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Sluggers 50 Years and Older Plan to Swing for the Fences : Softballs will be flying Sunday in Thousand Oaks when the annual Home Run Derby gets under way.


Be prepared to duck if you are passing the Conejo Community Center softball diamond in Thousand Oaks on Sunday morning. That's when senior sluggers age 50 and over will be whacking softballs for distance during the Home Run Derby.

This annual batting competition, sponsored by the Conejo Recreation and Park District and the Goebel Senior Adult Center, has become a popular Fourth of July event for athletes and spectators alike.

Seniors compete in age categories: 50-59, 60-69, or 70 and over, said Mark Schrock, the Goebel Center's recreation supervisor. Ten balls are pitched to each contestant, who earn points according to where the balls land.

"They often hit balls way over the fence and into the park area," Schrock said.

First- and second-place trophies are awarded in each of the three age categories. "Then the fun really starts about 10 o'clock when Home Run Derby participants form a softball team to play the Conejo Recreation and Park District staff for bragging rights," Schrock said.

"The seniors won last year, as they frequently do, even though we play them straight up."

The Conejo Valley senior athletes have three age-bracketed teams, 55-plus, 60-plus and 65-plus. Evans estimated 30-40 seniors play on these teams. Many people play on more than one team. And over the years some have moved up to the next age category. They practice all year and look forward to the July 4 event, I was told. In addition, many compete in local senior softball leagues nearly year-round.

"The 55-plus team are the Senior Olympics champions and one of the most highly regarded teams in Southern California," Schrock said.

"We travel all over the West Coast competing with other senior leagues," said 61-year-old team member, Robert Evans, a retired educator. "And we're one of very few senior teams competing that uses local talent."

Senior teams at the local level are sponsored by senior centers, recreation and park districts as well as businesses and civic groups. Then they can compete with about 25 teams from Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in the next level of competition, the Gold Coast Senior Softball Regional League.

With about six weeks remaining in summer league play, the 55-plus Thousand Oaks Panthers plan to defend their title. "Our record is undefeated in the Gold Coast the last three years. And we're going to win it again this year," Evans vowed.

The next level of competition is Senior Softball World Championships Inc., a nonprofit organization of Senior Softball-USA, based in Sacramento. The group sponsors tournaments all over the world and in all 50 states, according to its president, Bob Mitchell.

The 55-plus team has reached that level several times. "We went to Palm Springs four times last year and we came in second three times and won one time in the Senior World Series," said Evans.

But mostly they play close to home. "All the guys from all the senior teams and anyone else can come out to play Tuesday and Friday mornings at the T.O. Community Center," said Bob (Doc) Wiedlin, a 67-year-old retired oral surgeon and manager of the 65-plus team. "It's casual, and once in a while we get women out there. But currently no women are playing on teams with us."

At age 81, Charlie Bestwick, a retired police officer, is one of the original team members.

"What really blows me away," said Wiedlin, "is that Charlie will volunteer to run bases for some of the younger guys with bad knees."

Then there are late-bloomers like Lew Orphan. "I never played ball in my life until age 67 when I come out here to play with a friend." Now the 75-year-old Woodland Hills resident comes out to play twice a week.


SUNDAY: Seniors age 50 and over may register for the Home Run Derby at 8:30 a.m. Sunday at the Conejo Community Center softball field, located at 1300 Hendrix Avenue in Thousand Oaks. The fee is $2 and competition begins at 9 a.m. Derby participants are also invited to play in the softball game, 10-11:30 a.m. For details, call 497-1639.

PRACTICE: The three senior softball teams play for practice and recreation Tuesdays and Fridays 8:30-11 a.m. at the Thousand Oaks Community Center softball field, 2525 N. Moorpark Road.

SIGN UP: Senior Softball--USA, Inc., in Sacramento, (916) 393-8566, provides free referrals to seniors who want to join a local softball team. An annual $6 subscription to its quarterly newspaper is optional.

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