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BODY AGES, BUT NOT LOVE FOR SOFTBALL

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It usually starts with baseball, and for many it carries over into softball as the temples gray and the waistlines expand.

The physical appearance changes with each passing year, but not that inner feeling. Once it's there, it never leaves.

It's that competitive fire of playing a boy's game and loving every minute of it. You might call it an addiction, but it is a healthy one.

To fulfill that need for the older guys, the Anne Arundel County 50-and-over Men's Slo-pitch Softball League was formed five yearsago with three teams. It grew to six teams, eight last year and now 10 teams.

And you can point to that fire burning inside of George "Whacko" Kelch for fueling the expansion. Probably the best thing that ever happened to the league was when Kelch jumped ship after two years with perennial power Wooden Nickel to start his own team, Spindler's Roll-off.

Kelch went out on his own, and so did Tony Campagna,to form Betty & Jakes, the two leaving a championship outfit but stoking the expansion fires in the process.

The result is a top-notch, 10-team circuit of over-50 guys who play, maybe not as fast, but certainly with the same zest that inspired them to play the game when they were kids.

This weekend the good old boys of summer are celebrating with a gala Seniors Invitational Tournament at Upton Park in Severn. The 10 local teams will vie with 13 out-of-towners in three divisions.

Play begins today at Upton and officially will kick off the weekend with an old-fashioned bash at the Elks Club on Stevenson Road in Severn tonight.

On the field, 50, 55 and 60-and-over divisions will be contested with many of the die-hards playing in all three.The trio of champions will qualify for the Senior Olympics in Bowie and the finals at Towson State University this fall.

"We love to play the game, never stopped," said Kelch, a Pasadena resident and oneof the all-time great characters. "This league has come a long way thanks to a lot of people."

Among those people are county Rec and Parks facilities manager Don Brooks and Don Halas of the Last Chance team that now plays under the guise of the Greyhounds.

Brooks, who used to play for skipper Halas and the Last Chance team in the 35-and-over division, encouraged the guys to start a 50-and-over circuit. Together, Brooks and Halas started a 48-and-over league, which graduated to 50 and over.

The 48-and-over league was the pilot program, and it didn't take long to catch on.

Soon Kelch heard about it, andbeing the great organizer that he is, rounded up a group of luminaries and coaxed popular Wooden Nickel proprietor John Boring into sponsoring a team.

Kelch is still the quintessential kid, like the one a lot of us grew up with. You know, the kid who organizes the pickup games by bringing everyone together, choosing up sides by tossing thebat up to the opposing manager, and then putting fist over fist up to the knob, where the last one with three fingers on top gets to choose the best player.

Whacko gets people going and certainly has in this league, and instead of putting years on the guys, it appears to have taken them off.

Through the coaxing of Kelch and the notorious Jean "Frenchy" Letan, things started happening.

Frenchy is one of those guys who attracts others, friends and foes, the kind some people love to hate while others yearn to be on his side. When we talk about fires, Frenchy has had a burning forest fire inside him since the days when kids played on the sandlots from sunup to sundown, if they could get a field.

"I grew up when all the baseball diamonds in Brooklyn, the city and county were taken all day long with guys playing pickup games," said Frenchy. "Then, at night you would go play foryour Little League team.

"Nowadays, the kids have too many other things to do, and you can get a field during the day any time you want it."

Frenchy, like many other guys, got into fast-pitch softballafter baseball. In baseball and later in fast-pitch, Frenchy was oneof the best hitters to ever play the game. He played fast-pitch during its heydays in Baltimore when softball legend Frank Taylor ruled the city.

But with the boom of slo-pitch in the last decade, Frenchy has made the switch he never thought he would make and has taken his big bat with him.

"No, I never thought I would play slo-pitch because I always thought it was a sissy game, but as I got older and hit 50, I realized that this is the way to go when you still love to play," said Frenchy, who helped talk former Baltimore Orioles outfielder (1959-1962) Barry Shetrone into playing for Wooden Nickel.

At first, Shetrone, who went from pro baseball to fast-pitch softball, balked, but when he heard that Frenchy and many other guys he had playedwith were getting involved, he decided to give it a try.

Shetronequickly became one of the better all-around hitters and outfielders in the 50-and-over league. Still rather lanky and lean for a guy in his mid-50s, Shetrone still swings the bat with authority and runs well. He was noted for his speed with the Orioles and still shows flashes today.

While Shetrone is the only former major-leaguer we know of in the league, many other luminaries compete. They include Campagna, Jim Price and Gus Cesanaro of Betty & Jakes; ageless Bill "Sarge" Largent of Old Gold; Harry Hubbard of the Greyhounds; Walt Gentry of Spindler's; Jerry Kosar of Our Place; and George Stevens of Wooden Nickel.

Each of those guys has a claim to fame in his own right. Campagna is noted as one of the best and most competitive to ever play the game as he proved by telling league champion Wooden Nickel goodbye a couple of years ago and fielding his own team.

Even at this age,the guys conduct recruiting wars for the top players and Campagna, Kelch and Letan are among the best for going out and getting the big guns. Price and Cesanaro are two gems landed by Campagna.

Price, who was a big hitter with the old Greenbelt Shell team in Montgomery County, is in the National Slo-pitch Hall of Fame. Jimbo shows off his light-tower power every once in awhile.

Cesanaro was a well-known youth baseball and football coach in Rosedale, Baltimore County, and for a couple of years he was head baseball coach at the University ofBaltimore.

Largent, who sports a snow-white beard on a bright redface that would shame Santa Claus, is pushing 70.

Sarge, an ex-military man, works out and swims nearly every day at the Glen Burnie Spa. He not only plays 50 and over, but he has been a backup on local 35-and-over clubs in recent years. The well-conditioned and very popular Sarge also has had a couple of heart bypass operations, which he told me once "was nothing."

Hubbard, another retired military man,is a shortstop who obviously handed down the skills of middle infield play to his son, Glenn, who played with the Atlanta Braves and Oakland A's.

Gentry was one of the best quarterbacks to play semipro football in the mid-Atlantic area. Kosar threw together players from three different league teams, including his own Our Place club, last summer and guided the pickup team to a surprising Eastern Regional Championship.

Stevens is one of the finest shortstops to play fast-pitch or slo-pitch. Even in his 50s, he's as smooth as ever and could safely be tabbed the league's answer to Mark Belanger.

It's a league of famous names from years gone by in baseball and softball with its share of characters.

But most importantly, it's a fun league of guys who always will have that fire and little boy in them.

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