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Health : Old Boys of Summer Get Their Innings

This is another in an intermittent series of articles exploring the activities--from wholesome to adventurous to downright risky--that people pursue in order to remain vigorous and healthy.

March 26, 1985|GARY LIBMAN

UPLAND — Playing slo-pitch softball on a recent Saturday, white-haired Frank Jodoin, 51, slid into home plate, ripping his pants at the knee and scraping himself.

On another play, the Northrop Corp. senior buyer steamed into third base with a triple.

Later, he was knocked off the pitching rubber by a line drive. After being hit, he crawled after the ball and threw out a runner from his knees.

At Greenbelt Park--beneath snow-capped Mt. Baldy and next to an empty lot where thousands of yellow buds grew wild and bent in a slight breeze--Jodoin played five games Saturday and eight Sunday in a tournament for men over 39.

"I'd be lying if I didn't say I was sore," he said at his Pico Rivera office a day later. "But I feel great. I played every position but right field and first base, and I had a good time. I think even a young guy would be sore after 13 games.

"You know the thing that impressed me most? When you play with young guys and you make an error, everyone jumps on you. Here nobody jumped on anybody. A couple of guys made a lot of errors. We just tried to boost their morale."

Softball for men over 40 is a growing phenomenon in the United States. No one has counted the teams, but the Amateur Softball Assn. of Oklahoma City lured 32 teams to an invitational tournament for men over 35 last year in Bloomington, Minn. This year the organization is adding the category to its list of more than 30 national championships in various age groups and categories.

The United States Slo-Pitch Softball Assn. of Petersburg, Va., has sponsored national championships for men over 40 since 1981.

In Sacramento, about 240 players will compete this summer in the Golden Seniors Softball Club league for men over 50, while in St. Petersburg, Fla., four teams play in a league for men over 75.

A league for men 39 and older began three years ago in El Monte and the same age group is playing in 21 weekend tournaments, including the recent Upland event, scheduled for Southern California this year.

Errol Laugeson of Upland helped organize the league and the tournaments with rules that make only a few concessions to age.

A player requesting a pinch runner can return to the game, and a runner overrunning a base can't be tagged out unless he advances toward the next base. That rule is designed to limit injuries by diminishing the need to slide.

Metal cleats are outlawed in another concession to safety, and the rules also say, "No throwing bats (children present)" and "No swearing or foul language (ladies and children present)."

A Few Accidents

Few injuries occurred in the Upland tournament, although Jerry Sheehy, 53, left limping on a badly sprained ankle he twisted while hitting. Sheehy, who teaches handicapped children in Costa Mesa, called the accident a freak that could have felled a player of any age.

When someone was hurt, he was treated gingerly. After one player injured his legs and wanted to stop playing, his manager offered encouragement. "Everybody here has to work Monday," the manager said. "We're not going to pressure anybody to play."

Laugeson, 44, a slight, six-foot-tall strawberry blond and a former Minnesota high school track star, began organizing competition for men over 39 because he saw them beaten down in leagues dominated by 20-year-olds.

"I've seen guys get on them when they make an error and it's like they're intimidated and they fall apart," he said. "When I formed tournaments, older players would ask if they would be playing against younger players. If I said yes, they'd say 'Count me out.' That's when the idea came to try masters tournaments.

"I think a lot of guys . . . want to play but they don't because in the younger leagues the name of the game is speed and if they can't run they're not wanted."

Players feel very wanted in Laugeson's tournaments. Under a bright sky on the recent Saturday, they began competing at 8:30 a.m. and continued until darkness halted the championship game at 5:40 p.m. Each of seven teams played at least three games and some played six or seven.

Reluctant to Stop

The manager of the winning team, Upland insurance agent Gary Poulter, 48, wearing a T-shirt proclaiming "World's Greatest Grandpa," hurt his foot on a play at second base and was limping by the end of the day. Nevertheless, he was reluctant to stop playing.

"I think this is the greatest thing to come along for guys over 40," he said. "Everybody is on an equal level, everybody plays and everybody has a good time."

For every dropped fly or booted grounder there was a running, twisting catch or a backhanded stab. For every hitter who asked for a pinch runner, there was another who ran the bases like someone 20 years younger.

One player, Ron Swenson, 39, a senior auditor for the state of California, hit four consecutive home runs over the chain link fence 250 feet away, while another, Percy Coleman, 51, backhanded a hard-hit ball at third base and started a double play.

Coleman, a food market supervisor from Laguna Hills, teased a teammate who went back and then came in on a fly ball before "surrounding" it. A tall, trim man who once played competitive softball in Ohio, he also encouraged the umpire to hurry the opposing team onto the field between innings because the opponents might get tired.

That was about as contentious as anyone got with the men in blue all day. The tournament was notably lacking in an American tradition--umpire baiting.

"You hear the initial frustration and a guy says 'Ump!' " said team manager Wes Horen, 51, applying an ice cube to a bruised thumb between games, "and that's about as far as it goes. I've never seen a full argument.

"We're old enough to know that the umps are human and they make mistakes. When you're younger, you don't."

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