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60-and-over league keeps senior softball players in the game

DOVER — On these fields, old backs creak and worn-out knees ache. Age has settled into what's left of these muscles and bones.

There is the guy who had the triple bypass a year ago. The guy who had a heart attack right on the field. The guy who jogs lopsided after a stroke. The guy who just got over pneumonia. The guy with the arm brace, a fresh surgery scar running down the inside of his elbow.

But there is nobody who will let physical ailments keep them out of the game.

Want proof? Meet Barry Benac of Riverview. He takes his position near third base to coach the runner. A foul ball dribbles down the line. He reaches down to scoop up the bright yellow softball.

"Ohh, I can't bend down that far," says Benac, 71, with a groan.

Once he warms up a few innings later, he smacks a triple into the outfield and hustles to safety on base.

"I was due," he says with a smile.

• • •

Decades ago, before their bodies buckled, these players were backyard hotshots.

They played pickup wiffle ball and T-ball tournaments. They lettered in high school sports and made college varsity teams.

Then they got jobs and wives and kids, and for a lot of them, gloves lay untouched for a quarter of a century.

Years later — some retired, some bored, some wanting to get rusty joints moving again — they came back.

That's how the Brandon Senior Softball Association started eight years ago.

"It took a lot to get back into shape," says Al Ryder, 70, of Riverview.

The 60-and-older league has grown to include about 100 players from all over the Tampa Bay area, donning gray uniform T-shirts twice a week to reclaim their youth on the Dover baseball diamonds.

"It's Little League for old guys," says Jim Mangione, 64, a retired Tampa firefighter who lives in Temple Terrace.

It's a chance to relive the dream.

• • •

A true sign of age, 70-year-old Pete Botto jokes, is not needing shoelaces. Running has slowed to walking, but "playing keeps you going," says the former Tampa fire chief, now retired in Brandon.

The players still take big swings, work the count, put on the outfield shift and round bases looking for the steal.

And wouldn't you know, they can still slam home runs and turn double plays.

"It brings back memories," says Gerry Haniak, 72, of South Tampa. He once played in the St. Louis Cardinals' minor league system.

The senior teams bill themselves as noncompetitive, but they keep score and compile team standings.

Nobody likes to lose.

It's against the rules to argue a play call. Sometimes little squabbles break out.

"You leave everything right here on the field," says John Wolfe. At 85, the Plant City resident claims the honor of being the league's oldest player.

He may not run as fast or throw as far as he used to, he says. At least he's more mellow.

• • •

"You guys sound like a bunch of old men, all winded," a ballplayer teases others in his dugout.

Team rosters include many former firefighters, police officers, athletes and veterans — men who once made their livings being strong.

Back in the day, Frank Emanuel hulked around on the inaugural Miami Dolphins team.

In 1966, he was a linebacker fresh out of the University of Tennessee. He stood, hand on one youthful hip and Dolphins helmet in the other, No. 50 emblazoned across his chest on the Aug. 8, 1966, cover of Sports Illustrated.

Emanuel, who lives in New Tampa, entered the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2000, the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004.

Now 68, his hair is white and his back a little rounded. A soft brace hugs a once-healthy knee, and a weary shoulder sometimes gives him trouble.

The ex-pro player has a different kind of ball game.

"It's just so much fun," Emanuel says from under a bright red baseball cap. "It's better than going and drinking coffee for a couple of hours."

He's good, but "not as good as I was at football," he laughs.

Those days are over, but he's not giving up this game anytime soon. None of them will.

At the end of every game, most of the men gather in a prayer circle. They hold hands and think of sick loved ones and absent players fighting off cancer.

They thank God for what they have — creaky old backs and all.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

. Fast facts

If you go

Watch the Brandon Senior Softball Association play at 9 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at the William Owen Pass Sports Complex, 1300 Sydney Dover Road in Dover.

To join the league, call association president Jack Peifer at (813) 973-4005 or (813) 326-0432. League dues are $20 annually.

60-and-over league keeps senior softball players in the game 03/31/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 31, 2011 5:30am]
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