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Senior Slow-Pitch Softball Players Put Out to Ball Field--Not Pasture

July 07, 1988|PAUL McLEOD | Times Staff Writer

The argument at home plate was getting heated, too heated, perhaps, for 9 on a Saturday morning.

Joe Bravo, the Lawndale coach and sponsor of a slow-pitch softball team bearing his name, maintained that the opposing team, the Braves, had violated three rules on a play in the top of the fifth inning.

Not so, ruled the umpire.

Bravo protested the game, which his league-leading team led 10-8. But a putout by third baseman Frank Sipe of the Bravos ended the Braves' threat, and in the bottom half of the inning, Bravo's team iced the game with five runs, three on a pair of home runs that cleared the 8-foot-high, tarp-shrouded left field wall at Joe Rodgers Field in Long Beach way beyond its 255-foot sign.

The action was just what you would see at any park in any recreation softball league in Southern California--with one exception.

This is a league in which rookies are 55 years old. The average age of Bravo's players is 63. The club at the time lead the Long Beach league for senior players by five games with its 14-1 record. Not surprising, since the group is defending world champion in the 55-and-older division and three-time defending world titlist in the 60-plus class.

"This is the best team in the country," asserted Carl Hutzler, 63, an infielder from Carlsbad, who sometimes spends more time on the road getting to a Bravos game than the game takes to play. His towering homer in the final inning cleared the fence in left field with 25 feet to spare.

Don't tell these guys about geriatrics. They share a curious love.

Said Hutzler: "We're all baseball junkies. This is our last hurrah. What you gonna do, sit around in a lawn chair and die?"

This team is hardly dead. In its April issue, Softball News magazine said Bravo's team is "considered by many to be one of the finest Senior 55 and Over slow-pitch softball teams ever assembled."

For the tanned, cigarette-smoking Bravo, 66, that is music to his ears. A Class A baseball player in his heyday in Texas and New Mexico in the 1930s ("I made $80 a month for away games, $70 when we were at home"), he got the idea to build a quality seniors team several years ago while contemplating retirement from the auto body and fender repair business.

He says he built the club on his favorite motto: "I hate to lose."

The team is composed of men from all walks of life.

"Most of them are educated men," said Bravo, who never got past high school.

There are engineers, retired schoolteachers and business executives. Some still work. The youngest player is 58, the oldest 70.

"There is camaraderie here," Bravo said.

Team members agreed.

"We have a lot of fun," said Bob Perry of Lawndale, who would only say his age is "55- plus."

Most of the players played minor league baseball or fast-pitch softball when it was popular on the West Coast in the late 1940s and early '50s. Perry hung up his spikes 17 years ago as an AA fast-pitch player.

Bravo explained his key to success: "I keep a roster of 15 guys. You like to play with only 10 or 11 players, so someone has to sit on the bench. But when someone can't make a game, you need to have other players."

Bravo says he spends $5,000 a year of his own money sponsoring the team. He picks up the tab for travel expenses to out-of-town tournaments and pays entry fees.

"I never ask for money from these guys," he said. "How many times have you asked a guy, 'Give me 25 bucks to play?' If you do that then they say, 'Hey, I put in my money, I want to play.' This way I feel I have control of my team."

When they had finished off the Braves in Long Beach, the Bravos gathered around a big red cooler in the bleachers, which Joe Bravo had filled with soda and beer.

When asked what drove them to play, a diversified set of answers came forth.

"I like the competition," said one.

"It's our last hurrah," said another.

"Desire," said a third.

"It's a way to get rid of the wife," another player said, jokingly.

"We're all 12 years old again," said former Carson High School Coach Bobby Zell, an outfielder.

Pitcher Dick Runcie, 64, of El Segundo, said his return to the diamond in 1981 after 40 years helped change his life style: "I quit drinking six years ago. Two months ago I quit smoking. Last year I played softball five times a week."

The conversation was interrupted by applause from a small crowd in the stadium for a player in the next contest who was returning to his first game since open heart surgery. They cheered him even more when he singled.

Dick Rice, a 65-year-old white-bearded computer programmer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, who hung around the park longer than most of his teammates to watch the next game, said he had one wish:

"When I die I want to score the winning run in a championship game, drink a beer and have 10 minutes to savor it, then go."

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