The boy is cold this early spring morning. As he follows his father across the muddy field, toward the shouts of voices young and old, and the smell of tobacco, oiled leather and lumber, the boy is also scared. It is time for a pre-pubescent rite of passage. Time to try out for Little League. The boy is only eight years old, but he knows (as a child knows without really knowing) how much more is at stake than which team he plays for. He knows how much the day could mean for a father and son and for the ties that can bind or break forever.
“You’re as good as any of them,” his father says.
But the boy knows better. As he watches his classmates follow the commands of men with cigarettes, clipboards and stopwatches, he does not believe he is as good as any of them. Or so the kids remind him all the time. They like to call him Fats McGoo or Fats McGillicudy or Fatty Something-or-other. He doesn’t like these names or, in the Lord-of-the-Flies-like playground rituals, being chosen last for every team.
Today, as everyone expects, the boy lags behind in the running drills. Even with his father waving his cigar and shouting encouragement and instructions. “Keep your elbow up… your eye on the ball…” The boy does not hit or field well, either. He bobbles the first ball hit at him. When he muffs the second, the boy sees his father look away in silence. In shame? Disgust?
Now the coach is telling the boy to throw the ball to a smirking kid. And so he does. But he throws not from a patch of soggy grass but from somewhere he has never been. He throws from a dark place where disgrace and desperation fuel another emotion: Anger. He is angry at himself, his father and the catcher who is shouting, “C’mon McGoo!” And suddenly the ball explodes from his hand and strikes the kid’s mitt with a head-turning boom. The catcher’s hand already is swelling but the coach doesn’t seem to notice. He is walking toward the boy who threw the ball.
“Son,” the coach asks, “can you do that again?”
Before the boy can answer, a man steps forward.
“Sure he can!” the boy’s father says.
This time, as a crowd of fathers and sons gather around, the boy believes it, too. Every pitch he throws flies truer and faster than any other kid could throw that day. Too true and too fast for any to hit. And when the coaches tell him they’ve seen enough, the boy does not want to stop throwing.
As the boy walks to the car, he is no longer cold or scared. Or angry. And he can only smile when he hears a kid tell his pal, “Wow, Fatty Levy sure can pitch.”
I still smile as I remember the day that baseball changed my life forever. It was a day— and then many a day—that strengthened the bonds between my father and me. It was a game that gave a taste of confidence to a kid who always seemed to disappoint. I could always find a measure of self-esteem: All-division honors in high school, a baseball scholarship to a college beyond the reach of my grades and a chance to pitch in Fenway Park while my Boston-born father watched in rapture, all by simply throwing a ball.
More than 50 years later, I still love to pitch. While the “wow” is long gone, as well as the “boom,” a not-so-fatty Levy still needs to pitch. And so I do, at 59, in a miracle called the Men’s Senior Baseball League.
That’s baseball—as in hardball—not the easier, slower and, yes, safer game of softball. (The MSBL’s motto, emblazoned on its web page, is, “Don’t go soft…play hard ball!”) And not those “fantasy camps,” where you pay through the nose to play with ex-Major Leaguers. In the MSBL I have competed with and against a number of former professionals, such as former Red Sox pitcher Bill “The Spaceman” Lee, who were trying as hard as they could to win. For every one adult hardball player, there may be ten or more on sanctioned “slow pitch” softball teams. That’s because hardball is, well, harder. It demands a level of skill, courage, physical conditioning and smarts (more to keep track of before, during and after each pitch) than slow-pitch softball.
The Men’s Senior Baseball League allows thousands of Long Islanders over the age of 18—and hundreds over the age of 40—to still play hardball. Celebrating its 25th season, the MSBL was founded on Long Island and is based in Melville. But now it boasts an international reach with 45,000 men playing in 325 leagues on more than 3,000 teams. (I once pitched against a team from Russia and still have the Moscow policeman’s hat for which I traded an I Love New York t-shirt.) Its “World Series” in Arizona is the largest baseball tournament on the planet with as many as 325 teams competing in more than 30 divisions. And for charity, the league sponsored the longest game ever, according to the Guinness Book of Records – 99 innings. Is it a shock that a Boomer league’s charity of choice deals with prostate cancer?
