The call came from the Columbus Silver Sticks dugout, a warning about the U.S. Jobs opponent who was approaching home plate.
“Be ready, that guy is quick.”
That guy was more than 65 years old.
Everything taking place in the Independent Softball Association’s Senior World Championship Tournament at Lincoln Park and the Dunn Sports Complex on Friday morning was in relative terms.
Yes, these guys were old. The age divisions started at 50 and went through the 75-and-older division.
Yes, some of these guys were quick, for those holding AARP cards.
Mostly, they were darned good softball players.
“We’ve been playing in leagues all our lives,” said Dewey Whitis, a 1959 Columbus North graduate who plays for the 70-plus Direct Employers. “It’s not that hard if you stay active.”
Several of the players on Friday morning noted that a key to softball longevity is staying active in the sport. It’s no accident that most of the players were in pretty good shape. They’ve worked at it over the years.
“A lot of these guys bat every day of the week,” Whitis said. “I’ve got my own gym at home.”
Even when they work at it, trying to stay competitive as a senior can be difficult. “I’m normally in the outfield, but I pulled a hamstring six weeks ago,” Whitis said.
At least Whitis was on the field. Scipio’s Ron Cochran tore his hamstring during league play on Tuesday night at Lincoln Park so he had to watch the Columbus Silver Sticks’ opening game Friday morning. Unlike many of his fellow players, Cochran gave up a very successful softball career more than 20 years ago to race motorcycles. He was coaxed back into the sport this year.
“The last two years I played, we won national titles in the 45 and over division for Capitol Oil,” he said. “I guess I was just getting into other things and I had lost my enthusiasm. I was 46 when I stopped. I’m 67 now.”
Another major reason Cochran gave up softball is that he had a corneal disease that made it hard for him to play effectively at night. Many of the senior events now are played in daylight, and that helped to prompt his return.
“I never lost my enthusiasm for the game, and I missed a lot of my old friends,” he said.
Even though he was an accomplished player, he faced the same questions any senior must answer before getting back into a physical activity. “I didn’t know if I could run,” he said. “I didn’t know if I could throw. But I went to batting practices and the hitting worked pretty well. It look me a while, but I worked out the throwing part.”
He played about 30 games this season before hurting himself while running the bases on Tuesday. “I was trying too hard,” he said. “My brain was thinking my legs were faster than they were. I know now I have to keep my mind focused. I don’t want to try to run so hard.”
Despite hurting himself, Cochran said he will be back next season if he can’t return by the fall. “I will work through the winter building my strength,” he said.
Cochran gets inspiration from players like his teammate, Columbus’ Jim Norris. “I’ve had a hip replacement and there are times when the old legs won’t let you do it,” Norris said. “But you have to keep going. You have to pick your spots.”
On Friday morning, Cochran drilled a shot over the left fielder’s head, and shuffled quickly from home plate to third base for a triple. Once there, he bent over, hands on knees, catching his breath. “We just love to compete,” he said. “But when you play three or four games in a day, it beats up your body.”
Phil Pickens, watching from the bleachers, would love it if his body would be beaten up by three or four games in a day. He had to give up the game due to his hip replacement. Unlike Cochran, the surgeon told him not to run anymore.
“I’m 76 now, and I played until I was 68,” said Pickens who had been involved in slow-pitch softball in the area since it got rolling in the late 1950s. “I loved to compete and I loved the camaraderie. Those are pretty basic answers you would get if you asked these guys why they play.
“I started playing at Lincoln Park as a 10-year-old and I’ve been coast-to-coast because of softball. I find that you get to know these guys, their families, their woes. It gets into your blood.”
Pickens said it was 34 years ago that the city started a 40-and-older league. “In 1978, it was at the point where a lot of players were in their 40s and the guys 25 could hit the ball farther, run faster and play better. The 40-year-olds all had the same hangups. As time went on, people 50 and 55 were still playing against the 40-year-olds, so we started those divisions. Now we have an over-60 league on Tuesday nights.”
He then looked out at the field again, watching many of his softball peers loving their time on the field.
“I really miss playing,” he said.
Tournament play continues through Sunday.
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