Senior Softball Marries Improved Health with Friendly Competition

WOMEN OVER 40 and men over 50 are eligible to play in the Northern Virginia Senior Softball league, with individual assessments being administered upon joining up to determine which of the three classifications the player would fit in best. (Photo: News-Press)

Muscles are stressed, limbs are loosened and stamina is strengthened during Northern Virginia Senior Softball’s two month spring training at the James Lee Community Center that concluded prior to the start of its season next week.

Think of the local center as a combination of Florida’s Grapefruit League and Arizona’s Cactus League rolled into one geriatric package with some spry surprises inside.

Starting in February and going through the end of March, players from as close as Fairfax to as far as Maryland will conglomerate in the center’s gym to stretch out their gams and get in some cardio before heading out to the field for hitting and fielding practice. In the entirely volunteer-run league of about 550 competitors, roughly 50 or so will make their way out to Falls Church for any given Monday or Friday workout. It’s imperative if they want to avoid landing on the injured reserve during the opening slog of seven inning doubleheaders NVSS holds every Tuesday and Thursday throughout Fairfax County.

“In my first year playing, I pulled both my hamstrings and both my quads in the first three weeks. I could hardly walk and had bruises all over my legs,” 78-year-old Brian Payne said, who retired from the workforce in 2000 and is going on his 20th year with NVSS. “Someone mentioned the spring training exercises and that I should come out. I’ve been injured since then but never as bad.”

I know what you’re thinking — “This guy messed up his body power walking to first base?” Take a lap for that condescension.

The league is for seniors, but it’s not a simulated game just to get them out of the house. It’s competitive and strives to keep it that way. According to Frank Roberts, who runs the spring training workouts, each new player is assessed when they first join up. From there the league determines which of its three classifications the player fits into: National (“the jocks,” per Payne), American (the middle level, where the bulk of the players are) and Continental (the guys with, as Payne put it, “two knee braces and zipper scars down their chests”).

Each year stats are inputted from the previous seasons into an algorithm to reorganize the teams based on skill level. So, according to Roberts, no team is left without a quality shortstop or pitcher or batting order, whether it comes to the spring season running from April to July, or the fall season running from September through October. Payne mentions that the win-loss records between teams is fairly even heading into the postseason tournaments, sidestepping any sour feelings over a lack of parity.

DON’T EXPECT ANY GIMMES in the games though — these guys and gals are in good enough shape to flaunt their athleticism at the plate and in the field. (Photo: News-Press)

To say winning is the glue of the league would count as an error on the scorecard. You might make the players wheeze from laughing at the thought of participation trophies, but the real prize to its members is the camaraderie, the (mostly) good-natured ribbing and the elixir it provides to the seniors’ health, such as being able to ward off Alzheimer’s disease and other degenerative conditions.

“If there’s a pill that you could take to be stronger, faster, sexier and live longer, you’d pay a bunch of money for that — this is it and it’s free,” Payne said, relaying a popular NVSS sales pitch from Roberts, an 87-year-old practicing psychotherapist and exercise addict. Roberts is the originator of another well-known phrase in league circles — “You don’t quit playing softball because you get old; you get old because you quit playing softball.”

All the players agree that they see a difference in the health between their friends they’ve met on the diamond and their friends off it. Unfortunately, softball isn’t a cure-all. Payne mentions that every month or so league members will get an email letting them know a member died. Emergency services do make the occasional trip out to one of the fields if someone gets overheated or has a nosebleed that won’t stop. It helps that, as Payne jokes, the whole league is drug-addicted. Ibuprofen and Coumadin have served as NVSS’s scandal-free version of performance-enhancing drugs since its founding in 1980.

What is a blessing is that those instances don’t (usually) take place during competition. John Hollis, an 83-year-old retired physicist who claims to be the longest tenured player since he joined in the late ‘80s, suffered a heart attack last April off the field. He couldn’t play again until September, but had a triumphant return when he helped lead his team on a four-game win streak in the postseason tournament, including knocking in the winning run to clinch the title and celebratory t-shirt that comes with it. Although, others have gone out with a bang before.

“A guy named Harry was playing second base at a tournament. He ran out and caught the ball, then he died on the field with the ball still in his glove,” Hollis said. The out was recorded — talk about diehard.

The seniors are sardonically aware about how many grains remain in their lives’ hourglasses. But with an opportunity to get the competitive juices flowing, their health in a perkier position and the chance to share some beers with teammates afterward, they feel like they’re sneaking a little sand back to the top.