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Where the Boys Are : The Pla-Boys of the Postal League take ball playing seriously. Nothing stops them--not wind, heat or family commitments.

Los Angeles Times

They arrive at the park by 4 p.m. and flop down on the cool grass of a shaded area near the curb. They change into their softball shoes and examine their leather gloves, most of them faded and worn soft by seasons of play.

Some of the players lie wilted from the heat, a couple of them sigh deeply as they finish cigarettes before flicking them into St. Andrews Street. Slowly they stand and walk toward the ballpark to jog their mandatory two laps across the outfield grass. Damn, it’s hot.

All but one are U.S. Postal Service employees. It is good, steady work. They live throughout the Los Angeles area, but the roots of their team, the Pla-Boys, coalesce here in South L.A., where twice a week they sharpen their skills at a dying game.

There were once 24 men’s fast-pitch teams in the Postal League, but now there are only 14, as more players are attracted to the slow-pitch version of the sport.

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The game, like few others, partners the young and old. The Pla-Boys range in age from 23-year-old shortstop Eric Perry, whose gold earrings dangle from both sides of a shaved head, to Billie Small, the 62-year-old pitcher whose cap covers a head of graying hair.

The Pla-Boys take the game more seriously than most. Other teams may practice once a week or not at all in preparation for the Saturday games, but the Pla-Boys are here every Tuesday and Thursday, even on days like today, when the temperature is in the mid-90s and the heat reflects wickedly off the dirt infield.

For about 20 years, they practiced at a nearby playground but decided to move on when gunfire came to play. Here at St. Andrews, seniors walk laps around the park and young people gather innocently in the shade. There is distant laughter and a peaceful calm, but it is veiled by a sixth-sense caution that comes with living in the city.

The Pla-Boys come to life slowly. It is their last practice before their league championship playoffs. Some of them have just gotten off work, others are working late shifts and their days are just beginning.

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There is history and tradition to the Pla-Boys, not all of it principled. Some of the players have been together for more than 20 years, bonded by their love for the game and all that comes with it--the competition and glory and trappings.

The older players remember when they played 10 games a week for numerous teams. After games, they would socialize around a cooler of beer. In softball, this is known as camaraderie. Or they would go to the bars that sponsored teams and eat and drink for free until closing time.

“That’s why I couldn’t keep my first wife,” Small says. “I was never home.”

*

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As the players begin playing catch, the balls gather velocity and begin slapping hard into their gloves. The chatter begins to flow.

Some people say the Pla-Boys have “the big head,” and mouths to match. Players from other teams may laugh with them and drink their beer, but deep down inside they love to see the Pla-Boys lose. They have always, perhaps undeservedly, been cast as the villains.

Through fund-raisers and members’ dues, the club helps players who face financial hardship. They recently made a donation when a member’s house caught on fire and they do the same whenever there’s a death in a player’s family. Each year at Christmas, the club delivers food baskets to the needy.

Founded in the early 1960s, the Pla-Boys now sponsor men’s and women’s slow-pitch teams as well as a youth team that plays here at St. Andrews. The Pla-Boy Club, made up primarily of the old-timers, raises money for team expenses.

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There have been glorious moments. In the last 20 years, they have won 13 league playoff titles. They once won 68 straight games and seven consecutive championships. But it is not the victories one remembers, says Clay Williams, 54, a coach and 29-year Pla-Boy veteran.

The losses--especially the important ones--seem to run over and over in his mind, he says, like a loop of film.

Last year’s playoffs have haunted him for a year now--the missed opportunities and uncharacteristic errors. Fast-pitch is a game played in a flurry, and the slightest bobble or hesitation can be catastrophic.

A year later, Williams can practically give a play-by-play of last year’s disheartening semifinal loss to their rivals, the Heat.

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“Four errors,” he says, shaking his head. “Four double plays.”

It will take three wins for the Pla-Boys to claim the Postal League crown, but one loss would put them out of the running.

The pace picks up as the team begins batting practice. Each player puts down a couple of bunts and takes 10 swings. It ends with fielding practice. Williams hits to players one at a time and has them chasing down balls until their legs are weak and their chests are heaving.

Following the two-hour workout, they repair to the shade and the trunks of their cars, where Coleman coolers await. The Pla-Boys also are celebrating a birthday, so half a gallon of gin makes the rounds.

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Some players, like Small, prefer soft drinks or water as they share softball lore, past victories and defeats, the certainty of upcoming conquests. They talk strategy, women, work. By the time the last beer is gone and the final players leave the park, it is well past dark.

*

Billie Small arrives at Westchester Park an hour early on Game Day. It’s the same ritual every Saturday throughout the season. He finds a seat in the bleachers, reaches into his bag and pulls out a jar of liniment, which he rubs vigorously into his knees and shoulders.

He doesn’t mind being called an old man and says it only makes him feel blessed to still be playing the game. But being an old man requires more time, effort and liniment to prepare for battle.

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He has been playing fast-pitch since he was a youngster. Back then, he couldn’t get enough of the game. One summer, he, Clay Williams and L.T. Tillman, the team’s manager, played on seven championship teams. He remains one of the league’s top pitchers.

“We were truly dedicated to the team,” he says. “Our families knew come Saturday, we gonna play ball. Don’t ask us to do nothing else. Don’t ask us to go to no weddings or nothing like that. We playing ball. I been to funerals on Saturdays and took my uniform with me.”

Small worked 39 years and 29 days for the Postal Service before retiring in 1992. He now works part time for his church on South Vermont Avenue. While the game may have caused problems at home, he says with pride that he never allowed it to interfere with his job.

The rules now have been the rules forever, Small says. Players are expected to be at practice and are excused only for reasons of work or family emergency. They must wear full uniforms for games. Some younger players have complained about that one, preferring to wear shorts or something other than traditional Pla-Boy red and white.

