Senior league baseball: An invitation to another day in the sun

Senior league baseball: An invitation to another day in the sun

How 55 men who are in or entering their golden years rediscovered the game of their youth.

Russ Florence

By Russ Florence

| Apr 3, 2024, 6:00am CDT

Russ Florence

By Russ Florence

Apr 3, 2024, 6:00am CDT

One day last spring, I looked at the 20 faces on the Zoom meeting, and noticed something: I was the oldest person in the room. 

A few days later, it happened again. Then again. I’m not sure how this transpired, or when.   

It’s easy to forget that I’m 60. Most days, I feel like a kid. I run four days a week. I practice yoga, and exercise, and play basketball in the driveway. I listen to rock ‘n roll at full volume. 

Ah, youth. 

Oh, and I have a 12-year-old boy.  

And so, when I received an invitation to play in a senior baseball league, I was bewildered. Why would I want to play ball with a bunch of old men? And then it dawned on me. The league is for men “60 and up.” I’ll be the youngest on the team. Maybe this is my chance to get it right.

When I was 8, my family moved to a new town. That summer I joined my first baseball team. I wasn’t a great player; my fielding and throwing were respectable, but I couldn’t hit to save my life. I was painfully shy, and the persistent strikeouts didn’t improve my popularity. My baseball career didn’t last long.

That was more than 50 years ago. Now, after a lifetime of studying and enjoying the game — and countless hours with my son and his team on the field — maybe I could knock in a run, or backhand a sharply hit grounder. 

Maybe I’ve got something. I wanted to try. But mainly, I didn’t want to embarrass myself.

‘Full-speed baseball’

When he was 8, Bill Bennett’s dad taught him to throw a curveball at the field at Del Crest Middle School, where Crutcho Creek runs parallel to the third-base line. “To me, it was like a major league park,” Bill said. “It was huge.” 

Fifty-five years later, Bill returned to that same field for another round of practice. It would take work. The reflexes weren’t what they once were. The muscle memory had faded. But when he heard about a startup league for men aged 60-plus, he knew he wanted in. After a lifetime of yearning for the game, he wanted to feel the pop in his mitt. He wanted to try to hit a fastball. He wanted a regulation field and certified umpires. He wanted wood bats, an official scorekeeper, and a dugout full of teammates. He wanted full-speed baseball. 

At least, as “full speed” as retirees can go. 

Bill Bennett wasn’t alone. When the effort first came together three years ago, about two dozen men showed up to toss the ball and play a light scrimmage. The next year, about 40 participated. They came together on Saturday mornings and divided themselves into teams like they did as youngsters on the playground. It was pure bliss. 

When the call went out for spring workouts in 2023, Gary Hamner, who along with Paul Martin started the league, had a goal. He wanted enough men to organize into four teams that would play each other for four months, ending with a tournament. 

To ensure that each team would have a dozen players, he would need 48. Gary got his wish. He got 55. 

The first workout was in mid-February. For several weekends, players and organizers met for batting practice, fielding, and throwing. It was more communal than competitive – like a family reunion. Several players knew each other from previous years. 

We came from a variety of professional backgrounds. Former politicians and reporters, energy executives and engineers, doctors and clergymen. And baseball players. Several played at the college level. A few went beyond. One of my teammates played in the Los Angeles Angels’ minor league system. 

As the spring progressed, something else was happening. We were being evaluated. Each player was scored on a scale of 1-5 on fielding, throwing, hitting, and running. League organizers would create the four teams, hoping to achieve some semblance of parity. 

By mid-May, we were assigned teams. That Saturday was our first team practice. We caught pop-ups, took batting practice, and got acquainted. Later, via text, there was a freewheeling conversation about the team’s name. For everyone who suggested the Cardinals, a Cubs fan vetoed it. For every Dodgers fan, a Giants fan tanked it. Finally, it was settled. Our coach and catcher, Gary Hamner, was a die-hard Yankees fan. Everyone agreed – even the Red Sox fans. We would be the Yankees. 

Our first game was in two weeks.  

A pregame circle at Del Crest Middle School in Del City. (Libby Smith/Photo provided)

A battle with the field

String together a fifteen-week season for a group of aging ball players, and you’re bound to hit some obstacles. Heat. Fatigue. Schedules. Injuries, aches, pains.

