Old fast-pitch players fade away, but the stories die hard

Jul. 21—OKABENA — It was as if time stood still in Okabena, where old members of the original PJ's Lounge men's fast-pitch softball team returned to their old stomping grounds as the modern version of the team hosted Rock Rapids, Iowa, in a mid-July doubleheader.

The old-timers hoisted a few beers, slapped their comrades on the back, complained just a little bit about their sore knees and ailing shoulders, and shared memories about how it used to be when they fought together in the heyday of their game. Some stories must (and should) remain untold, but let it be said: Back in the 1980s, '90s and in the first half of the 2000s, that old PJ's Lounge team was one of the best men's fast-pitch teams in southwest Minnesota and beyond.

Those over-the-hill grandpas, together again on a ball field after so many years, played in an era when men's fast-pitch was everywhere. Teams were commonplace all over Minnesota, in small towns and in big. Competition was fierce, and there was a tournament every weekend.

Not so, now. Today, the sport is struggling. There are few tournaments nowadays, and leagues that used to flourish are few and far between. You can hardly find a "hot spot" of men's fast-pitch activity anywhere.

Don't call it a dying sport yet. But in far too many places, the fast-paced, exciting, challenging game that makes amateur baseball seem tedious by comparison, is barely maintaining itself.

Leigh Hohenstein, the original ace PJ's Lounge pitcher, won well over 300 games in his career before arm troubles got the best of him. The 64-year-old has recovered enough, though, to where he enjoys golf and continues to be an outstanding bowler.

Following the action on the field on this special reunion night, where the new Rock Rapids team is in the process of sweeping their two games with the new PJ's Lounge confection, Hohenstein watches the Rock Rapids pitcher explode off the rubber toward the hitter. "I could still pitch. I don't know how good I could do. I wouldn't be hopping off the rubber like that guy. It would mess up my golf game," he says.

Hohenstein noticed that the hard-hitting Iowa squad was shooting rockets all over the field. That was unlike anything he saw in his own day.

The old right-hander wasn't about to toot his own horn, but his teammates will. When Hohenstein was in his prime (and it was a lengthy prime) he threw a change-up the likes of which had never been seen before or since. Opposing batters knew it was coming, but they still couldn't hit it.

With drinks in hand, the old PJ's Loungers stood ramrod straight on the Okabena ball field grass talking and laughing throughout the night. One of them, Brian Pelzel, retired in 1995 immediately after the team participated in the Class A national tournament in Minot, N.D.

Sure, he missed the game.

"If I didn't watch it, it didn't bother me," he said. "But when I went to watch a couple of ball games, I wanted to be in there."

His teammates understand perfectly.

Bob Madsen, an exceptional athlete in his high school days at Heron Lake-Okabena High School, became a fixture with PJ's Lounge at shortstop in the mid-1990s. After the Loungers broke up following the 2005 season, Madsen retired. But now he's back at the age of 46, playing with the new and younger team. Even so, those old days had a specialness about them that can never be duplicated.

"It's fair to say that those were the most enjoyable days of my life," he said. "We were always competitive. Won a lot of state tournaments. Quite a few national tournaments where we did well."

Madsen, Pelzel and Hohenstein were joined in Okabena on that special night with other old-timers Dave Froderman, Kevin Rogers (who was umpiring the doubleheader), Keith "Wally" Rubis, Wayne "Buck" Rogers and Doug Wolter. Toward the end of their tenure as legacy PJ's Loungers, a young Ike Rogers was introduced as a part-time performer. Today, Rogers is the player-manager of the new PJ's team.

Two other special guests arrived for the evening, legendary pitchers Lou Heller of Odin and Marly Johnson of Fairmont. Heller is one of the wonders of the world, still pitching at the age of 68. He even threw a few innings against Rock Rapids. Johnson, now 78, looks like he can still mow' em down. He came down to Okabena because he had a son, and a grandson, playing with the new PJs team.

Heller is a lifer in the truest sense of the word.

"I'm trying to do a little more (pitching), but I can't find places to play," he said.

His Odin team still performs, but there is no league any more and games are strictly by invitation.

One of the nicest guys ever to put on a fast-pitch jersey, Heller was strictly business on the pitcher's rubber. At the old-timer's reunion, he admitted that he never took up the game to make friends — it was all about winning.

"The teams. The competition. It was unbelievable. Every town had a good team, good pitching," he recalled.

Different game, same game

There is no shortage of theories today about why men's fast-pitch softball has changed. Some point to the fact that far fewer young people are learning how to pitch. Others note that men who could still play are instead following their children all summer at their never-ending weekend youth tournaments. For them, it's a choice. Play ball themselves, or follow their kids — who 20 or 30 years ago would have been far less structured in their summer activities.

It's safe to say that no reunion would have been the same without Hohenstein and Froderman taking part. While Hohenstein dominated games as a pitcher, Froderman was a monster home run hitter in his day. He would arrive at games barely on time, walking onto the grounds in bare feet with his spiked shoes carried in his hand. But when the game started, he was always ready. Players still talk about his tape-measure home runs that had to be seen to be believed.

The stories the old PJs Loungers told at their reunion were non-stop and varied, and Froderman, Hohenstein and Rubis were usually in the center of them. They talked about 100-degree nights in Kansas, fights and other shenanigans in bars, the time they outsmarted Odin in a national tournament, and beer. Lots of beer.

Madsen, who resides in Mankato, was asked why he returned to the field after vowing, when he retired the first time, that he was done for good. But today, he has a 10-year-old daughter who's playing fast-pitch in Lake Crystal.

"I just missed being on the field, the relationships with teammates," he replied. "But I also wanted to have my daughter see me play, and influence her to enjoy the game more."

The guy his teammates always called Bobby thought again about the old game and the new game, and how it's changed. But maybe it hasn't changed quite as much as the old-timers think.

"It's amazing how many people we played against are still playing," Madsen offered. "And a lot of them are playing with their kids. It's really a family affair."

Bonded by blood, or bonded by shared memories. Let the young ones play, let the old guys fade away. But let them tell their stories, and let those stories get better with every re-telling.