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Long Beach Snappers Stay Young With Play in Over-55 League : Softball: The players are mostly in their 60s and 70s. But they recently proved they still have what it takes in beating a formidable opponent.

December 20, 1990|DICK WAGNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So how have the Long Beach Snappers been doing in the city's over-55 slow-pitch softball league?

"Terrible," their worried, chain-smoking skipper Walt Downen says one Saturday afternoon at Joe Rodgers Field. "Same old guys. But we're all older, slower and don't hit as good."

The Snappers, with a 4-8 record, are getting ready to play their big rival, Joe Bravo's, who seem pretty formidable even with a long-bearded second baseman who looks like Methuselah.

"I better warm up," says Iz Perrucio, 70, the Snappers' pitcher, a retired hairdresser whose own wavy silver hair gives him the appearance of an aging film idol.

Perrucio and most of his teammates have been with the Snappers since the league was formed eight years ago. They know that a fate worse than the disabled list always looms.

"We've had one pass away every year," the pitcher says.

"Who passed away last year?" Downen, 71, asks him.

"Moe Schiller," Perrucio answers, mentioning an outfielder who was 64.

And Joe de la Cruz, a graceful outfielder even in his mid-70s, died of a heart attack two years ago while putting on his uniform to go to a batting cage with his grandson.

"I think they might have died sooner, had it not been for this," Perrucio suggests. "This league is the best thing that ever happened to us. 'When I play I think, 'Geez, I can't be 70, no way.' Who knows, if we weren't out here, we might feel 70."

This year-round league has 12 teams from around Southern California--six, including the Snappers, in the minors division where the players are mostly in their 60s and 70s, and six, including Long Beach's Joe Bravo's, in the majors division, where most of the players are barely 55 and still strong enough to hit a ball 300 feet.

Some teams are said to have big egos and play for blood, but the Snappers are not one of them.

"An umpire asked me before one of our games if we were going to kick butt," Perrucio says. "I don't think about that. I play ball, have a good time and thank the Lord I can do it."

Only a handful of spectators have gathered, so business is not booming in the snack shack run by Red Meairs, longtime owner of the famous Long Beach Nitehawks fast-pitch team.

Meairs sells coffee and soft drinks, but a feisty old-timer named Maui Batson prefers beer, which he brings in a cooler.

"A lot of beer and baseball keep you young," maintains Batson, 75, who manages the league's Maui Bombers and like most of the men has been a lifelong ballplayer. "I play ball and then get drunk."

He drinks from a Budweiser can and watches the Snappers warm up. The sun pours in at enough of a slant to get under the bill of this former tool-and-die man's soiled cap and into his bloodshot eyes.

He closes these eyes, reliving the memory of playing as a kid in Chicago under the elevated trains, with sponge balls stolen from Kresge's. "We'd play in vacant lots," he says. "We'd ask the owner if we could tear down the weeds and set up a ball field. Then two weeks later they'd sell the lot and we had to find another one."

Batson is upset because teams like the Snappers must play major teams like Bravo's because the games are often called after five innings for being more than 15-run mismatches. "You might get to bat only twice, so some guys don't show up because they don't want to waste a Saturday," he says.

But on the other side of the backstop that Batson leans against, the Snappers are set to try to make this Saturday memorable. Wearing blue and white jerseys and, above their cross-hatched necks and red hats, they select their bats.

"We're outmatched," says third baseman Tom Mackie of Lakewood, whose face has the color and texture of a well-worn fielder's glove.

Mackie, "too damn old" at 66, jokes that he can't hit or field. Then, as the game's leadoff batter, he lines a single into the all-dirt outfield, starting a rally that gives the Snappers a 2-0 lead.

The only spectator in a little section of blue bleachers behind the backstop is Eddie Masters of Whittier, wife of Sid Masters, the oldest Snapper at 75. She sits bundled up under a suddenly sunless sky and keeps score.

"I'm the only (wife) who usually shows," she says. "I figure why stay home. I haven't missed many of his games in the last 10 years."

She records a Bravo's base hit, then goes on: "We have seven grandsons and . . . Get it, Sid! (as he catches a fly ball in left field) . . . seven great-grandsons and three great-granddaughters."

Bravo's takes the lead with four runs in its half of the first inning, causing Eddie to observe, "Oh, boy, are they ever hitting us."

But the Snappers keep hitting back and hold an 8-4 lead midway through the fundamentally sound game. Mackie triples, running with a swiftness that belies his years. When he eventually scores, he receives simple handshakes that seem outdated in an era of high fives. He then puts on a blue windbreaker and smokes a Pall Mall, which he cups between drags as if trying to get away with something.

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