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A league of their own
Leagues for senior-level baseball players offer way to stay in the game.
June 02, 2010|By Sean Callahan, Special to Tribune Newspapers
Steve Ruark, Associated Press/For the Tribune
John DeBenedictis is 71, and he loves baseball so much that he was married on
a pitching mound. "We got married on a baseball field in Puerto Rico," he said,
"and it was (his wife, Lois') idea. We got married between games of a
doubleheader at high noon. "DeBenedictis also loves the game so much that he
still plays. Just to clarify: That's hardball — not softball.
DeBenedictis runs a Men's Senior Baseball League in Middletown, Del., with two
divisions: one for men 48 and older and one for men 55 and older. His league is
one of more than 325 similar MSBL organizations across the country.
The players in these leagues which can include divisions for players 18 to older
than 70, range in experience from former major-leaguers to those who didn't
even play Little League.
How it began
For Steve Sigler, MSBL is a way to make a living by enabling others (and himself) to
play baseball. He founded the league in New York — almost by accident — in 1985.
Sigler and some other Little League fathers organized a baseball game for
themselves one weekend. The experience inspired him. He ran an ad in a
newspaper seeking ballplayers, and the response filled four teams.
Eventually, Sigler quit his day job to run the league full time. These days his son
Brian, MSBL national coordinator, helps him manage the operation, which has
used this motto: "Don't go soft — play hardball."
"Once you had finished playing hardball in high school or college, there was
nowhere to go but to play softball. Most of us played softball until we heard about
this," said Lanny Ropke, who plays in a league in Sacramento, Calif.
Leagues vary by region
Some of the leagues spawned by MSBL are competitive, some are less so. In
Kansas City, Mo., Tom Prendergast, 51, says that former major-leaguers Danny
Jackson, Kevin Seitzer, Jeff Montgomery and others have played MSBL ball.
Montgomery, a former pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, bats leadoff and plays
shortstop in the MSBL. "He's still the best athlete on the field," Prendergast said.
In the league he founded two years ago in Newport, R.I., Curtis Cord, 46, tries to
tone down the competitiveness. He and his fellow league organizers hold tryouts
and then divide the teams as equitably as possible. "We spread the age and
talent evenly. It was my idea. I guess this comes from my experience as an
administrator in a Little League," Cord said.
At 63, Ropke still plays in a 35-and-over league in Sacramento. "I don't run very fast. But
I can still hit the ball," he said.
One of the highlights of Ropke's MSBL experience has been a "Field of Dreams"
moment when he played on a team with his son Skye, 36, who played college
ball. "That was a real thrill," the elder Ropke said.
Ropke also played on a team with his son Chad, 39, who lives near Phoenix. They played
in one of the six national tournaments MSBL hosts every year.
The tournaments are sprawling affairs that often last several weeks. They include
father-son divisions, wood bat divisions, and of course age-group divisions,
which range from 18-and-over to 70-and-over.
DeBenedictis has been a prime mover in expanding the age group divisions ever
upward. Two decades ago, he says he started the first tournament game pitting
two 50-and-over squads against each other.
Gradually, as DeBenedictis has piled up the birthdays, he has pushed for older
age divisions. In 2009, four teams played in the 70-and-over division at the MSBL
World Series in Phoenix.
"These guys, when you see them on the field, it's amazing. Some of them you
would never guess they're 70 years old," Brian Sigler said.
The league DeBenedictis formed for older players is called the Tri-State MSBL
and draws teams from Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
DeBenedictis says he only plays in the 55-and-older divisions these days. "The
game was passing me by," he said.
Women of almost any age are allowed to play in DeBenedictis' league. His wife,
who is 45, has been known to play on occasion, he said. One time DeBenedictis
was pitching against her. A fastball got away from him and plunked her in the
His wife knew it was just part of playing hardball. "She didn't charge the mound,"
Getting into playing shape
Players in the Men's Senior Baseball League say there are a few keys to getting
in shape for playing ball again — even if you haven't put on a baseball glove for a
few years, or decades.
"I can't say that I have a rigorous workout," said Tom Prendergast, 51, who has
been playing in Kansas City, Mo., for more than 20 years.
Prendergast focuses on hitting, and has built a batting cage in his backyard. "I'm
one of those guys who was a little bit overzealous," he said.
He gives this advice to new ballplayers:
•"I would go to an indoor batting cage. I'd take some swings in the slow cage.
Once you master the slow cage, then I would step up to the medium cage."
•He said the speed in the medium cage is usually fast enough for the MSBL,
whose pitchers average around 70 miles per hour in the 35-and-over divisions.
•Lanny Ropke, 63, suggests getting your legs in playing shape. "The main thing
is injuries," said Ropke, who plays in a league in Sacramento, Calif. "This is what
I tell the new guys. Do something with your legs. These guys usually pull their
quads or hamstrings."
•Ropke recommended a combination of running or cycling and lower-body
weightlifting, such as leg presses. He also noted that many new ballplayers don't
ease their way back into playing — especially when it comes to throwing.
Shoulder soreness is especially common.
•"Don't try to impress everybody on the first day out," Ropke said.