There’s also the battle with the field itself. First, finding one. It’s not as easy as you would think to secure a regulation-size field that’s available at the same time, every Saturday. 

For the league’s first two years, it was a week-to-week endeavor. Most often the players ended up at Little Axe High School, about a half-hour east of Norman. But they wanted something more centrally located. That’s when Del Crest became an option. It seemed to meet all the criteria: It was available every Saturday. It was free. It was easily accessible. There was only one issue: It looked like a cattle pasture that hadn’t been grazed in years. 

Located six miles east of downtown Oklahoma City, Del Crest Middle School opened in 1962 in a working-class neighborhood just north of I-40. There it remained the quintessential all-American school – spelling bees, school carnivals, PTA meetings – until it consolidated with another Del City school and closed in 2020. 

Sure, you can use the baseball field, school administrators said when Paul Martin approached them. You’ll need to get your own insurance. Oh, and maintenance? That’s up to you. 

Consider this: On a regulation-size field, the distance from home plate to the center-field wall is about four hundred feet. The distance from foul pole to foul pole is about five hundred feet. That’s almost five acres of turf and dirt that should be maintained to exacting standards, to create a playing surface that’s smooth, predictable and, ideally, looks like Camden Yards. 

Now consider this: The Baltimore Orioles employ about twenty-five groundskeepers. That’s two dozen people trained in turf management, soil science, and aeration, working full-time, presumably with a handsome budget, using the best research and equipment available.  

The senior league doesn’t have such resources. But they have something else. They have four dozen men with riding mowers, harrow rakes, sprinkler systems, edgers, wheelbarrows, and time on their hands. Greg Cloud, who coached the Classics, and Paul Martin, who coached the Dodgers, led the charge. 

By the season opener, Del Crest field sparkled. It was fresher than it had been in decades. If only the players could say the same. 

Respecting your limits

Six of the first nine games were rained out, or the field — the old beauty who had been brought back to life with hours of work — was unplayable. There is no tarp to protect the mound or the infield. The field slants toward the left, meaning the third-base area is prone to becoming a boggy mess. 

Finally, the season kicked off on Memorial Day weekend. There would be two games every Saturday — one beginning at 9 a.m., the other at noon. The atmosphere was festive. The umpire walked to home plate. The flag was raised. As became customary, players from both teams gathered around the home-plate circle for a communal huddle, some ribbing, appreciation for the field crew, and a prayer. 

My teammate Dave Baker, a retired music minister from Mustang, played the national anthem on his trumpet while we faced the flag in centerfield. Later in the summer, when the heat became oppressive, there were some Saturdays when no family or fans were there to watch. Still, we stood quietly while a teammate held the sheet music, and the sound of Dave’s trumpet echoed around the neighborhood.  

It was time. I started at the same position I had played the last time I was in a uniform. And the nerves were back. Wanting to prove myself. Not wanting to let the team down. I knew that as soon as I fielded my first play, the butterflies would settle. I trusted my ability to get to the ball. 

A little too much, it turns out. 

In the first inning, a ground ball was hit just to the right-field side of second base. I reached while running to my right, or maybe I half-dived, or lunged, or maybe I just tripped on the ground. In any event, I went down. I ducked my shoulder, rolled a couple of times, and emerged in a cloud of dust. But something was wrong. Something on the high inside of my right thigh. Dave, our shortstop, checked on me. I tried walking it off, stretched, and insisted that I was fine. A few batters later, I tried covering second on a double-play ball, and the pain was too much. I had to come out. 

My teammates consoled me. “We’ve all done it,” they said, “You learn your limits. And you learn to respect your limits.”

A couple of innings later, I went back in. (Unlike the big leagues, in the senior league you can return to the game after you’ve come out.) I fielded a few more grounders which, fortunately, were hit right at me. I faked it as best as I could. “Just pulled a little something,” I said to my teammates. “I’ll be fine.” 

I wasn’t fine. The next morning, there was a deep, dark bruise on my inner thigh, all the way down to my knee. It was a groin pull at the very least, but likely a torn muscle. The best remedy is time, rest, and ice. Fortunately, the next two weeks were rained out. 

Later in the season, I had reached first base, then advanced to second on a hit to left. In chasing the ball, the left fielder for the Classics pulled a hamstring. As he was helped off the field, I chatted with their shortstop, Serg Factuar, and told him about my Opening Day injury. 

