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Diamonds in the Rough

For Them, Home Base Is Where Heart Is

April 12, 2001|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

THOUSAND OAKS — She is the lone girl of summer, and like the boys she plays with, she is well into her autumn.

One hundred and forty men trip around the bases several times weekly in the local senior softball league. So does Jan Miller, mother of 12 and grandmother of 15, a robust 67-year-old woman who, among a bushel of life's woes, happens to be in a nasty batting slump.

"I'm not sure what I'll do," she said after a disappointing time at the plate this week. "Guess I'll just have to practice."

Of course, there are mitigating circumstances.

Miller's energy might be a bit sapped from caring at home for her 88-year-old mother, who now suffers from pneumonia as well as Alzheimer's disease. Her husband too has had his share of health problems, with a cataract operation and several vascular bypasses in his legs. One of her daughters moved in months ago with her four kids. The deaths of two of her sons years ago still haunt her.

A retired nurse, Miller finds renewal roving the field for the Crows, who yell "Caw caw caw!" as a rallying cry. She itches to try out a new bat that she says is well-balanced and "has a lot of pop to it." She brags that her 6-year-old granddaughter, Sam, has a great arm, an arm that promises long, knife-like pegs from the center field fence all the way home.

Levitating above everyday problems for seven innings, Miller is testament to the outdated notion that a diamond really can be a girl's best friend. Like thousands of aging athletes in senior softball leagues throughout Southern California, she finds a sustenance on the base paths that is unavailable to her in daily life.

"My faith and my softball," she says. "That's what pulls me through."

With the leading edge of the baby boom trotting onto the field, senior softball has exploded here as across the country. Today, about 1.5 million players compete in nine major leagues, traveling throughout the U.S. in quest of regional, divisional, national and world titles. Some teams are so serious they have been caught using falsified documents to admit ringers who weren't quite as old as the mandatory 50.

On Wednesday morning in a city park, all the Crows and members of the league's other teams were on hand. On the sidelines, they were talking titanium bats and pacemakers. There were quite a few of both.

Cuno Ranschau, a retired computer programmer, had a pacemaker that quit on him. But that was nothing compared to the quadruple bypass, the prostate cancer and the tumors that were lifted from deep inside his belly. He has been on the mend from knee surgery too, and, at 71, runs the bases like a wolf pursuing a lamb chop.

"This just gives me something to look forward to each morning," he said. "You have to be passionate about at least one thing in life, and for me, this is it."

After Miller snagged a ground ball in the infield, Ranschau stood up in tribute: "When you're good, you're very, very good," he yelled. "When you're bad, you're terrific!"

Relentlessly down-to-earth, Miller takes such accolades in stride.

"It's just the guys," she said.

When she broke her finger awhile back trying to catch a pop fly, the guys expressed their concern.

"Can I do CPR on her?" someone cried.

"I'm a CPA," another man ventured. "Will that help?"

Bruises and breaks are nothing new to Miller. She has played since she was a kid. Raising her family in rural Maryland, she set aside Sundays as family softball day, rallying her children and strays from the neighborhood for the cause. A widow at 50, she attracted her current husband at a game following a community picnic.

"He tells me that when he saw me run to first, he knew I was the one," she said.

Like many in the field, she displays recent injuries with a certain pride, pointing to a capped tooth that had been chipped after a collision with a first baseman.

"We went flying," she said, "but I was the only one who got hurt."

The fielder, Jimmy Hamilton, greets Miller at each practice with a courtly, "Good morning, your highness. A hug from you will make my day a good one."

At 86, Hamilton came back to softball even after one of his lungs was removed, according to Glenn Krupp, who started the Thousand Oaks league in 1988 with just 12 men.

"All I wanted to do was play ball," said Krupp, the city's senior softball coordinator. "It started out nice and easy, but then it got real hairy, with uniforms, managers, permits . . . ."

Assembled on the basis of age and ability, some of Krupp's teams compete in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, and well beyond.

A few years ago, he was on a team that made it to the final ladder of a world championship in Las Vegas. They forfeited, though; one player had to leave for a long-standing commitment to baby-sit his grandchildren and another was off to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary.

More profound tragedy also has swept the playing field. While players over 80 are kept out of the more competitive games, Krupp has seen two younger men collapse in fatal heart attacks.

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