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ORANGE COUNTY ON THE GO

Aching to Play : Softball Offers Camaraderie, Chance to Feel Young for Seniors

July 08, 1999|FRANK SCHWAB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some players profess that sport is a life-or-death proposition. Senior softball player Jerry Browne is living proof.

In a game at Fountain Valley in December 1994, Browne was going back to the dugout after making an out when he had a heart attack. Two members of his team were doctors, and they performed CPR and helped resuscitate Browne.

When paramedics arrived, they saw Browne was turning blue and not breathing, and thought he had no chance of surviving. They used a defibrillator to shock Browne's heart back to life.

Browne eventually underwent triple-bypass surgery and has a defibrillator implanted in his stomach, in case there are more problems. But none of that kept him off the field for long.

"I wanted to get back in January," he said. "But I realized that if I went too fast I could really hurt myself."

So Browne waited four months before returning to practice to shag fly balls, and he was playing in games two months after that. In his first game back, Browne hit a home run. About the only concession Browne has made since his heart attack has been taking extra care to make sure balls hit to him don't hit his stomach and the defibrillator.

"I figured I lived through it, and the reason I lived through it was that I was in good shape," said Browne, 72. "Playing softball helped me be in good shape, so why wouldn't I keep playing?"

Browne, who lives in Orange, plays in two weekly leagues at John Marshall Park in Anaheim, and in a Saturday league in Long Beach. He also plays in 15 or so tournaments a year.

Browne still works as a document examiner--checking out handwriting for insurance companies who are concerned about fraud--but softball has priority. If Browne is scheduled to be out of town in a tournament on the same day as a court case, his testimony has to wait.

"[Softball] is my obsession," he said. "I schedule my court cases and everything else around those tournaments."

Anaheim, with 27 teams and approximately 300 players, is the largest senior slow-pitch softball league in the county. The center of all the action is John Marshall Park, which is home to each of the five leagues: the three divisions of 65-and-over, 70-and-over and 75-and-over.

Frank Hudson also plays every week--at least--at John Marshall Park.

Hudson, 66, had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on April 12, but he returned less than two months later to play for three teams. He competes in two leagues--in Anaheim with the Cubs on Wednesdays and on Sundays in Huntington Beach with the Roadrunners. He also plays for the Athletics, a team of Southern California players who compete in regional tournaments.

"It's fun," said Hudson, who lives in Hacienda Heights. "Everybody will tell you they've got problems. They have leg aches, arthroscopic surgery, heart problems, sugar diabetes, hip problems, artificial knees. . . . We're all in the same boat. I don't think there are any healthy people, and this keeps their mind off it. If you can live with the pain, play."

When Hudson's Cubs met the Braves recently, Hudson went three for five--his streak of 22 consecutive at-bats with a hit came to an end with a third-inning popout--but he was overshadowed by another player who exemplifies the senior players' love of the game.

The star for the Braves that day isn't supposed to be playing softball, according to his doctors, because the pins in his artificial hip are getting loose from the wear and tear. So the player tells his wife he's just going to the park to watch. Against the Cubs, he legged out a triple and later put the game away with a two-run single in the seventh. "His wife would probably pass out if she saw him run to third," Hudson said.

The importance of the game is obvious, for reasons much simpler than just staying in shape. Bob Lent, the Anaheim league's secretary and a player on one of the four teams that made up the first senior league in Anaheim in 1989, said the league gives the seniors a sense of camaraderie.

"Old people are sometimes discarded by society," said Lent, who lives in Huntington Beach and at 74 has been out of action for a year with a bad back. "You don't feel old here."

Players don't move with the swiftness they did 40 years ago, but there are many flashes of athletic prowess. The rules are tailored to protect the players from their own competitiveness. Sliding is not allowed. Players can overrun any base. And there is a second home plate, positioned about 10 feet to the left of the plate. One is for the runner, one is for the catcher.

"That way we keep away from broken wrists and things like that in collisions," said Bob Thrall, the recreation supervisor in Huntington Beach who oversees that city's adult softball leagues. There are about 20 senior teams in Huntington Beach.

Hudson says staying busy by playing softball is keeping him young.

"I don't feel old, because we all think we're 20," he said. "But we suffer when we get home."

But all the suffering is worth it, they say, to play in a game that is important to them.

"We're all going to die," Browne said, "so if I die on the field, that's OK."

For those interested in playing senior softball (65 or older) in Anaheim, call John Davis at (714) 535-1597. In Fountain Valley, call Mike Terich at (714) 593-4446. In Huntington Beach, call Bob Thrall at (714) 536-5230.

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