ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Bottom of the third, bases jammed, two outs, and the guy with the artificial hip was up.
The pitcher told the left fielder to move in. Mind your own damn business, the outfielder replied.
So the pitcher felt a bit spiteful. "Go ahead and drop it in front of him," he told the batter, and then he lobbed the next pitch slow and without spin, about waist high, fat as a pumpkin.
Al Freyberger hit it square. The ball arced toward the sun, lolled high among the sea gulls, then came down where no glove could reach it. It skipped along the bumpy grass toward the fence, and three runs scored.
Chugging Into Second
Gosh, he walloped it. Old Al's face lit up as he chugged into second. He stomped some dust out of the base while he caught his wind. It would have been a home run sure thing, back when Al still had good wheels, before the hip implant, before he turned 83.
But there's no point in regrets, not when the air is this warm and the grass smells green and the ball makes that wonderful pop against leather. In this slow-pitch softball league--the Kids and Kubs of St. Petersburg--there is joy in simply scurrying above the turf instead of being planted beneath it.
To play on one of the two teams, a man must be 74 years old, though not all here are that young. Nineteen of the 34 players are past 80, three of them over 90.
Freddie Broadwell--these days just skin, bones and chewing tobacco--is 101. "I don't run quite like I used to," he admitted.
But most others can still dash up the line. They take a level slice at the ball, and the outfield stays respectful. If a few of the guys hit only woozy grounders, it evens out. A few of the guys don't bend so good.
'The Flesh Is Weak'
"The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak," said Bill Walsh, who is 83. "At my age, you have the confidence but not the execution."
Harry Tarlaian is 78, with good speed and a bad heart. "I could sit around and play checkers, but that stuff don't go with me," said Harry, a retired machinist instructor known for his pluck.
In 1981, he had the double-bypass surgery. Then three years later he got the pacemaker. Then he led the league in home runs, with 16 over the 60-game haul, October to March.
"If I drop dead on the ball field, just dig the hole right there," Harry suggested.
Which is not meant to be funny. Back in '69, Lee Morrison, who was 81 and playing first base, went up for a high throw like a gazelle and came down dead like a clay pigeon. An ambulance took him away. The game went on.
"And don't forget Burnie, what's his name, Cecil Burnie," reminded George Bakewell, 93, something of the league historian. "Of course, he didn't die on the field."
"No, he died in the car right after the game," said Sam Hott, 81, his voice lowering to a whisper. "His wife told him not to play."
Deep down, every ballplayer knows it will come to this, a few final at-bats on the off-ramp of retirement. That makes these last raps precious as air. And it's proper to take them on a trim field with a smooth dirt infield and an announcer reciting the lineups to people in the stands.
Baseball, of course, is not always bliss. It can be bad as war. Ground balls come at a player like bouncing torpedoes and pop-ups like unguided missiles. Almost every boy has suffered the razz and the jeer and has known too well the saddest news in all of sports: Stee-rike three, you're out!
But most of the Kids and Kubs have had a better go of it. They've played high school ball and legion ball and church ball--mastered the basics and gone on to the fine points. A few have even played pro down in the bush leagues.
Mitts in the Attic
The way things go, most of their playing days came when they were teens and in their twenties and thirties. Then they gave it up. They put their mitts in the attic and their daydreams in their children.
So, to a retiree to St. Petersburg, it comes as a neat surprise to hear about this league for the oldest of the old. The Kids and Kubs have been around since 1931, the brainstorm of a lady from the chamber of commerce.
The first thing a newcomer notices is that these guys dress funny. By tradition, they wear black bow ties, white shirts and white trousers. The look is more ice cream man than ballplayer.
But the next thing is that they talk it up, hit the cutoff man, advance the runner. This is spirited softball, despite the bifocals and the hearing aids and the wrinkled cheeks.
"Sometimes, we play some pretty good ball, and sometimes, well, we start throwing it around a little," said Pat Rylee, who is 74 and this season's rookie phenom.
The talk is that Rylee could be as good as Ed Stauffer, who played in the bigs for the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Browns back in the '20s. An older, gray-topped Stauffer hit .835 for the Kids and Kubs in 1973. Then he died of cancer.
"They say Stauffer was something, but that Rylee fields shortstop just like a professional, doesn't he?" said Bill Walsh, no use hiding the envy. "Of course, he's just a youngster."