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SPOTLIGHT : A Grand Game for Old Sports : Seniors Turn Double Play on Time With Passive Pastime

June 18, 1987|RALPH NICHOLS | Times Staff Writer

Lew Orphan, 68, is a gray-haired rookie in a softball league where the players with the best depth perception play outfield.

The only veterans in this league fought in World War II. Pressure is keeping your sunglasses on running to first base. There are more errors than hits and a grounder through the infield is good for a triple for players with the stamina to run the bases.

The Senior Softball League is not sports at its best. It's a weekly gathering of senior citizens whose competitive spirit has not diminished with age.

"I would give up everything in the world to be out here," said John Damiano, 71, of Sepulveda. "The house could be burning down and I would play. This league makes you glad to be old."

The L.A. City Department of Recreation and Parks league is made up of five teams and 75 players who play weekly at Hjelte Sports Center. Only seniors 55 and older are eligible. For those who like their softball less strenuous there is a league starting for seniors 70 and older.

Several of the seniors, including Al Michelson, Boise Bulldog manager, and Fred Eisman of the Senators, play in several leagues. Both Michelson and Eisman consider the Valley-based league the easiest of the Los Angeles-area senior leagues.

"It's much easier and a lot more social," said Michelson, 60, of West Los Angeles. "We try to give some of the old-timers who aren't so good a chance to play."

Eisman, 70, has competed in a national senior softball tournament in Las Vegas for seven consecutive years. In addition to pitching for the Senators, the Camarillo man also plays in leagues in Thousand Oaks and Culver City.

Other players, like the Senators' Jack Wainger, 65, a retired real estate agent who twice was wounded in World War II, are satisfied to play in just one league. Wainger, of Van Nuys, concedes that the seniors in his league are error-prone, but he doesn't worry about winning and losing.

"I find this slow-pitch softball the greatest thing invented for a bunch of inept ballplayers," the white-haired infielder said. "The senior citizens who stay home are not competitive. Those who come out and play golf and softball are the competitive ones. They are not 65, but 40. It makes them young."

Orphan is one of the few players who did not take up softball until after he was eligible for Social Security. He likes to compete without having to excel.

"Nobody's critical out here and that's what I enjoy," the Bulldogs catcher said. "If I'm going to be put down, I'm not going to keep my enthusiasm very long.

"This is a group of guys, very few who you get past the first name, who are not trying to sell you used cars or insurance. They are playing for the pure enjoyment and that's it."

Orphan of Woodland Hills suffers from one of the most common maladies in the senior league--poor depth perception. He peers out at his teammates through glasses and adjusts his hearing aid to tune the umpire in or out.

"Most of them know their limitations and they don't push it," said John Pierce, the Recreation and Parks senior sports supervisor for the San Fernando Valley. "Their lateral movement, probably the legs, suffers and their depth perception is often a problem."

Pierce has adopted special rules for the seniors to cut down on injuries, enhance their fun and prevent them from "getting sloppy." Some of the rules include:

Players cannot be tagged out. Force outs only.

All bases can be overrun.

No player can sit out more than two innings.

All players must tuck in their jerseys.

No cigar smoking while catching.

The last rule has caused Bay City catcher Jerry Wohlstadter, 75, particular grief.

"The umpire won't let me smoke while I play," the frustrated Encino security guard said.

When these seniors aren't shagging fly balls, they are razzing their opponents like a bunch of energetic Little Leaguers. Their bats might not talk loudly, but the chatter in this league is comparable to that of any high school team.

"Half of these guys have Alzheimer's, they can't remember the score," yelled George Andrus, 63, of Chatsworth, in a recent game against the Bulldogs. The Senators' feisty manager loudly voiced his frustration over his team's inability to score.

"We should have scored," he shouted to no one in particular. "We had four guys on and nobody out. We should have scored."

The Bulldogs went on to win, but the score was uncertain. However, in this league, it is not the score that counts.

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