Senior Softball League is active, expanding, and equipped with a defibrillator
When the boys of summer trot out onto Jackson Park fields 8 and 9 on Monday and Friday mornings, they’re not quite as fast or agile as they once were. They don’t throw the ball as far or hit it as hard, and sliding is verboten: Most have had at least one joint replaced.
Sonny Johnston, president of the Henderson County Senior Softball League, says that’s not surprising for a group of men whose ages range from a low of 50 up to 85. But he was a comparatively youthful 63 when he was drafted by friends in Hendersonville in 2013 to join the group. And when he dusted off the glove he had put away more than 30 years before, his skills weren’t as rusty as he feared they might be.
“The beauty of this game is that you can play at whatever level you are comfortable with,” he says. “It just doesn’t matter — we just go out and enjoy it. It’s a great way to be active and around people your age and find that camaraderie we sometimes lose as we get older.”
Like many worthy endeavors, Henderson County Senior Softball started with a few retired guys sitting around talking, looking for something to do. Among Jackson Park’s many recreational opportunities were softball fields, so those seniors started playing and recruiting more retirees. Johnston credits the first president, Bill Gold, with injecting organization into the growing league in 2002, with the Jones brothers keeping things hopping: Moe (now 82), Herschel (84), and Dono (87) all hung up their caps in the past year. “They were very competitive guys, arguing with each other all the time; we loved having them out there,” says Johnston. “It’s been very quiet without them, but injuries forced them to stop playing.”
The easygoing pickup games begin with a little batting practice, warmups, and stretching. “Field 8 is for younger players with a little more skill and ability,” he says. “The older fellas, we all lose a bit as we age, but still want to play, and that’s Field 9.” Games start at 10am and they play 7 innings; if there’s still time and energy, they might play a second 5-inning game, and finish up around noon.
Because it’s slow-pitch softball, pitchers can easily throw a complete game. Catching, which in baseball is a grueling position, is not as taxing on the body in senior softball, where the catcher doesn’t crouch, but stands. “I like to catch,” Johnston admits. “It’s pretty light duty, and I get to chat with all the other players.”
He’s not jawing with the umpires, though, because the teams umpire themselves. They also tend to their own injuries and other more extreme possibilities. “We have ten players who are CPR certified, and we pay for that training, so at every game there is at least one player who knows CPR,” says Johnston. “We also have two defibrillators. One of our players had a heart attack during a game in 2010, and thankfully, we had that defibrillator. EMS told us later he wouldn’t be with us today if not for that.”
More competitive players can join the Hendersonville Sluggers for tournaments. The regional travel teams are divided into age levels: 60-70, 70-75, and 75 and over. The combined “70s Team” captured a bronze in the most recent National Senior Games in Columbus, Ohio, coached by Johnston, who took over from the recently deceased Mike Gibbs, the Sluggers’ national and state manager who led the team to numerous titles, including a silver medal. Regionally, the 60-70 team had a three-year streak of 77 consecutive wins under manager Mark Hammer, finally broken in early May by the Lake Lanier Legends.
“They’ve been trying to beat us for years,” Johnston says with a laugh. “It was a good rivalry, and we were okay with losing to them.”
Author Bradford “Brad” Swift, whom Johnston calls “an exceptional player,” is a member of the 70-74 age group currently in first place in the local Clayton League. “Being a part of this has truly enriched my life, and I’ve witnessed the same for many others,” Swift states to Bold Life.
Another player, Buzz Stickney, is not only one of the original trio of members — he also has all his original joints and says that, at age 85, he can still outrun some of the “youngsters,” meaning guys in their 50s. The second baseman can’t imagine not playing. “It gets you up off the couch. It’s just been wonderful.”
Johnston envisions a future of community service, charity events, and senior softball offered as a health activity. And, with all due respect to older members, he says the group is hoping to bring in additional younger players.
“People are working later into their lives these days, and not retiring at 60 or 65 like we used to. We invite them to stop working and come out and play.”