Fields Where Dreams Come Alive
The bumper stickers Jim Haynes was handing out spoke volumes.
“Don’t Go Soft--Play Hardball” shouted the blue-and-white sticker bearing the Men’s Senior Baseball League logo.
For Haynes and the other members of the quickly growing organization, the slogan sends several signals: They’re not satisfied with playing softball; they don’t want to think of their bodies going soft; and, perhaps most importantly, they are not about to steal softly into middle age without at least one last shot at the game they loved so much when they were children.
The North County division of the MSBL, for players 30 and over, is beginning its second season in North County. At least six teams are ready to take the field for some good old-fashioned hardball. The league is actively seeking more players or teams to participate.
“We’re building a solid North County group, and we want more guys to come out and play,” said division president Dan Piro, who is a left-handed outfielder when the teams compete on Sundays and a 43-year-old financial consultant Monday through Friday.
The MSBL, which began in 1986 with four teams in Long Island, N.Y., is now a national organization of about 100 affiliated local hardball leagues. The national membership grew quickly from 60 players to about 15,000.
Although nearly all participants are men, some women do play in the league. Nationally, there is a scattering, and, locally, one woman has signed up to play this season.
The league has its own glossy publication, Hardball Magazine, which is based in Vista and run by Piro.
The fledgling North County league got off the ground last year after local players such as Piro and Haynes, 31, now vice president of the league, grew tired of having to drive into San Diego or Orange County to play hardball. They banded together with other players from the area to form the North County division of the MSBL. In its first year, the division fielded four teams: the Blue Jays, White Sox, Braves and Eagles.
It was a difficult time to start the league, Piro said, because it coincided with the start of the war in the Persian Gulf, and attentions were not focused on baseball.
“We were lucky to field four teams. This year there is a lot more attention being paid to local activities,” said Piro, who believes that the North County community will support adult amateur baseball.
The North County league is no ragtag group--its members proudly wear the bright blue uniform of their namesakes. The Blue Jays sport the bright blue of their Toronto counterparts, and likewise with the White Sox and their black jerseys. The Yankees, a new team this year, will wear the New York pin-stripes.
The league also keeps statistics for the pitchers as well as the hitters. Last year one player hit over .500. “The stats are for bragging rights,” Allen said. “It gives us old guys something to shoot for.”
This year the teams will play every Sunday during a season that runs from April to September. Play is on fields at Fallbrook High School or Escondido High School. The regular season will be followed by a double-elimination tournament for the North County teams that will last about four or five weekends.
The season culminates in November when all the local leagues across the country, as well as leagues in Canada, Holland and the Virgin Islands, send all-star teams to represent them at the MSBL World Series in Arizona.
During the MSBL World Series, players 40 and older can compete in a separate division. All the teams play on well-manicured fields and in stadiums used by college teams or the professional clubs that go to Phoenix or Tempe, Ariz., for spring training.
Many of the players are men who, for the last decade or so, may have been helping their kids along in Little League, Bobby Sox and soccer. Now, they are taking time out for team play themselves.
Most players seem to be in their late 30s, but there are a number in their early 30s and 40s, too. Often, they played some baseball in high school or college, but, because hardball leagues for adults have been hard to find, it may have been a decade or two since they pitched off a mound or faced a live fastball. Many have played softball to stay in touch with the game.
“I hadn’t played hardball for 18 years,” said Danny Van Epps, a 37-year-old laser technician from Encinitas. “When I first heard about the league I was thinking, ‘I can’t do this.’ But, after a few days in the batting cage, it was OK. You have to get over the initial fear and doubt. Once you realize you can do it, it becomes a lot of fun.”
But not without its pains
Van Epps, a left-handed pitcher and hitter, has been sidelined since he injured his knee while playing in the World Series in Phoenix last year. He’s had surgery and expects to be back in action later this summer--back to the tournament in Phoenix, he hopes. Meanwhile, he’s keeping up with his batting practice.
Jim Allen, a 38 year-old cost estimator for the aerospace industry, has been in the MSBL for the five years it has been in California.
“We’re average guys with average jobs who want to play baseball. We just want to give it another shot--to play ball,” said Allen, who pitched professionally in the minor leagues and was called up very briefly by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Allen said he feels like the old-timer of the North County league.
Although most of the players consider themselves fairly serious amateur athletes, almost all say they play mainly for fun.
“No one thinks they’re a pro,” said Jay Hyma of Fallbrook. “We all just missed the game so much. There was no outlet to play hardball. Now, we’re just out to have fun.”
“It’s competitive, but it’s not cutthroat,” Haynes added.
Said Allen, “It starts out friendly, then gets real competitive. It brings back memories, and the competitive spirit comes back out. It’s just a lot of fun.”
When league play begins in April, friends and family members can be counted on to attend the games. If the experience here is like that in other MSBL divisions, spectators will slowly begin coming around, curious and entertained at the sight of 30- and 40-year-olds hitting fastballs and diving head-first into the plate.
Catcher Steve Forry, a Leucadia resident who will turn 40 in August, has taken on the nickname “Crash,” like the free-spirited catcher in the movie “Bull Durham.”
And for good reason. Last year, his third in the MSBL, he broke three fingers and his collarbone. He said his wife and daughter come to all the games, and that he and his wife have a standing bet. Forry, who works as a fund-raiser for a local hospital, thinks he can get through each season without any broken bones. She doesn’t.
Time will tell who is right this season. In any event, having lost the bet in the past hasn’t seemed to dampen his enthusiasm for the sport.
“I thought I would never have a chance to play hardball again,” said Forry. “This league gives us that chance. It’s like being a kid again.”