“Oh, I did the same thing,” he said. “I went out too hard and learned a lesson.” 

“But in your first game?” I asked him. “In the first inning?” 

“Well,” he said. “No.”

We went on to win our season opener over the Pirates, 20-0. I went 0-for-2 with an RBI groundout and a walk. 

We were off and running. Or at least jogging. Very gingerly.

Pirates catcher Bill Bennett (Shane Smith/Photo provided)

The Little Leaguer I never was

Patterns and customs emerged. On game days, league organizers and players for the first game arrived at Del Crest by 7:30 a.m. They would prep the field, chalk the lines, manicure the mound, and drag the infield. Small tractors, ATVs, pickups and other equipment dotted the area. The men went about their work with equal measures of duty and joy. 

Come August, some patterns had developed on the field, as well. The Pirates had yet to win a game. (They also were the most good-humored team in the league, laughing off their misfortune with every bobbled grounder or infield bloop.) The Classics and Dodgers occupied the middle of the standings, both teetering around .500.

Meanwhile, our team, the Yankees, were on a roll. By mid-September, we were 9-1. As much fun as the season was, we kept reminding ourselves that we were just in it for the fun, right?

Our ace on the mound was Rob Workman. The name fit. He started every game he was available and often went seven innings, which is a full game in the league. Rob pitched for Oklahoma State for a year in the 1970s. He was a steady presence for us. When the defense held tight, Rob kept runs off the board. 

Our hitting was solid — singles, anyway. Only a few still have the power to hit the ball to the fence, and if they do, they often don’t have the speed to turn it into a double. But anything in this league that lands in the outfield grass is ruled an automatic base hit. At mid-season, many of our players were batting in the high .300s.   

One of them was Wayne Mibb. He’s one of three players who made the weekly drive from Tulsa. Wayne lives in Pryor, which means that for early games, he was up at 5 a.m., to catch his ride with his teammates in Owasso. Wayne spent the first innings of morning games yawning and rubbing his eyes, while simultaneously batting .435.  

Dave Schumacher was another member of the Tulsa crew. With slicked-back hair, a stars-and-stripes bandana, and wrap-around sunglasses, Dave perpetually looks like he just got off a Harley. One morning during pre-game warm-ups, I was jogging along foul territory when I passed Dave, who had run to the right-field pole and stopped. 

“You okay?” I asked. 

“Yeah,” he laughed. “I ran out here, and now I gotta get back.” 

Phil Blevins, a utility player from Minco, marveled at our good fortune. “Can you believe it?” he said one day, shaking his head, an ever-present toothpick in his mouth. “Can you believe we still get to play this game? I thought I’d never get to play again.” And yet, here we were, counting the days every week until Saturday – game day – and putting together a string of wins, to boot.

Early before one game, a player from the opposing team jogged across the field to say good morning and good luck. “But not too much,” he said to us. “You guys need to slow down. Man, you need some losses.”

I took the compliment but also felt compelled to keep it in check. 

“Hey, don’t look at me,” I said. “I’m just trying to hit .200.”

He thought I was joking. 

As a kid, I learned to use the pitchers’ unpredictability to my advantage. Let him throw enough pitches and you’ll earn a walk, or take one in the ribs and get on base. Initially, my approach in the Senior League was the exact opposite. My selection was terrible. I treated every pitch as if it were the only one I would see. I came out swinging, but I was behind on everything, which resulted in too many weak grounders that didn’t leave the infield. 

Eventually, it got better. I moved closer to the plate and up in the box. I learned to be patient, and to develop a plan between each pitch, depending upon the count and the situation. I spent a few Sunday afternoons at the batting cage, and got better at turning my hips, keeping my head level, and loosening my grip. 

My average never topped .250, but I rarely struck out and often put the ball in play to advance a runner. And on the occasion when I had a solid base hit — the ball hitting squarely off the barrel, the sound reverberating, the infielders watching the ball sail over their head – I ran cooly to first base like it was another ho-hum day at the ballpark. Inside, I wanted to scream and pump my fist in the air. Or maybe, I just wanted to act like the Little Leaguer that I never was. 

David Baker, shortstop for the Yankees and national anthem trumpet player. (Russ Florence/Sellout Crowd)

‘One of the best summers I’ve had’

During a game against the Pirates, I hit another grounder to the shortstop, who threw me out to end the inning. Jogging to the dugout, I crossed paths with the Pirates’ left fielder.