“Among the league members are doctors, lawyers, local businessmen, former professional athletes and average working men,” the league boasts. “All are united by a common passion for playing and enjoying baseball.”
And so they are. Their reasons may vary, from the sublime to the subliminal to the slightly ridiculous. Some seek a greater athletic challenge or to prove they still “have what it takes” to play; some a (socially acceptable) escape from personal or professional pressures; some to connect emotionally with people and places long in the past; some a relatively responsible cure for mid-life crisis; some for business contacts.
For me and no doubt many others, the reasons to play are “all of the above.” And maybe one more: Love.
“It’s like Shangri-La,” said Bob Perez, who has played in the MSBL since its inception and appeared in a Today Show feature 22 years ago that helped propel it nationally. “It keeps the soul young.”
Whatever motivates us, almost none of my teammates and competitors would be playing if not for the vision and verve of a single guy. His name is Steve Sigler. “This is not an old man’s league,” said Sigler, as we ate dinner along with his son Brian, who now manages the league on a day-to-day basis. “It’s like what you see on TV only a little slower. It’s played by men from all walks of life but they haven’t lost the excitement of being a little leaguer.”
Finally, we were the last generation for which baseball was iconic, the most important sport at a time when sports were most important, period.
If you’re a TV buff, you might know that he is the father of Soprano’s actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler. If you are a horse racing aficionado, you might know that he is an owner of New York State’s most successful new stable. But to me he is an intuitive genius, who parlayed his longing to play the “real game” into a beneficent sports empire. Sigler, a confirmed Baby Boomer who played some college ball, understood more than the emotion he shared with other men who could no longer play in the serious amateur baseball leagues. (By 25, I had aged out of adult baseball even though I could still throw over 80 miles per hour.) At some point, soon after the league got off the ground, Sigler grasped the business potential of demographic forces that made our generation so different than those of our fathers and grandfathers. This league could never have been possible in their eras.
Why? We Boomers are the nation’s first generation to have and appreciate leisure time. We also are its most prosperous generation. We have the time and money to play. (I pay about $300 in team and league fees, not including uniforms, gloves, spikes and gas.) And we are the first to see physical conditioning as more than some cultish activity.
Finally, and most powerfully, we were the last generation for which baseball was iconic, the most important sport at a time when sports were most important, period. Playing again brought us back not just to our youths but also to a simpler, if less tolerant, time. Baseball was not just its pastime but, to tens of millions across generations, its touchstone.
Sigler, a marketing guy by trade, stoked the demand for Boomer Ball by traveling the country, like a Pied Piper of baseball, meeting with potential organizers of local MSBL franchises and giving interviews with reporters who could spread the word. He offered a professionally run “product” featuring teams with Major League-style uniforms, games with umpires, leagues with computerized statistics, professional travel services, an on-line equipment store, and one tournament after another, including national championships, held across the country often in Major League spring training stadiums.
With the help of a strong management team, Sigler expanded quickly. He absorbed weaker leagues, created more and more age and skill levels of competition. The MSBL has a 70-and-older tournament and the increasingly popular Father and Son competition, the ultimate inter-generational bonding experience. After shoulder surgery, Steve Sigler hadn’t pitched a ball in several years before he decided to play with Brian in a Father-Son tourney in Arizona. There wasn’t a better way to make a return to the game, on a field with the son who was a new Little Leaguer when the father first had the idea for the MSBL.
As large as it has grown, the MSBL started small, with some Little League dads who got tired of just watching their kids play hardball. They decided to play some pick up games at Jericho High School. “It was ‘let’s see how it feels to play baseball, not softball,’” Sigler recalled. “It felt good. We wanted to do more.”
