Diamonds are forever: Columbia man, 64, plays 200 softball games a year

It's 7:30 on a warm, humid August evening and Andy Zitnay is in one of his favorite places — next to a softball field, stretching, half-watching the game and joking with arriving teammates as they wait their turn to play.

It's Wednesday, so he's at Centennial Park, getting ready to play with a team called Crazy Ray's. But Zitnay plays on four teams, including a national travel team. And when he's not playing, he's behind home plate umpiring.

As Zitnay's teammates arrive, they sign in, jotting their ages next to their names. One writes "26." Another "24."

Then Zitnay writes his name and next to it, 64. The average age of the team just shot way up, he jokes.

Not that his teammates mind.

"He's great," 25-year-old team manager Joe Duff said. "He's solid, he's here all the time and he's willing to put up with all us young guys." He added: "I would have loved to have seen him play when he was young."

Zitnay, who grew up in Connecticut and moved to Columbia after graduating from the University of Maryland, has been playing baseball since he was a kid. These days, he plays softball, donning his cleats several times a week to play in about 200 games a year.

He estimates he has played or been an umpire in nearly 10,000 games.

Zitnay already has a long list of honors to his name. He is regularly named a most valuable player by teams in tournaments and has been inducted into the Washington Metropolitan Slow Pitch Softball Hall of Fame, the National Senior Softball Hall of Fame and the Anne Arundel County Senior Hall of Fame.

At the moment, he's waiting to find out if he's made it into Maryland Slow Pitch Softball Hall of Fame, which he was nominated to by a teammate. He expects to find out in early autumn.

Fearsome hitter

Zitnay is tall and fit-looking, with abundant silver hair and alert blue eyes. His legs are a bit bowed and his knees are creaky. He no longer plays in the outfield because a torn labrum has shortened his throw and left him playing in intense pain from time to time. Now he plays at first base, where, he said, "I don't have to move very much."

But he's still a fearsome hitter, racking up an .807 avergage on his Major Plus team, Richmond-based Spicer Properties/Turn Two. The team recently won the Softball Players Association North America 60 Major Plus Championship, bringing its championship total to 41. (In softball, a batting average of .600 is considered good, while .700 to .800 is exceptional and .900 and above phenomenal.)

"He's got power when he hits for power and he can also get base hits," said 69-year-old Carson Chavis, manager of the Spicer Properties/Turn Two team, which consists of players from Virginia and surrounding states.

"Andy never misses a tournament," he said. "You can always count on him being there and he is a great clutch hitter. So if you need a hit and Andy's at the bat, he'll get it.

"He's probably one of the top 20 ballplayers in the United States," in the 50-and-older category, Chavis added. "Any team in the country would be glad to have him."

Tom Dommel, 64, who lives in Damascus, is also on the Spicer Properties/Turn Two team. "Andy has always played at the highest level and he plays at the highest level now," he said.

"He's so positive toward his teammates. He's very hard on himself if he doesn't perform at the highest level, but he's never negative to his teammates. He always picks them up and has encouraging words.

"He's always willing to work with anyone and help in anyway. He's just a great guy. A great player and a great guy."

Zitnay, who also plays for the 60-and-over teams Columbia Reds (in Howard County) and High Street (in Anne Arundel County), said he doesn't track his batting average, except for on the travel team. However, he does try to win at least 100 games a year, an achievement he said he has notched for at least 15 years.

He's also a superior umpire, said John Joyce, 59, a former ballplayer who has competed against Zitnay and is now an umpire himself. "He and I have been around the game a lot," Joyce said. "It's kind of an advantage if you're a step ahead of the players, which he is."

A family of athletes

Co-owner of Patuxent Insurance in Columbia, Zitnay talks quickly in a low voice, tossing out lines and jokes that he's likely said many times before. He met his wife, Gail, when he was a lifeguard at a pool in Potomac. She was the assistant manager — his boss — and she's been his boss ever since, he says.

Gail, who retired last year from a long career as a physical education teacher at Bushy Park Elementary School, in Glenwood, is also athletic and took home medals in track and field events during the Senior Olympic Games in 2001.

The couple has two daughters and a son — Jennifer, 31, Andrew, 29, and Kathleen Stanton, 27. Stanton, who lives in Columbia, was a softball pitcher at Atholton High School, and was recently inducted into the Howard County Women's Athletics Hall of Fame and the Atholton High School Hall of Fame.

"I was trained by the best — my dad," said Stanton, who started playing with Howard County Youth Programs when she was about 10 years old and now plays on a slow-pitch coed team through the Howard County Recreation and Parks Department.

"He was my inspiration for just getting into softball in the first place," Stanton said of her father. "He's a fantastic ball player. … He'll probably play until the day his body just gives out on him and after that he'll probably coach."

Zitnay also coaches a swim group at Howard Community College. He works with kids 5 years old and older, training them over the winter so they are "better for the following summer," he said.

Growing up, Zitnay played shortstop and pitcher for his Fairfield Prep team. At the University of Maryland, he swam instead of playing baseball, beginning his softball career with fast pitch in 1973 with a team called the Mil Spec Fasteners. Two years later, he started a slow pitch team for the Columbia Jaycees and has been playing slow pitch ever since.

"It's been the love of my life, other than my wife and kids," he said.

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