“Hey,” I told him, “I’ll try to get one out there to you next time.”

He waved his hands. “No, no, don’t,” he said. “I’m doing fine out there. Don’t make me work.” He laughed, slapped me on the back with his glove, and kept on. 

It was a typical exchange for the summer. The camaraderie wasn’t just among teammates. It ran throughout the league. Players from opposing teams bantered with one another, yucked it up on the bases, and congratulated each other for good plays.  

And some Saturdays, a player found himself in another team’s dugout. If a team was short-handed, it was common for players from another team to step in. This meant that occasionally, some men played two games in a day – one on their original team, and one as a replacement.   

In those instances, no one raised his hand more than Bruce McGrew, a morning radio deejay in Chickasha. Bruce would pitch for his team, the Dodgers, then play in the outfield, then catch for the next team, and then pitch some more. The running joke was that no one knew who Bruce played for, because he was always on the field. 

Still, there is nothing like the bonds that form within a team. 

It was mid-September and our team was enjoying a great run, when a midweek group text came from Wayne Mibb, the player from Pryor. “I don’t know about anyone else,” he said, “but this has been one of the best summers I’ve had in forty years … I’ve had a great time playing the sport we all love, and you all have been great teammates.”

Phil Blevins chimed in: “I really thought I would never get to play baseball again. And what makes it even better has been the guys I got to meet and be teammates with. Y’all are awesome.”  

On it went – the commendations, the reflections, the gratitude. It was the group-text version of the last night of summer camp, sitting around the fire and wishing it would never end.  

Yankees pitcher Rob Workman, a former OSU player. (Shane Smith/Photo provided)

‘What’s with the lights’

Despite the early-season rainouts, league organizers were adamant that every team play 14 games — even if it extended the season into October, which it did. But by October 1, the playoff standings were set, and they decided to proceed with the tournament. The first rounds would be at Del Crest. The championship and consolation rounds would be played at Dobson Field at Oklahoma Christian University. After that, one final regular-season game would be played, ensuring that each team played a full schedule. 

We were the top seed in the tournament, and barely escaped the winless Pirates in the first round, 17-16. The championship game was set with our Yankees (11-1) facing the Classics (7-4), a team we had beaten three times.  

It was seasonably cool. This was, after all, October baseball. A handful from our team arrived early, bags of cheeseburgers in hand, to watch the early game between the Dodgers and Pirates. The lights were on by the time our game started, and a small crowd – small, but our largest of the year – had gathered in the bleachers. 

After a season at Del Crest, it was a treat to be at Dobson Field. The infield is artificial turf, which gave ground balls more zip, but also more predictability. The dugouts seemed enormous – shelves for gloves, compartments for bats, hooks for bags and jackets, and plenty of room. They made the Del Crest dugouts seem like small, overcrowded cages. 

With the novelty came adjustments. Playing in an unfamiliar setting can jolt your rhythm. The game was set for 8 p.m., meaning it would last well past 10 — a time many of us would normally be crawling into bed.

The biggest adjustment was that it was our first time playing under the lights. We were reminded of Shoeless Joe Jackson’s character in “Field of Dreams.” “What’s with the lights?” he asks Ray Kinsella in the Iowa cornfield. “Makes it harder to see the ball.”

The weirdness would serve as a portent for what came next. We were off our game.

Our lineup had been rearranged. Our starting catcher and coach, Gary Hamner, was out with Covid. Our ace pitcher was out. But our hitters and fielders were intact, and we had patched together a few bullpen wins during the season. Surely, we would find our groove.     

We didn’t. Our best hitters struck out or popped up. Our bullpen struggled to find the plate. Meanwhile, it was like batting practice for the Classics. All night, they hit the ball to the warning track. Their pitcher kept us off-balance, changing speeds and living on the edges of the strike zone. 

What was supposed to be our grand finale turned into a route. We lost 15-4. I was the last at-bat, another slow dribbler to second. Jogging off the field, I overheard one of the Classics’ infielders ask dryly, “Aren’t we supposed to, like, dogpile or something?”

We packed our bags and shuffled off into the night, frustrated. But at least there would be one more game. One more chance to make it right. 

