Play ball: Diamonds are forever for senior softball in Howard County

Walt Hooper strode to the plate, swung the bat and lifted a soft fly ball past second base.

“Good hit, Walt!” a teammate shouted.

Why praise a pop-up? Hooper, of Ellicott City, is 90 years old.

Others on the practice field were codgers, too. All play in Howard County’s senior softball program, a weekly outing for those too stubborn to act their age.

Each Saturday, several dozen athletes — most in their 70s — gather at Centennial Park North, in Ellicott City, to choose up sides and strut their stuff. For them, diamonds are forever.

“Our slogan is, ‘We’re still on the right side of the grass,’ ” said Hooper, of Ellicott City. As a youth, he played sandlot baseball with the late Al Kaline, a Hall of Famer, and attended Poly during an era when the Baltimore school was on North Avenue.

For 30 years, Hooper has taken his cuts in senior softball, declining skills be damned. Twice a week, the nonagenarian drives himself to a local batting cage and practices his swings to gear up for the weekend games against others aged 55 and over.

“I like the camaraderie and I love to compete,” Hooper said of his pastime. “I swing the bat good, though the ball doesn’t go very far. I can’t play the field, I can’t run and I can’t throw; other than that, I’m okay.”

Teammates praise Hooper’s gumption, which mirrors their own.

“I have a great need for physical activity,” said pitcher Larry Roberts, 83, of Columbia. A former marathoner, he ran 22 such races before switching sports 20 years ago. Roberts also oversees the senior softball program, which runs April to October, though the group plays year-round if weather permits.

“Our cutoff [temperature] is 45 degrees, though we’ve played through snow flurries,” said Roberts. “Once you’re out here [on the field], you hate to give it up.”

Many players also participate in more competitive senior leagues, using the Saturday pick-up contests to hone their skills. Here, though, games are played with a nod to safety. A wire screen on the mound protects the pitcher from sharp line drives. Metal cleats are forbidden. There are two bags at first base — one each for the runner and fielder — to stave off collisions. Batters can opt to use “courtesy runners” to round the bases for them. And, to conserve everyone’s energy, teams play two innings at a time (e.g., six outs), to keep from changing sides as often.

Still, injuries happen. Base runners pull up lame. Fielders wince with shoulder pains. But the games go on.

“Senior softball has put a lot of orthopedists’ kids through college,” said Kathy Reitz, 73, of Rockville. The lone woman out there, Reitz, an outfielder, took a shot in the chops in 2018 when an errant fly ball glanced off her glove, struck her face and tore open her lip. Stitches closed the wound. Two weeks later, though badly bruised, Reitz was back on the field.

“You never want to lose your grit, at any age,” said Reitz, who, at 69, scaled Mount Kilimanjaro. “This game gives meaning to our lives. It’s training for being tough, and that’s true for geezers as well as for teenage boys.”

Four months ago, Chuck Spalding underwent a second knee replacement. Now, he plays softball four days a week, including the Saturday games, as he has for 20 years.

“I’ll do this until I die; it’s ingrained in me,” said Spalding, 75, of Laurel. “Some friends think I’m nuts; others respect what I do. The guys I grew up with all play golf now, but softball is much more fun.”

Even when you’re getting razzed.

“Guys joke about how I run; they say, ‘Take the piano off your back,’ ” said Spalding. “We all make fun of our age. If I’m put out on a close play at first base. I’ll say, ‘I would have been safe 20 years ago.’ ”

That self-effacing style is shared by his peers.

“It’s good-natured ribbing, guys bantering back and forth,” said Mark Pendleton, 67, of Catonsville. “Swing the bat and hit a dribbler and you might hear, ‘A grown man hit that?’ ”

Needlers know how far to go.

“There’s some bench jockeying, but we don’t tolerate serious trash-talking,” said Roberts. “Some guys take [baiting] better than others; you learn that, fast.”

Play is competitive, but not cutthroat.

“We’re out here to engage with the guys and to keep ourselves sharp,” said Pendleton. “Seeing players in their 70s and 80s inspires the younger ones to keep going. Hopefully, when I’m 80, I’ll still be doing this.”

Devotees sign up ($29) through the county’s Recreation and Parks program. Last year, 80 joined on a come-when-you-can basis. Some have played, literally, to the end. Deaths are met with solemn reverence: Players remove their caps for a moment of silence.

“We’re a band of brothers,” said Andy Zitnay, 77. A Columbia resident, he has blossomed with age, having (1) played third base on a national travel team that won a North American 60-plus championship, and (2) earned a place in the National Senior Softball Hall of Fame. Yet these Saturday outings, Zitnay said, are “the most fun I’ve had in softball.

“We keep score, but we don’t keep statistics. We don’t talk about our kids, we talk about our grandkids. At the end, everyone likes to say that their team won, but nobody really cares.”

The “drop-in” games stir something primal in him, Zitnay said:

“It takes you back to when we were 10, and we’d all go to a vacant lot, and the team captains would choose up sides by walking their hands up a bat, with the one at the top getting first pick.”

Surely, they are no longer 10. Zitnay suffered a torn labrum (shoulder) and has had both knees replaced. He has seen players, like Reitz, get conked by the ball and leave the game.

“They get hit, but, a couple of weeks later, they’re back,” he said. “They always come back.”

It beats the alternative, all agreed.

“We used to call having an aquarium ‘the hobby of death.’ Senior softball is a little like that,” Reitz said. “There’s still fire in our bellies; it may be the last glowing embers, but it’s there.”