LONG BEACH — He did not look the same without his cap, uniform and coat of infield dust. But lifelong ballplayers, when glimpsed in civilian attire and with cheeks empty of chewing tobacco, never do.
But this big man in a golf shirt and slacks, with the gnarled fingers, bad knee and hair that only used to be red, was Irvin (Red) Meairs, beloved owner of the Long Beach Nitehawks, the fast-pitch softball team he once played for and until three years ago managed.
He gave his avocation away only when he stood and put his hands in his back pockets in that timeless pose of old coaches surveying young prospects.
Honored by Players
Meairs and his wife, Connie, were being honored at the Long Beach Pistol Range for devoting themselves to the Nitehawks. Former and current players, as well as fans, each paid $20 to attend the party and help Meairs keep one of the most famous fast-pitch teams and its tradition going.
"If you look at him, he's the happiest person in the world right now," said Fred Strobel, who manages Blair Field, where Meairs works mornings as a groundskeeper, a labor of love only until the mower throws grass on the infield he has just groomed.
Strobel was right. With the old days washing over him, Meairs could not stop grinning.
The greats from the past were sitting around a picnic table, including Cleo Goyette, Jack Randall and Clint Herron. The imagination needed only a nudge to picture them the way they were--in uniforms, hitting, running and sliding three decades ago when the Nitehawks ruled the softball world.
Holds Back Tears
When Meairs introduced them, Connie was surprised that he was able to hold back the tears. "He's very sentimental," she said.
When he saw one of his former teammates, Meairs would limp over to him (the knee's been bad since he injured it while pitching batting practice in 1968) with sparkling eyes and a smile that deepened the folds in his 64-year-old face.
As if starting to pitch, he would cock his right arm back, then thrust it forward, shaking the man's hand and reeling him in as if he were a prize fish. It looked wildly theatrical, but Meairs was not acting.
"There's nothing phony about Red at all," said Connie, a small, slender woman who wore pearls for the occasion and who has been with him 39 years. "He's one of the kindest people I've ever met. People really relate to him. He's very loving."
Joined Team in 1952
Meairs joined the Nitehawks as a player in 1952. An athlete at Wilson High School, he had wanted to be a major-league baseball player but never made it past the California League. When the Dodgers organization released him after World War II, he came home to be a mailman and a Nitehawk.
"I've never seen anyone more enthusiastic about playing ball," said Randall, a former pitcher who had come to honor Red--a man who once was his catcher--instead of going to the Angels playoff game he had tickets for.
Meairs, who could play every position, did not play much in the early years because the Nitehawks had Stan White, a great catcher.
"He never uttered a word about sitting on the bench," said Goyette, an ex-second baseman. "He was always helping out. Anything that had to be done he'd do."
But Meairs eventually received recognition. He hit over .400 in the world tournament played at Long Beach in 1960.
He played until 1967, then took over as manager and owner. The team owed money and was in danger of disbanding.
"I hated to see it die," said Meairs, to whom the Nitehawks tradition clings like the red dust at their home park, Joe Rodgers Field.
"He thinks there's nothing like the Nitehawks," Connie said. "He wants the fellows he chooses (as players) to have the same dedication."
One who does is Terry Canale, 30, the current Nitehawks shortstop, who sipped a beer and talked about Meairs and the tradition he perpetuates.
"It's neat to play with a team like this," Canale said. "I appreciate the past, what these guys before us have done. Red makes each player feel important. Guys play because of Red. We don't get paid, but for something you do as a hobby, it's more than that. And he's still competitive with the best in the world. He likes to win above everything else."
10 World Titles
Meairs, who was on seven world International Softball Congress champions as a Nitehawks player, managed them to three other world titles. This year's team finished 10th in the 46-team world tournament at Sioux City, Iowa.
It is because of the Meairses that the Nitehawks could make that $8,000 trip. The team does not have a sponsor, so Meairs has to sell advertising space on the outfield fence to raise some of the money. But most of it comes from the concession stand that Connie has been operating nightly for the last 17 years.
In that green shack, in which the temperature in the summer sometimes rises to 120 degrees, Connie dispenses, besides the usual ballpark fare, her famous tamales. Meairs said a bit sadly that the tamales are the only reason some people come to the Friday night Nitehawks games.
Connie has no complaints about a life in which "it seems like I'm always clearing the dishes and rushing to a softball game." She manages to devote some time to yoga and ballet.
'A Rough One'
"She's had a rough one," said Meairs, thinking about all those nights in that hot tamale box. "But she went along with everything."
With the party almost over, and no more guests for Meairs to reel in, he grabbed the microphone after finding out that $2,000 had been contributed.
"It's been a pleasure and a nice evening," he said. "I don't know what to say. It's really fantastic. Thanks a million."
Earlier, Connie had announced to the gathering, "See you next year."
And that erased any doubts that even Meairs might have about the Nitehawks tradition continuing.
"You heard her," white-haired Red said.
And his eyes, because they could see no end to the long avenue he has traveled in spiked shoes, twinkled under the light bulbs.