Senior league action at Del Crest Middle School. (Shane Smith/Photo provided)

One more miracle

That year, if it rained in only one small part of Oklahoma City, it was at Del Crest. In late October, two nights before the final Saturday games, the field received a half-inch of rain. No other player, even those living within a few miles, reported any rainfall. Once again, the grounds crew were at the field all day on Friday. Water had pooled in the low-lying area around third base. The men siphoned it off the field. They dragged it with small tractors, turned the dirt, and raked it some more. By late Friday afternoon, the crew had created another miracle. The field was ready. 

At least for the moment. Early the next morning, a small tractor that’s used to rake the infield got stuck. The area around third base was still a mess. And then came the dreaded text message: The games would have to be canceled. 

But in a league with 55 men, you have at your fingertips a world of expertise. If there’s a problem, someone can probably fix it. On this weekend, that was Mike Hancock, who owns a construction company. He shot back a text message to the entire league: 

“What if I bring my skid steer with its rake and dry out the infield? I bet we can play.” After a moment he answered his question and sent another text. “Stay there and everyone show up. Game on.” 

The coaches and grounds crew talked and decided to give it a try. The players who had gone home turned around and returned to the field. I arrived at 8:15 a.m. It was cold, gray, and breezy, and the field was populated by 20 guys who just wanted to play ball. 

We were getting reports about Mike’s progress. We waited. We crossed our fingers. We wondered what was taking so long. It almost seemed like he needed a police escort. 

Finally, a large truck arrived beyond the outfield. Down the ramps came the machinery, through the wide gates, and across the outfield. It was Mike in the driver’s seat. But in our minds, it was like Edwin Diaz entering from the bullpen – the fanfare, the anticipation, the cheers. I swear, I heard Timmy Trumpet. 

Mike went to work. Like old men, we watched. “How many senior baseball players does it take to prepare an infield?” we joked. “Twenty. One to work and 19 to watch.” We all wished we had shovels to lean on. 

Within an hour, the patient had been resuscitated. The field — and the third-base corner — looked as good as it had all year. Once again, we warmed up. Once again, we readied ourselves to do what we had looked forward to doing all week. Once again, we played ball. 

Shane Smith, left, and David Baker before a game. (Photo by Russ Florence)

One more day of summer

A full one-third of the players were out — weddings and hunting trips, college football, and grandkids’ birthday parties. A couple of teams had only half of their line-up, meaning several men volunteered to play two that day. Ernie Banks, eat your heart out. 

We met around the home plate circle. There was thanksgiving, and announcements. The co-founder of the league, Paul Martin had been in the hospital with pneumonia. Paul is in his mid-70s, had cared for the field, coached, and played third base. He’s the epitome of what this league is about. But pneumonia is nothing to shrug off. 

Then, Bruce McGrew, the erstwhile radio deejay who couldn’t get enough baseball, asked for everyone’s attention. He talked about “For Love of the Game,” a Kevin Costner movie about an aging ballplayer who’s trying to squeeze in another year. 

“It’s a fitting movie for this group,” he said, “and one scene in particular,” when legendary broadcaster Vin Scully says the only thing the players want is to “push the sun back up in the sky and give us one more day of summer.” 

“And that’s what we have here today,” Bruce said. “We have one more day of summer.” 

Baseball is a game of second chances. A chance at another at-bat. A chance to make right on an error. So, too, is this league. We can un-do the decision we made to stop playing too soon – to feel, again, what it’s like when the bat connects solidly with the ball. To toss a ball across the infield, or to laugh in the dugout with your friends. A second chance to play a child’s game on a patched-up field on a Saturday afternoon. 

I had wondered if playing with men decades past their prime would make me feel old. It did not. Call it irony, call it serendipitous, or call it magic — it gave me a second chance to feel young again. 

For more information

The OKC Senior League Baseball League begins its 2024 season in May. The teams play every Saturday at Del Crest Field in Del City. For more information about the league, contact Gary Hamner at (405) 203-4391 or [email protected]

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Russ Florence is a partner and CEO of the consulting firm of Schnake Turnbo Frank. His career has spanned journalism, public relations, and leadership development. Russ is an alumnus of Oklahoma State University. He’s a lifelong fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, but his true passion is Minor League and college baseball. He has attended every Men’s College World Series since 1999. Russ lives in Oklahoma City with his wife Lauren, an artist, and their son, Luke. He can be reached at (918) 633-8587 and [email protected].

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