There are some sports you play when you're young that you know you'll grow out of and never do again. Baseball always seemed like one of those sports, but apparently the players in the Greater Madison Senior Softball (GMSS) league didn't get the "You're Too Old" memo.
Most of them started playing baseball when their age was a single-digit number, but now, in the fifth season of the GMSS, they're old enough to qualify for AARP cards and senior-citizen discounts. To play in the GMSS, you have to be at least 55, but there's no upper age limit. Most of the players are retired; the average age is 65, but the league has had slow-pitch softballers on the diamond as old as 87. Clearly, catching and swinging at balls keeps you forever young. The desire to keep playing ball is so strong that people drive here from as far away as Janesville and Baraboo just for the chance to step up to the plate and maybe knock one out of the park.
Greater Madison Senior Softball is the brainchild of two old friends, Ray Blum and Bob Ruhland. They met in the first grade at St. Bernard's on Atwood Avenue, when there was still a grade school there, and played with and against each other on baseball and softball teams over the decades. As they got older they found opportunities to play on MSCR and pickup rec teams, but eventually both hung up their gloves.
Then one day it dawned on Blum that, while senior softball was extremely popular in Florida, where he often vacationed in the winter, there were no serious leagues in Madison. And in his early 60s he had the itch to pick up his glove and play again. He called up Ruhland, and they designed a senior league with specific rules to promote safe play to protect their admittedly aging bodies from the sport's wear and tear. There would be no spikes and no sliding into second or home. And games would use a softer, safer, seamless ball called the Clincher.
Today Greater Madison Senior Softball has 12 teams and two leagues. Sponsored by Smart Motors, it doesn't turn people away if they're old enough and still have the urge to play. The 16-game season started the first week in May and continues into September. (By comparison, many Little League seasons are over by mid-July.) The games are played on Wednesdays at Middleton's CIBA Sport Center, and each game is a full nine innings. The first half of the season, all 12 teams will play each other; the second half, teams are reorganized into two leagues decided somewhat by their record and skill level to encourage more even competition. Throughout, though, camaraderie and sportsmanship are the rule, not winning at all cost.
"Teams are getting better and better every year," says Ruhland. "The team that had been dominant a couple years ago, last year they got beat a couple times. They're all catching up."
"The first year of the league, one team was head and shoulders above everyone else," says manager Steve Parr. "Scores were fairly lopsided. They could have scored three times as many runs as they did, but they'd didn't do that. They're great guys. There was no rubbing it in your face -- they were out there to have fun. And consequently, they have become the standard for all the teams."
Did any of these seniors imagine that they'd still be playing ball into their sixth and seventh decades?
"I couldn't even imagine living that long when I started out," says Parr. "When you're 8 years old, 65 doesn't seem real. We all started off playing in Madison Little League when it was just getting off the ground. Some of us played high school ball, then some of us played in the service and ended up in the city rec slow- and fast-pitch softball leagues."
Parr even traveled around the state and country playing fast-pitch softball: "I played 'til I was about 40, and then there was a big break. I even played on a team that had fathers and sons playing fast-pitch together and did that until my legs couldn't put up with it anymore."
"The beauty of this league is that we really don't have a disparity of age the way some of the city leagues do, where they have 30-year-olds playing with 55-year-olds," adds Bob Slinde, another GMSS manager. "Everybody's about the same age. Older guys can play competitive ball and have a good time. A lot of these guys have turned back the clock 10 years because now they're coming into the season in shape. The league has changed quite a few guys' lives, giving them a whole new perspective at 60, 65. We have guys playing with fake knees, fake hips, guys who have had heart attacks, cancer."
"We're still little kids," says Ruhland. "There's still that little boy in you. One guy told me, 'You never know when it's your last time on the ball field, so enjoy it.'"
For more info, see greatermadisonseniorsoftball.com, or call Steve Paar at 608-240-0588 or Jeff Haag at 608-437-5196.