Old Fuds in the Land of Hardbodies

Thor was coming. It was all we talked about that spring. This was three seasons ago, our first in a sandlot baseball league for players 30 years and older. We were awful, but we had hope: Thor. I can't recall what delayed his debut, but in the interim we built him to mythical proportions. Thor, we reminded each other, had pitched in double-A. Thor--"The Mighty Thor," we took to calling him--still threw 90 m.p.h. fastballs.

On the day he finally arrived, our opponents stopped laughing at us. Now, as this hulking figure in a skintight jersey took the mound, they stood frozen, watching. Thor wound up, grunted and threw so hard his cap flew off. The fastball cracked against the catcher's mitt like a rifle shot. He threw two more just like it. Whap! Pop! After the third pitch, Thor winced. Rubbing his shoulder, he picked up his cap and ambled back to the dugout.

"Better get someone else in there," he said. "My shoulder just went."

And that was it for the Mighty Thor.

Old-fud baseball leagues are gaining popularity nationwide, but here in the land of hardbodies, Rollerblades and personal trainers, we tend to stick out like recreational dinosaurs. "Why?" people ask when told you've taken up hardball. What's next, plaid sport jackets?

Certainly, we're not in it for glory. Our games are played on high school diamonds that go to seed during summer. Admission is free, but that's irrelevant. Last week, a single spectator attended. Grateful, we moved a mesh screen in front of her to protect against stray balls. When we play, there are many stray balls.

This being Southern California, the league is filled with actors, agents, aerospace engineers, lawyers and real estate salesmen. Deals are discussed between pitches at second base. Our right fielder, a doctor, wears a beeper when at bat. Baseball experience varies. Many players, like myself, gave up the game in high school. Others competed in college. A few made it to the minor leagues. Our best player, Craig Cacek, logged 20 at-bats with the Houston Astros. He keeps things in perspective for us.

"Hey, if we were any good," he says often, "we wouldn't be here."

This season our team is called the NALU Hawaiian Buffaloes. Last year we were the Kingworld Mudsharks, and before that, the Nick Newton Rangers. We seem to have trouble keeping sponsors. If we could field, throw and run, we'd be contenders. Right now, though, we're stuck in last place. Our lone victory came against a team from a 40-year-old division.

Part of our problem is how we first put the team together. The manager's wife was a soap opera casting director. The two of them dug through resumes and found loads of actors who claimed to be kung fu black belts, parachute instructors and former big league baseball prospects. Hyperbole, I came to realize, goes with the territory in the hunk business. The way some of these guys swung at curves, well . . . I wouldn't let them take me sky-diving.

Despite all this, we've had our moments. Last season, we even reached the semifinals, though it took a typically wild play. It's late in the qualifying game. The opposing team has the bases full. A dribbler is hit down the third base path. Our pitcher kicks it toward the dugout. The baserunners, believing it's a foul ball, stop. We pick the ball up and toss it around: triple play. In the ensuing rhubarb, an opponent is ejected. This leaves them with eight players. Automatic forfeit. Mudsharks win! Mudsharks win!

Each season, we promise ourselves not to take it seriously, but we always do. We meet for lunch at the batting cage, spend hours on the telephone at night discussing lineups. Our spouses are tolerant, but I doubt they understand the passion. Neither do we.

Part of it flows from a love for the game: Softball just isn't the same, the dimensions are all wrong. Part, too, is the desire to resist the inevitable--Peter Pan in spikes. We know it won't work. I find myself now squinting hard late in the games from left field, trying to see. When the ball's hit, I wait for an infielder to point and then start running.

Before too long, time will take away this second crack at a boyhood game. Until then, we'll keep at it, spending our summer Sundays on some weedy diamond in pursuit of those sweet moments of grace that are only baseball's to give. Hit a line drive, make a running catch--and the glow lasts all week long.

I go back to the final scene from the film "Damn Yankees." Remember? At a crucial moment in the big game, the devil breaks his pact with the center fielder and turns him back into an old man. Relying on ancient instincts, the gray-haired guy staggers after the ball, stumbles, reaches up--and, to the crowd's roar, makes the catch. That's us every Sunday.

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