauman, 44, founder of the Men's Senior Baseball League of Los Angeles and a utility infielder-pitcher-catcher for the Mudville Nine.

The midday sun is splashing down on the Alemany High baseball diamond where two groups of otherwise normal, mature, adult men are about to extend their childhood dreams--albeit with liberal use of Ben-Gay.

On this field of dreams, a 40-and-over baseball team calling itself the Mudville Nine is preparing to play a practice game against a 30-and-over team known as the Mudsharks.

Among the 40-and-over Niners are a salesman, 44; an accountant, 46; a postal worker, 45; a communications consultant, 43; a lawyer, 42; a director-actor, 43; a businessman, 44; an artist, 41; and an elevator mechanic, 40.

The Mudshark lineup includes a graphic designer, 35; a barber, 38; an actor, 34; and the president of the Grammy Awards, who is 41.

On this recent Sunday, however, they are all young again. At least they are pretending to be young.

They are smelling the grass, waxing poetic about the mystic virtues of the game, dropping popups and lobbing a baseball all over creation.

Barbs are whipping around the horn faster than the ball.

During warm-ups, Mudville third baseman-U.S. postman Reggie Mercado of Burbank launches a throw 10 feet over the first baseman's head and is swiftly congratulated by teammate Bob Myers.

"Nice play, old man," yells Myers, a pitcher-outfielder-artist.

Mercado's next throw is in the dirt.

The Mudville mail is not being delivered.

The area behind first base remains an unsafe place when some of the Mudsharks take the field.

In fact, during a visit to the Mudville dugout along the first-base side, Mudshark Marc McClure, a 34-year-old actor-infielder from Glendale is struck in the back by a teammate's errant throw.

"That's what this is all about," says McClure, writhing in agony. "Old people who should be home in bed out playing ball."

What this is really all about is a bunch of middle-aged baseball addicts preparing to play in the Men's Senior Baseball League's World Series held annually in Tempe, Ariz. Preferably, without getting killed in the process.

The Senior World Series includes 124 teams from 30-and-over and 40-and-over leagues around the United States, Canada, Taiwan, and Europe. A number of teams, including the Mudville Nine and the Mudsharks, from a senior league in the San Fernando Valley, have been practicing once a week since September for the thirtysomething fall classic that runs Monday through Saturday.

This is the fourth year that at least one team from the Valley league, founded in 1988 by Mudville utility player Bill Bauman, has gone to the Series.

Bauman started his league after reading about a men's senior league originated by Steve Sigler, a businessman in Jericho, N. Y. Bauman contacted Sigler, who started with one league on Long Island in 1986.

Over the past five years, Sigler has seen his idea grow to 110 leagues in 100 cities around the country, culminating in this year's Senior World Series, which, according to Sigler, is the largest amateur baseball tournament in history.

"Overall, we have 15,000 guys in the leagues playing baseball," Sigler says.

The Valley men's senior league also has experienced a burst of popularity. Bauman started the league with a ragtag group of ballplayers who played against each other when they could.

This season, during which games were played weekly at Alemany and Oak Park highs and Valley College from April through August, more than 150 players and 10 teams took part.

"The growth has been remarkable," Bauman says. "We found out a lot of guys still want to play hardball."

And 75 of them could not resist taking vacation time off from their jobs and paying their own way to play in this year's Codger World Series.

"We have five all-star teams going to the Series," Bauman says.

Actually, the five teams from the Valley league at the tournament aren't so much all-star teams as they are, as Bauman confesses, "all the guys in the league who could get a week off and pay $1,000 for the trip."

This is a fact not lost on anyone watching the Mudville Nine playing the Mudsharks at Alemany.

In truth, the play isn't all that horrendous.

Just a little geriatric.

In the bottom of the second inning, the Mudsharks take a 6-0 lead, assisted greatly by passed balls, bases on balls, bad eyes and bad arms. Still, there are enough nice plays mixed in with enough good pitching to reveal that these guys are--or at least were at one time--gifted players. Many of them played college baseball, a few even played in the minor leagues.

"We're all old and decrepit now," Bauman says.

Bauman is emblematic of many of his fellow players. He played baseball as a kid and wants to relive those memories as an adult. Even if it involves pain.

"I've got two bad knees, tendinitis in my wrists and a stretched ligament in my shoulder," he says, strapping on his catcher's gear before the start of the fourth inning.

Sympathy is tough to come by in the Mudville dugout, however. Everyone has battle wounds. This is not a group with whom one would want to compare manly scars.

All of which leads to an obvious question then: Is it really worth it?

"Yes," answers CPA-second baseman John LeConte, 46, of Agoura Hills. "We all play to stay young. It's just something that men like to do. If you played as a kid, if you had a taste of real baseball as a kid, it doesn't leave you. When you see a chance to play and if your faculties are still intact, you want to keep playing."

Mudshark third baseman Mike Greene, 41, who also is president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, explains that the game speaks to a man's soul: "Baseball is the most important thing in life. There's a spiritual thing to it. It is spiritual."

Not everyone gets quite so deep about their extra-innings experience with hardball. Says McClure: "The fact that I'm thankful I can just get out of the house on Sunday morning, that's about as spiritual as I get about this. I don't believe in becoming one with the field. I believe, at our ages, if you don't stretch, then, you're in big trouble. That's what I believe.

"This is just a lot of fun."

And playing baseball for fun connects them with the essence of the game, they say. There is no pressure stemming from dreams of a professional career in the game. It's too late for that. This is baseball for baseball's sake.

As the practice game between the Mudville Nine and the Mudsharks slows to a halt--the Mudsharks win, 8-4, after seven innings--Rick Friedman, the Sharks' 38-year-old barber-outfielder, seemingly speaks for all the participants when he says, "We just don't want to let go of baseball. It's the best thing that's happened to me. The older I get, the more I appreciate it. We're all just holding on."

Someone in the dugout adds, "It's baseball or die."

The Mudville Nine, the Mudsharks, and 122 other teams in the Old Man's World Series, will take baseball.

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