That was the summer of 1985. The following year, Sigler put a small ad in Newsday, seeking hardball players 30-and-over. Enough responded to fill four teams. Then Newsday wrote a story about the start-up league. And that fall, 250 guys showed up for a tryout, enough for 17 teams on Long Island. Sigler’s wife Connie noticed an article about California’s Tom Hayden playing and championing adult hardball. So Sigler sent a team across the country to play Hayden’s, gaining more publicity and credibility. And then everything exploded.
In 1988, Sports Illustrated discovered the league. “There was my dad, right in the front of the magazine,” remembered Brian, a father of two young children of his own, as excited as he was when the article appeared. The writer included Steve Sigler’s home phone number. “It rang insistently for the next three weeks,” he said. “The calls came from around the country.”
Hardball is so much harder than slow-pitch softball that if you never played beyond Little League, you aren’t likely to be able to teach yourself to play, at least competitively, as an adult. And you have to work at it to have any chance of success.
Our official league schedule starts mid-April, but our team, the Rangers, holds its first practice in mid-January. The location is an indoor (mercifully) batting cage, near our home field at Mineola High School. It’s a day of high-fives and man-hugs with guys we may not have seen since the end of summer. A day of teasing about expanding guts and bloodshot eyes. A day of creaking swings and tentative throws in a netted space about as large as a trailer. Most of the hitting comes against a pitching machine. Starting with player-manager Bill Rattazzi, one of the league’s longer-tenured stalwarts, we take turns feeding an “Iron Mike” that spits out rubber balls at about 70 mph. We take as many swings as new blisters and old muscles will allow.
For me, the baseball season begins earlier—ritualistically—with a ball and a wall on New Year’s Day. It has been that way since I was a teenager. Although I had that “cannon arm,” I was short for a position played by the tallest players. (Even during the one really good year I had at Boston University, a year in which I beat some of the best teams in the East, the Major League Scouts always put away their notebooks as soon as they saw a 5’8” right handed pitcher.) So I had to impress right away, especially a new coach. And that meant being not just in shape for the first day of practice, but in mid-season form. Nowadays, I try to work out as often as a grown-up schedule allows. And I’m hardly alone. Many of the guys in my league, especially the older ones, hit the weight room and the treadmill all year round. The alternative is often playing poorly or in pain. Or, except for soft-toss with a physical therapist, not playing at all.
This New Year’s Day, I found a brick wall at a school near my sister in Sonoma, California. For years, I made my first toss in the basement of my home. My oldest little boy used to watch and play make-believe sportscaster. “Levy winds up, Levy pitches… Levy gives up another home run!” As a teenager, on one very snowy New Year’s morning, I threw against a pillow in my room, until my mother put an end to that. Then I went outside and threw snowballs. Thirty years later, mom shooed me away when I started thumping a ball against the wall of her Florida condo.
Even during the season, I still rely on walls to practice between games. If I don’t keep up during the week, I’m more likely to get hurt or be embarrassed by playing badly. Of course, that happens plenty (especially the latter) no matter how hard I prepare. But that’s baseball, even for the best of them, which I certainly am not now, even for my age group. After two elbow surgeries and many other injuries, including a shoulder that sometimes feels like it has a little sadist with a knife inside, I’m lucky and grateful to be playing at all. Still, it’s hard to imagine hanging up the spikes forever.
My team had its first “preseason” game this year on that gloriously sunny first day of Spring (a day you are happy to just feel your fingers). Even in a game that didn’t “count,” I bet everyone felt the pride and joy, even the privilege, of being out there, of being able to shout encouragement to a struggling teammate, or complain to the umpire (even if he’s right) or dive for a ball before it can find a hole, or slide hard into a well-protected catcher, or stand without flinching when a pitch seems headed for your face before it curves away.
And I wouldn’t be surprised if my teammates remembered another spring day years ago. A day with their fathers or maybe their own sons. A day of great success or failure. A day of ties that bind forever.
Although MSBL teams already are playing games, additional players still can be added to league rosters. So if you’d like a chance to hit Larry Levy’s curveball, find more info at longislandmsbl.com or call (631) 753-6725.