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BOYS of winter : Senior Softball Attracts Growing Interest : From the Not-Quite-Over-the-Hill Gang

October 07, 1988|JOHN NEEDHAM | Times Staff Writer

They take a very long time warming up before a game. Very long. Oh so long. The game could be over before they even take the field. But they have to be careful: These legs slathered with liniment have been running bases since F.D.R. was President--or maybe a bit before that.

When play does begin, the competitors use special rules that allow them to overrun bases and avoid sliding. When trying to score, they must cross a line 15 feet from home plate rather than touch the base itself, the better to avoid collisions with a catcher.

But for all that, they are still competitive, playing softball at least twice a week and sometimes more, these one-time boys of summer who are now in the winter of their lives, all on the far side of 55.

Take Bill Manginelli.

It has been 44 years since that August day when Manginelli pitched a two-hitter and belted a home run in one of the most sacred shrines in baseball's pantheon, Ebbets Field. It was in the borough of Brooklyn, in a neighborhood called Flatbush, and it was where the Dodgers played before they switched coasts and traveled West on a road littered with the broken hearts of their fans.

These days Manginelli is 62, working as a loan collector for a bank, and playing and practicing on fields in Fullerton or Placentia or Huntington Beach, about as far from Brooklyn as you can get. It is softball that he plays now, and it is slow pitch. But he can still hit and chase down a fly ball. And he plays on a team with a lot of other guys who can play the game, too.

For instance, Warren Moore. No. 28, playing second base, oldest man on this team called the Fullerton Blues, 67 years old.

In college, Moore played shortstop and considered sticking with it if he could get to the big leagues. But when a scout told him he would probably never make it higher than Double A ball, two rungs from the top of the ladder, Moore decided to get his degree and find some other line of work. Still, he never did give up his love of the game.

Charlie Motsko is 61, looks 20 years younger and is equally at home on a ball field or in a classroom. A priest and former principal of Servite High School in Anaheim, Motsko says he didn't play much ball before joining the Blues. But these days he plays in two leagues, getting in night games in Norwalk during the week and day games in the Huntington Beach league on Sundays.

Motsko, Moore and Manginelli are part of a rapidly growing movement in California and across the country: senior softball.

Played by men 50 and over--sometimes very over, like 70 years old or more--senior softball has an estimated 2,000 teams across the country, each with about 15 men, according to Bob L. Mitchell, who runs a Sacramento company that puts on tournaments for seniors.

"The thing I can't stress enough is how big it's getting and how fast it's growing," said Mitchell, a retired California Highway Patrolman who calculated that a new team is formed about every two weeks.

The explosive growth in softball played by the not-quite-over-the-hill gang is mirrored in Orange County. Huntington Beach decided to start offering senior softball about three years ago, according to Bob Thrall, the city's senior recreation supervisor. Now there are 30 teams in the senior league, which is limited to those 55 and older.

One of those teams is the Fullerton Blues, whose members are bound for New Zealand this month to play against six other U.S. teams, including one from Lawndale, and some New Zealand squads.

Nearly all the Blues played some sort of organized ball in the past--high school, college, semi-pro, industrial league. They may have lost a step or two going to their left over the years, but they are softball-savvy. Outfielders hit the cutoff man. Infielders get to the base for putouts. Batters hit behind a baserunner to advance him.

The Blues sometimes make plays so slick they surprise themselves. When they do, glee lights their faces.

"I love playing ball," said Manginelli. "It's just in my blood. I just love playing softball or anything connected with baseball."

Still, the road to second base is not always smooth.

"I hadn't played in years," said Moore. But he read about the team, asked manager Sam Sackman if he could join, and was told to "go ahead and work out, have some fun."

"Well, all I did was fall down," Moore remembered. "My legs wouldn't keep up. I couldn't throw. I couldn't run. I couldn't field. I couldn't do anything. So (Sackman) asked me after a while, 'How are you doing?' So I said, 'Can't hit, can't field, can't throw, can't run, but I'm having a helluva lot of fun.'

" . . . Little by little I began to get legs back and I worked out and I kept at it . . . working out a couple of times a week, three times a week, four times a week. Rest a day, work out. Rest a day. Then (play on) Saturday and Sunday. It was slow. But it came back. And pretty soon I was the second base. Playing on the Fullerton Blues at second base." He says that last phrase with wonder in his voice.

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