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Senior Circuit : Instead of Squinting Toward the Twilight of a Career or Retiring at 55, the Softball Player Can Be a Rookie Again, Playing Out the String in His Golden Years

July 16, 1993|PAIGE A. LEECH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

During his search for the Fountain of Youth, Ponce de Leon discovered Florida, but his attempts to find the elusive spring were futile.

Nearly 500 years later, Sol Brill went looking for something to occupy his time after retirement and stumbled on a suitable substitute for the mythical fountain, which was supposed to restore health and youth to anyone who drank from it.

A simple game of slow-pitch softball is Brill's antidote to the aches and pains of being an octogenarian.

"I could be really hurting before a game," Brill said. "My back is bothering me. My arm aches. But once I get out on the field, everything goes away. No aches. No pains. I feel great. Feel like I'm a kid again."

Brill, 83, has a good-natured wit and a reliable pitching arm--both of which he uses to compete in the San Fernando Valley Senior Softball League for those 55 and older.

Brill is the oldest player in the seven-team league, which he helped start 12 years ago. Although a resident of Sherman Oaks, Brill previously played in Culver City because there were no leagues for seniors in the Valley.

Time has changed more than Brill's age. Senior leagues now can be found from Glendale to Oxnard and several cities in between, and the number of teams grows each year.

Oxnard's Gold Coast Senior Softball League is the largest of its kind in the region. The league began in 1987 with six teams and has swollen to 23 teams from eight cities in four divisions.

Teams from Camarillo, Ojai, Oxnard, Santa Barbara, Santa Paula, Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks and Ventura compete in divisions for 55 and older (major and minor), 60 and older and 65 and older. Two seasons keep players competing almost year 'round: December through February and April through August.

Although some minor rule adjustments have been made to protect the players, some leagues can be extremely competitive, said Alex Flores, Oxnard's recreation coordinator and the league's director.

"The majority of them are out there to have a good time," Flores said. "The 55 (and older) major teams are cutthroat. They are as competitive as any softball I've ever seen."

More than 100 players over the age of 55 participate in Burbank's Senior Slo-Pitch League, said Pat Thomas, recreation program coordinator in charge of adult sports for the City of Burbank.

At 75, John Quintinal is the oldest player in the Burbank league. But age has little to do with the level of competition.

"It's amazing," Thomas said. "They actually play some pretty good softball. They're out there to have fun, but they're definitely competitive."

Competitive, and nearly always good-natured.

In a recent San Fernando Valley League game at Hjelte Sports Center one afternoon, an infielder stopped a ground ball into the hole with his foot while on the run. More than a few teammates offered the resourceful infielder a hearty "atta boy," complete with hoots and hollers.

Later, pitcher Abe Zaft fielded an easy comebacker on the right side and playfully ran alongside the runner up the first base line before lobbing a short toss to first baseman Neil Polidori to record the third out.

Polidori, 78, did not appear pleased: "Throw the damn ball. You know, you really tick me off when you do things like that," Polidori said to Zaft as the team walked into the dugout.

Zaft, 67, chuckled all the while, but defended his strategy: "He's their pitcher. I wanted to make him run it out--get him tired."

Their teammates seem to know that this staged rift--like all the rest between the two good friends--is all in good fun. And it's partly why they keep coming back to the ball field each week.

Competition, fellowship and exercise is the cure for what ails them.

Flores, who started the Gold Coast League in Oxnard at the insistence of a resident new to the area, supports Brill's theory that softball has helped keep players youthful and healthy. Flores, who turns 50 next month, has witnessed a quasi-time warp.

"The health on these guys has really improved over the years," Flores said. "The first year we started, everyone had injuries. Pulled muscles, sore arms. They were getting old quickly.

"It's hard to believe six years have passed. They look the same. It's like they stopped time."

Time was passing too slowly for Josephine Cano, who eight years ago was only a spectator. After several years of keeping score, shagging balls at practice and watching her husband Mario have all the fun, Cano decided she wanted to get into the game.

"Finally I said, 'Mario, hey, play me or trade me,' " Cano said.

Cano, 66, is the only woman playing in the San Fernando Valley League and one of the few women playing in men's leagues. There are no women's leagues in the area, but Cano doesn't seem to mind. She is playing four days a week and likes being one of the guys.

"She's terrific," Brill said. "I give her a lot of credit. She comes to play."

Benny Kronmal does, too. And he refuses to let his somewhat-fragile body dictate what he can and cannot do.

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