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Forever young for Carroll's senior softball players

On a Monday morning after a long holiday weekend, a group of Carroll County men are heading back to work.

But this group isn't reporting to an office. Instead, they're in the sunshine on a tucked-away field at the Carroll County Sports Complex in Westminster. With gloves and bats in hand, they've come to play softball.

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The Carroll Blue and Carroll Gray teams are the area's representatives in the Baltimore Beltway Senior Slow Pitch Softball League. Both teams compete in the league's "A" Division, which also includes representatives from Howard County, Harford County, Catonsville, and Dundalk. The league runs from April through August, with a season-ending double-elimination tournament to determine the champion.

The two Carroll County teams split a doubleheader on Monday. In the opener, Carroll Blue (9-17) utilized a two-run homer by Jerry Bowen and a single by Jim Jarvis that brought home Hank Zuretti with the winning run in a 7-6 win over its local rival. The Carroll Gray squad (14-10) was dominant in the nightcap, getting two hits or more from six different players in a 9-3 victory.

Monday's meeting was the third doubleheader between the teams since they faced off in the 2014 league finals. Carroll Gray, which competed in the league's "C" Division when the team was created in 2007, won the Baltimore Beltway "A" Division title last summer. It defeated the Carroll Blue squad twice on the season's final day to take the crown.

Senior softball came to Carroll County in 1994, when Harry Griffith secured seed money from Farmers & Merchants Bank and put together the inaugural team. Griffith, whose jersey No. 1 was retired in a June ceremony, was definitely onto something. By 2007, the roster had grown so large that a second Carroll County team was added.

"When we joined, we were the sixth team in the league and now there are 19 in all three divisions," said Griffith, who retired from competitive softball in 2012. "Having my jersey retired was quite an honor, and I'm very humbled by it."

The minimum age for a league player is 60, but the average age for both Carroll teams in closer to 70. While the players' skill level remains high, their range has diminished with age. Teams are allowed to put 11 players in the field. In addition to the pitcher and catcher, each squad has five infielders and four outfielders. Designated runners, who line up behind home plate and take off for first when the ball is hit, are also permitted.

"In this league, guys can still field and throw, and they'll hit the ball a ton," said Keith Purcell, 62, who is Carroll Blue's second baseman and a former collegiate baseball player at the University of Maryland. "The problem is their range, which they just don't have like they did in their 20s, 30s, and 40s."

But while the players still bring a competitive spirit to the field, it's the enjoyment of the game that takes precedence.

"It's just the thrill of competition, and the camaraderie," said Junior Zepp, the player-manager of Carroll Blue, and 14-year veteran of the league. "They're just a group of good guys. We pretty much have two players for each position. It's very important to have depth in case of injury, to have someone that can step in."

Senior softball also provides a necessary outlet for players who can't get enough of the sport, even if they have been away from it for years.

"It's a game that I started playing as a kid," said Purcell, who resides in Silver Run. "I started with baseball, and after college I played softball until I was 33 years old. Then I had kids, and coached their teams. So I haven't played a competitive sport since my 30s. This is a tremendous group of guys, and it was a natural thing to do after [Bowen] asked me to come out for the team."

While Purcell is in his first year with Carroll Blue, there are plenty of veterans who show no interest in stepping down. Earl "Sonny" Long, the left fielder for Carroll Gray, has been a part of the league for the past seven years.

"I've played softball all my life," said the 67-year old Long, a Union Bridge resident who played his first three seasons with Carroll Gray while still employed at Random House. "I really enjoy being with the fellas. Every year since 2009, it seems that we've gotten better. You see a lot of great over-60 ballplayers playing their hearts out."

While many of the players are retirees, several still work at part-time or full-time jobs. But interest in the league runs high. On Monday, the Gray team suited up 12 players, while the Blue squad had 19 men in uniform.

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"We try to get younger every year, as these guys are getting older," said John Myers, who is in his 10th year as a player and became Carroll Gray's manager in 2010. "I don't go out and actively advertise the team. A lot of our players come from word of mouth. They have great rapport, and enjoy each other. We just try to get a lineup that helps these guys be successful."

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