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“Some of them say they don’t want to be wearing red because they afraid they might be identified with gangs,” Small says. “They want to wear black. As soon as the game’s over they change clothes, but I wear my uniform to the ballpark and leave it on until I go home and shower. I’m proud of it.”

Upon completing his pregame warm-ups, Small takes a seat in the bleachers to await the start of the game.

“I still got that adrenaline flowing when I play,” he says. “All games to me is important. On the night before a game, I start going through in my mind who the batters are going to be. I start getting a little loosey-goosey in my stomach and I feel that way until after the first pitch.”

The game begins, and the Pla-Boys go easily in the top of the first inning, three up, three down. Then Small takes the mound, tosses a few warm-up pitches. The first batter steps in, and the old man rears back, triggers his windmill motion and fires off a heater.

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Strike one.

*

Each team is allowed one player on its roster who doesn’t work for the U.S. Postal Service. For the Pla-Boys, that player is Timothy Mitchell, 24, a powerful lefty who played in the Boston Red Sox organization until 1992, when he injured a knee.

With the Pla-Boys leading 3-0 in the second inning, Mitchell digs in deep in the box, a thick wad of Red Man puffing out his right cheek, a runner on second. He is all business when he has a bat in his hands. His eyes are serious as he leans his weight on his back foot and steadily awaits the pitch.

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After injuring his knee two years ago, he was given his release from the Class AA Lynchburg, Va., team. Earlier this year, Mitchell was also released from a warehouse job, so now he is doing painting and odd jobs. He’s good with his hands. A fifth-round pick in 1989, after graduating from Culver City High School, he still hopes to return to professional baseball.

Watching silently from the fence near the Pla-Boy dugout is another big man. Around this ballpark, Henry (Hammerin’ Hank) Strawberry is a legend. The father of San Francisco Giant Darryl Strawberry, Henry still stops by on Saturdays to visit his friends. When he was on the mound, he threw only one pitch--no fancy curve or drop or rise or knuckleball--only the fastball, and that was all he needed.

“Everybody knew what was coming,” he says in a soft voice. Then, with the hint of a smile, he adds: “But they still had to hit it.”

People say his pitching was overshadowed by his hitting. Hammerin’ Hank could hit the ball a ton, like Mitchell--and like Darryl.

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With the count full, Mitchell steadies his gaze. The pitch comes in just above the knees, and he unloads with a loud grunt, making solid contact. Neither fielder can catch up to it. There are no outfield fences, so by the time they run the ball down, Mitchell is rounding second base. The frustrations, the disappointment of the past two years are nowhere to be seen. There is a smile on his face as he is greeted at home plate with high fives.

Westchester Park is a long way from Fenway, but a home run translates beyond the lines that separate levels of the game--baseball from softball, Little League from the American League. For Mitchell, the moment is sweet.

The Pla-Boys go on to win, 14-0, and advance to the second round.

*

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L.T. Tillman sits in a folding chair next to the dugout at Holly Park in Hawthorne, where the Pla-Boys are playing the Athletics--the only team to beat them during the regular season. The winner will advance to the finals to play the Heat, last year’s league and state champions.

Less than two weeks earlier, he had surgery for an ulcer. The incision is still tender, so he is careful to rise slowly and is ordered by his wife to not get overly excited. By the bottom of the first inning, however, he is out on the field in the home plate umpire’s face.

Tillman started playing ball in Borger, Texas. One of 15 children, it wasn’t hard to get a game together. He would yank the head off one of his sisters’ dolls to use as a ball, remove the handle from his mother’s mop for a bat.

It is to be a controversial game, and the first confrontation arises in the first inning, when the Pla-Boys complain about a change in their opponents’ lineup. They lose the argument but go on to win the game, 8-4, advancing to the championship round.

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By the time Small begins his drive home to Fontana, he is thinking about the Heat, the batters he will face and how he will pitch to them in three days. He is thinking about the state tournament in Stockton last year, when the Heat beat them twice in the championship round.

The butterflies in his stomach are beginning to flutter.

*

When the day of the game finally comes, Small is up by 5:20 a.m., anxious--like a kid--to get to the ballpark for the 4 p.m. game. The players gather in a circle before taking the field. Each player gets a chance to say a few words.

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“125 percent,” says Greg Harris, the team’s speedy center fielder.

“Just win,” says Perry, the young shortstop.

“We, the team,” says Tillman, the last person to speak. “They gotta come get us.”

They pile their hands in the center of the huddle. “One, two, three.”

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“PLA-BOYS WIN!”

The Heat take a 1-0 lead in the first inning, and Tillman is already out on the field, challenging the umpires. His wife, Vera, steps down from the bleachers, pleading with him to calm down.

All along, the Pla-Boys have said they must play strong defense to win. Turns out they were right. The defense breaks down. The Heat capitalize, winning 4-3 in the bottom of the last inning to claim the championship.

The teams meet in the center of the infield to shake hands. Both teams are, for the most part, gracious. Small walks to the dugout and throws his glove on the ground. The Pla-Boys gather in a circle.

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“We made a few errors,” Williams says. “We made some mistakes, but all in all, we played a good game. We didn’t give up when we got behind. We had a good season. They had a good game. Let’s drink some beer.”

Harris, the young center fielder, walks off to be alone, tears forming in his eyes. Tillman walks over and places an arm around his shoulder. They stand together, young and old. He tells Harris to hold his head high. On the bench, Greg Crowley, the first-year left fielder, sits silent and alone, staring down, giving anything to have another chance at a couple of those fly balls that could have made the difference.

It hurts and it’s cruel. When you expect so much, it’s not the victories you remember.


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