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Sports

'Field of dreams ... without the corn'

BaseballWashington NationalsAmerican LegionNew York YankeesCincinnati RedsKorean War (1950-1953)

The ball leaps off the bat, kicks up dust and bounds toward right field, a sure hit.

Tom Coffin reckons not. The second baseman glides left, gloves the ball cleanly and throws the runner out. Coffin's teammates on the Colt .45s explode.

"Woo-hoo!"

"Way to go, Mr. Tom!"

"You showboat, you!"

Why the fuss? Coffin, a great-grandfather, is 73.

It's Sunday morning in Dundalk and, on the American Legion baseball field, geezers like Coffin are feeling their oats. Once a week, nearly 150 players — from middle-aged men who still cherish the game to 70-somethings who inspire the rest — compete in the 10-team Eastern Baltimore County Over 40 Baseball League. The melange of teachers, lawyers and truck drivers suit up in expansive double knits, swing bats with patriarchal gusto and swap good-natured banter as in days of yore.

They are not alone. In the Baltimore area, senior baseball leagues have also blossomed in Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties. Nationally, two organizations — the Men's Senior Baseball League, with 45,000 players, and Roy Hobbs Baseball (8,000) — hold postseason tournaments with age-group divisions ranging from 18 to 75-and-over.

"Baseball does a great job of keeping guys fit and extending their lives," said Brian Sigler, national coordinator for the MSBL. "You hear the same chatter in a 65-and-over game — 'C'mon, kid, let's strike him out' — that you'd hear in high school.

"Guys still have that itch; they never want to give it up."

Men's softball, Sigler said, doesn't cut it.

"Our motto is, 'Don't go soft, play hardball.' You've got to be more in shape for this," he said. "And you don't walk away [from softball] feeling that you've really competed. Playing in shorts is just not the same."

'One more summer in the sun'

Some oldtimers, like Coffin, stray from baseball but return. A retired steelworker, he hadn't played in 50 years when he dug out his cleats in 2010 after signing up his grandson for Little League.

"My first game back, I pulled a hamstring and thought, 'Why am I doing this?'" said Coffin, who starred at Dundalk High in the 1950s. "I've got children older than a lot of these guys. But it gets better every year. My arm is still weak, but I stole a base. I hit a double.

"Now if I can just get my timing back, maybe I can put one over the fence."

Coffin plays alongside first baseman Rex Frost, 69.

"The right side of my infield may be 142 years old," said Brian Weir, the Colt .45s manager, who is 53, "but they know the fundamentals and they make the plays."

Frost bats cleanup and, on this day, hit two singles and knocked in a run in his team's victory. He's hitting .389 despite an aching back (spinal stenosis), for which he takes four anti-inflammatory drugs before each game.

"Am I nuts? Probably, but there's no place I'd rather be," said Frost, a retired psychiatrist who lives in Phoenix. "Six months ago, my doctor told me I was dying, that I had killed my kidneys taking so many pills and that I needed dialysis."

Quit baseball, the doctor ordered. Frost refused.

"You only live once, and I don't have that many seasons left," the onetime Kenwood slugger said.

A month later came good news: The lab tests were wrong. Frost would be fine. In hindsight, he said, he'd have reacted no differently:

"If I knew that I'd die tomorrow, I'd be out here today."

His teammates understand. Some, like Eugene Beres of Glen Burnie, can hardly wait for game time.

"Every Sunday is like Christmas to me," said Beres, 47. "I can't sleep Saturday night. I'm like a little kid, coming out here. We're not 17 any more, but in my head I can still do it all.

"It's all about having a good time, one more summer in the sun."

Some would rather go out with their cleats on.

"Keeling over on the mound, or while running to first base, wouldn't be the worst way to go," John Wright said. "My father always said, 'Take my ashes and spread them on diamond No. 3 at Patterson Park.' That would work for me."

Wright, 69, plays first base and pitches for the A's in the Baltimore Senior Baseball Over 40 League, an eight-team loop out of Towson. Here, as elsewhere, rules bend for the elders. Metal cleats are out; likewise, metal bats.

