Senior Softball is the Hottest Part of the Game
By James Hanson
They might have lost a step - or even two - but the thrill of pitching, catching and swinging for the fence keeps players circling the bases in senior softball organizations and leagues across the United States.
Welcome to the hardball world of slow-pitch senior softball, where explosive growth has forever changed this once leisurely pastime. From California to Michigan. From Texas to Florida. Cities are bidding big money to play host to these four-to-eight day senior softball tournaments.
Much of it has to do with demographics. As they do with pretty much everything else, aging baby boomers are swelling the senior sports ranks and introducing competitive drive to what used to be a social gathering disguised as an easygoing exercise regimen.
These veteran ballplayers (mostly males, but the ladies ranks are growing) want competition. They want to hit a gapper to the wall for a double, beat out a ground ball that makes for a close play at first base_they want to win!
One of the biggest softball tournaments in the country rolled, literally, into the Northern Nevada region the first week of June as Senior Softball USA hosted the 18th Annual Rock ‘N' Reno Challenge Cup extravaganza. One hundred and fifty-one teams, hundreds of travel trailers bringing more than one thousand players and even more spectators and fans of softball found their way to fields all over Reno, Sparks and Carson City for softball_senior style.
When speaking with Fran Dowell, the SSUSA national tournament director, you can hear the enthusiasm in her voice as she talks about the success of the SSUSA organization. "Fantastic_everyone had fun in Reno! Everything was fair and we appreciate all the help from everybody at all the fields. The tournament was so big this year we even had to use the Carson City fields."
The teams come from all over the country. Missouri, Idaho, Washington, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and many other states were here to compete, have fun, and most important enjoy life while playing the game of softball.
To the cries of, "Let's roll two", "That a baby, way to go," or even the occasional "Up_Up_Don't hurt yourself", being yelled from the dugout or the coaches boxes these senior division teams get down to business when they cross the white lines. This brand of softball is as serious and competitive as the most competitive top-level traveling teams put on the field.
Sportsmanship comes much easier to these grizzled veterans of many a bygone softball war. Oh sure, you'll hear the occasional "Come on, Blue" on a close play at first-base and you might even see a cross-eye when it comes to a pitch that's called a strike when the batter knows for sure it was a ball. All in all, the play has the spirit of fun attached to it and a competitive camaraderie. Dowell remarked, "Fairness, we try to make it fair and fun for every group. These teams and players spend a lot of money traveling to these tournaments. It's important to us to see them happy and having fun. We continually evaluate teams ratings. If a team is too dominate, they're moved up."
In the senior game, you will see the same kind of action that occurs in every league, every night across the land. The great diving catch on a low-line drive to the outfield or the easy pop-up to shortstop that drops to the ground untouched. The game score might be an offensive battle at 30-29 or a defensive struggle that ends with a single run being pushed across in the bottom of the seventh inning for a heart pounding 5-4 victory.
The senior game has, out of necessity, made certain accommodations for the safety of everyone involved. Pitchers are allowed to stand up to six-feet behind the pitching plate, there's no sliding at home or at first-base. These rules may not be a younger players cup of tea but one day_
Participation is the key and it appears to be a driving force on why senior softball is so popular nowadays. According to Dowell, "Senior softball is experiencing huge growth, our membership at SSUSA is around 25,000 and we've seen growth of 6-7% a year for the last five years and expect that to continue for the foreseeable future."
Everybody gets into the batting order, courtesy runners for anyone at anytime reduces the chance of serious injury to players that don't have the legs for running. Run rules for each inning, except the last, keep most games close, keeping a balance between the haves and the have-nots.
You get the sense that these players have an appreciation for the fact that they are playing with people their own age. I suppose it is easy to take that for granted when you're young and more athletic. When you hit the age groups that we're talking about, everybody is aware of the difference between when they were 25 and now when they're 60-55-1, 65 or older. It's a big difference.
Seniors, it seems, are looking to softball for a number of reasons, not the least of which are the health benefits found in swinging a bat and running the bases. The physical gains of playing softball are only equaled by advantages of sitting in a dugout with your peers and playing in a competitive atmosphere.
While most participants are happy with just the physical and social benefits of softball, for some the competitive fire still burns hot. The seniors' game offers differing levels of competition. You can play for the fun of it, or compete for the opportunity to take part in the Senior Softball World Series. Teams travel to regional tournaments throughout the U.S. and Canada to qualify for the championship. According to Fran Dowell, "We go the entire year. From January to November. In addition to all of our qualifiers, we have the Western National Championships in Kent, Washington in July, then we have the Eastern National Championships in Lansing, Michigan in August and to determine the best we will host the Senior World Championships in Phoenix, Arizona in late October."
After watching these senior teams go after it, the fun they were having that was obviously apparent to anyone in attendance, I think about one day when I'll be a ‘rookie senior shortstop' stepping onto the field in anticipation of the new season ahead. On my mind will be my new teammates, a new beginning and new things to prove. For a moment, I will consider the lush green field, the questions I have about my ability and reflect on the experiences that got me to this point. I hope I will be able to move past any self-doubts and go out, have fun and play some senior softball.