John Reidy, 58, played in his first softball game either three or four years ago; he's not sure which.
But the Columbia resident, who works in a Columbia Mall deli, is certain that he likes playing the game. He got what his coach says might have been his first hit two weekends ago in Anne Arundel County. Reidy, though, says he has had other hits.
No matter. Reidy was looking forward to a slow-pitch tournament today in Ellicott City. He's an outfielder - right field, mainly - for the Howard County Hawks, the local entry in a 16-team field playing in the fourth Special Olympics Softball Invitational at Kiwanis-Wallas Park.
Teams are due from 10 Maryland counties and Baltimore, making the tournament the largest Special Olympics event other than the State Summer Games next month in College Park.
The Hawks, coached by Columbia resident Dave Engler for the past four years, have 20 players, Reidy is the eldest, and 14-year-old Brian Silva, another Columbian, is the youngest. Using mostly the same players, the co-ed team has won two gold medals and one silver in the past three summer games. But it has yet to outscore an opponent this season, which consists of practices at Cypressmeade Park in western Ellicott City, a few scrimmages, today's tournament and the summer games. But Engler said he is not worried.
"One thing about this team," he said, "is that, for some reason, they just play their hearts out - they make phenomenal plays - during the state games."
Special Olympics teams compete according to ability and are judged for medals, said Engler, who has a son with Down syndrome on the team and has been active in Special Olympics in a couple of states for the past 20 years. All players have some degree of mental retardation and, typically, physical disabilities. Two Hawks players have only one arm.
His players, Engler said, range from being "powerful hitters to just being able to bunt," but with practice, "the capabilities of these clients is much more than anyone suspects."
Engler, a recycling commodities broker, said Special Olympics has been "doing a lot more these days with team sports," in addition to individual sports such as track and swimming.
"Team games really bring out players' abilities - and they get to understand the concept of being a team," he said. "As far as accomplishment is concerned, no doubt they play beyond their abilities. At the end of the day, I don't think there's a better feeling than to see these guys get their medals."
Reidy said he signed up for the Hawks "because it's a competitive sport. It's fun, but it's not whether we win or lose. It's what they say about our Olympics - trying to play is what matters."
Other Hawks players: Alex Barnes, Juan Carroll, Zach Decker, David Engler, Monica Evans, Katherine Klatka, Jeff Krischik, Adam Linker, Kenny Long, Jimmy Miller, Steve Miller, Christopher Pinos, Anthony Sipocz, Wayne Slifker, Sam Smith, Tyson Smith, Mark Worley and Matt Wrathall.