"The ball comes off those bats too fast and our reflexes aren't what they used to be," commissioner Larry Solins said. "The mind says yes, but the body says nuh-uh."

Most pitches are clocked between 60 and 70 miles an hour. One pitcher throws 80. His nickname is Rocket.

The league has quadrupled in size since 2000 and now has a waiting list of graying wannabes.

"We're old guys. Nobody's fooling anybody," said Wright, of Hunt Valley. "I have neuropathy [numbness and tingling] in my feet and can barely run. And, at my age, these benches are so damn hard that I bring my own lawn chair. But look, the sun is out and we're playing baseball. What more can you ask?"

Hobnobbing with other oldtimers is a bonus, he said, given the unspoken mantra: What happens in the dugout stays in the dugout.

"It's much like a support group," Wright said. "Everybody has problems off the field, and when you're warming up, before a game, guys may open up a bit. Same as when there's a runner on first and I'll ask, 'How's the family?' It's like working in human resources."

'Field Of Dreams ... without the corn'

On this Sunday, at Pikesville High, Wright's team plays the Nationals, defending league champion, in a meeting of the league's oldest players. Jack Gordon, 71, is right fielder for the Nationals. An orthopedic surgeon, he always brings his doctor's bag along. Good thing. In the fifth inning, when the umpire experiences shoulder pain, Gordon treats him with a cortisone shot.

"I have a lot of patients here," Gordon said. "We used to come to games and talk about our physical exploits; now, we talk about our operations. I've had bypass surgery and both knees replaced.

"We may be a bunch of old misfits, but we're still out here. Our motto is: 'You don't stop playing baseball because you get old; you get old because you stop playing baseball.' "

Younger teammates agree.

"When you walk over that white line, it brings back the memories of 50 years ago," said the Nationals' Ron Boblooch, 57, of Towson. "You become a kid again. It's like 'Field Of Dreams,' but without the corn."

Tony Smelgus is so keen on senior baseball that, three years ago, he sought help from a hitting instructor at a batting cage in Timonium. At age 77.

"This game has taken 30 years off my life," said Smelgus, of Owings Mills. "And when I was 50, I was hot stuff."

A Korean War veteran, Smelgus is old enough to have seen Joe DiMaggio play for the New York Yankees, and to have had a young Mickey Mantle sign his glove. Earlier this month, after turning 80, he received a plaque for being the first octogenarian to compete in the Eastern Baltimore County League.

"I'm almost embarrassed to tell folks my age," said Smelgus, who plays for the first-place Reds. "I feel like I should say, 'Would you like to see me run?'

"I'll do this until that Sunday morning when I wake up and say, 'Oh, crap, I've got to go play ball.' Sure, I've pulled hamstrings, but even when you're hurt, it's a good hurt."

Smelgus alternates in right field with Chip Magee, 76, of Dundalk, who is as determined as he to stay fit for baseball.

"I do yoga, lift weights and run two miles a day," Magee said. "If it's hot, and I'm running, I pretend I'm chasing a fly ball. And I watch my diet. If I eat a hot dog I know that, next week, I'll probably get thrown out by a step at first base."

Magee played at Patterson (Class of 1955) but gave it up to work and raise a family. At 73, he said, baseball beckoned again.

"Hey, I still have all of my parts," Magee said. "I don't feel much different than when I played in high school — well, maybe the reflexes are slower by just a hair. Now I catch myself doing things I did then, like tensing up just before the ball is pitched, and taking a half-step forward in case it comes your way."

Stirring those old feelings has helped him remain vital.

"I'll play ball as long as I can walk," Magee said. "Why do it? Because I can."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Where to play senior baseball

•Baltimore Senior Baseball Over 40 League: seniorbaseball.org

•Chesapeake Men's Senior Baseball League (Anne Arundel County): chesapeakemsbl.com

•Churchville Rec Boys of Summer Baseball League (Harford): eteamz.com/bsbl/

•Eastern Baltimore County Over 40 Baseball League: over40baseball.org

•Ponce de Leon Baseball (Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Howard): pdlmaryland.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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BaseballWashington NationalsAmerican LegionNew York YankeesCincinnati RedsKorean War (1950-1953)
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