Their hair is grayer and thinner, their waistlines a bit larger and their ages nearly three times that of when they ruled Tampa baseball, but the collection of 14 players practicing at the West Tampa Little League earlier this month said they felt as youthful as when they ran the bases and chased fly balls in their athletic primes.
"If you build it they will come," said 59-year-old Mario Nunez, quoting the iconic sports movie Field of Dreams. "I knew they would."
From the mid-1960s through mid-1970s, West Tampa Little League was home to some of the top local youth baseball talent, sending six teams to World Series competitions and winning one in 1970.
Now, Nunez is hoping the league's field will become a gathering point for the best of the best for the senior softball circuit.
A few weeks back he put out a call to action to all former little league all-stars from throughout the city who are now senior citizens.
They are entering a team in the Hillsborough County Senior Games' softball tournament September 26-28 in Dover.
Then, they will continue to practice Mondays and Wednesdays at 9 a.m. and host games amongst themselves on Sundays at the West Tampa Little League field, just as the 1919 White Sox and other legends did on that Iowa farm in Field of Dreams.
"This is holy ground man, so let's get 24-30 guys on a Sunday and split into two teams and play here like we used to," Nunez said, and then with a chuckle added, "I'm doing this because I need playmates."
At the first practice, held Sept. 6, the players reflected that sentiment. As one after another arrived, they were greeted with hugs, good old fashioned wise cracks and tales of their childhoods together.
"This is about fellowship and softball," said Eric Mueller, 59. "When we were kids this is all we did. If we didn't have a league game we had a sandlot game going on. We're doing it again."
They had admittedly lost a step. They misjudged some fly balls and made some errant throws.
But they also showcased their once-youthful talent. They drove balls over the 240-mark in centerfield, and effortlessly turned double plays.
"We feel young again," Nunez said.
Former major leaguers Lou Piniella, Tony La Russa, Luis Gonzalez, Tino Martinez, Fred McGriff and Dave Magadan highlight West Tampa's legacy of greatness.
None of them came out to Nunez' "Field of Dreams," but he remains hopeful they one day will.
"If you build it, they will come," Nunez reiterated.
That's not to say the team is not stacked.
Nunez played on the West Tampa all-star team in 1974 that made it to the finals of the Southern Regionals. Randy Martinez was on the squad that placed second in the World Series tournament the following year.
Then there are former minor leaguers Dennis Valdez, Butch Garcia and Joe Abene.
"If I am going to do this I will do it the right way," Nunez said. "I didn't want ragtag guys."
Nunez reminisced about West Tampa Little League's opening day in 1974.
Slugger Tony Perez of Cincinnati's Big Red Machine threw out the first pitch and fans lined the fences throughout the day of games.
"This was not 12 moms and dads in the stands," Nunez said. "People came to see future stars. People knew if you wanted to climb out of this area in all-star competition you had to climb through West Tampa."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.
"I'm doing this because I need playmates."
Mario Nunez, team organizer