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Old-Timers Still Brimming With Competitive Spirit

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Bob Biegel was 8 years old, a slender boy on a Denver sandlot, when he first strapped on a catcher’s mask.

“My dad took me to a baseball game and I watched that catcher, and I was glued,” he said. “I was mesmerized. There was just something about it. I just wanted to put that mask on and get behind the plate and play as much as I could.”

Now 70 years old, Biegel still gets into the crouch, handling pitchers in one of the country’s few 50-and-over baseball leagues.

“I just like to play,” said Biegel, a retired teacher. “I’ll play as long as I can.”

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Howard Rollin, a veteran of the travel industry who has been involved in adult baseball since 1988, created the new league for aging ballplayers like Biegel after recognizing the enthusiasm generated by the 1993 birth of the Colorado Rockies, who are playing host to Tuesday’s All-Star game.

“I created this league because I want to have the opportunity to play the real game as long as I can,” said Rollin, 50. “But this league is also for others who feel the same way about the game of baseball. If I didn’t do it, nobody else would do it.

“For the guys that are over 50, getting out there and playing again is very emotional because they never thought they could ever play baseball again.”

The league, which boasts a 14-game season and conducts games on Sundays at a city-run ballpark, consists of four teams replete with silver-haired men who refuse to let the dust settle on their bats, gloves and spikes. They play the game with the zeal of teenagers.

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“You’re never too old to play baseball,” said Jack Wilhite, a 69-year-old former minor-leaguer and fighter pilot. “I’ve played most all my life and I don’t want to quit.”

Biegel, one of Wilhite’s teammates on the Denver Bears club, built a memorable baseball career that included a 1952 College World Series appearance while playing at Northern Colorado. Following college, Biegel joined a local team and played against a traveling military club that included Yankees’ great Billy Martin in 1956.

In his humble manner, Biegel said the coaches in the College World Series and Martin told him he was “the best defensive catcher they had ever seen.”

“I hit four home runs against Martin’s team,” Biegel said. “But I was just hot that day. I never was a good hitter. Hitting never interested me. I don’t know why, but I loved to catch.”

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He never played in the majors.

“I didn’t go after it,” he said. “You’ve got to go after it. I don’t have any question in my mind I could have been a major league catcher, no problem. But I only have myself to blame.”

Over-50 baseball provides a venue for Biegel and his contemporaries to play out their passion for baseball, rather than settle for a more subdued game of softball.

“The only softball that’s available for people my age is slow pitch, and that’s not softball as I grew up knowing it,” said Dick County, 59, who plays a variety of sports including baseball and senior softball. “It’s a totally different game.

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“The reason I love baseball so much is because you play this game now just like you played it when you were a kid. It’s the same thing.”

For many of the league’s players, the game has served as their fountain of youth.

“When you’re playing, it really makes you feel young,” said County, who manages and pitches for the Southside Fossils. “It makes you say somebody at my age ... can still perform physically the way your mind thought you might be able to. It’s motivating to stay fit, stay active, stay young.”

Rollin, a player for the Ancient Mariners who is planning an over-50 baseball tournament in Las Vegas this October, hopes to start similar leagues around the country with the help of the Denver-based National Adult Baseball Association, which operates 18-and-over, 30-and-over, and 40-and-over leagues in more than 100 cities nationwide.

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“The reason the NABA ... supports Howard in his efforts with the 50-and-over here in Denver is because we truly believe there is an opportunity for 50-and-over leagues across America,” said NABA chief operating officer and vice president Shane Fugita.

“These guys can really play baseball. They’re competitive and as long as they still have that passion to want to play, we need to provide them an opportunity to do so.”

Wilhite, a fighter pilot during the Korean War, said: “It’s only a matter of time before senior baseball leagues start popping up. I think a lot of the senior softball players that I play with and know say ‘Oh, I can’t still play baseball.’ I didn’t think I could either.

“But you’d be surprised when you get out there and you do it. And you don’t have to be ex-Babe Ruths or Joe DiMaggios to come play. It’s just a place for everybody at every skill level,” he said.

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