When you are an umpire, every day is like Forrest Gump’s mother’s comparison of life to a box of chocolates: You never know what kind of behavior you’re going to get.
But one group in particular can be counted on to keep an even keel, even if a close call goes against them. They are The Boys of Summer — many summers, in fact.
They range in age from 50 into their 80s, but the spirit of competition and memories of past glories propel them onward and upward, even as Father Time tries to drag them downward.
For the 400 players of the Eastern Mass. Senior Softball League, competing during their golden years carries a price to be paid. Many players sport wraps, braces, even shin guards. All are grateful to still be playing, and some are returning after serious illnesses and are just happy to be alive.
On one Saturday morning this summer, the Del Fuegos and the Hitizens of the American Division, featuring the most skilled league players, went at it on a diamond in Medfield’s McCarthy Park.
While the teams play to win, their advancing years have given the players perspective on what’s really important. So the emphasis in the slow-pitch league is on player safety, and the league works hard to foster sportsmanship and camaraderie.
Many of the longest-in-the-tooth players started playing at a young age and never stopped.
Alec Levine, 71, of Hopkinton, in his 16th season in the league, is still manning the hot corner at third for the Hitizens. He attributed his longevity in the sport to “the luck of the draw and good genes.”
He recalled seeing an interview with comedian/writer Carl Reiner, who adopted a stretching routine that he continued until his death last year at the age of 98.
Levine said he was inspired to begin stretching every day and also took up boxing 18 years ago, which he said helps with stamina and balance.
On an adjacent diamond that Saturday, Joe DeFelice, 80, of Canton was guiding the fortunes of the Outlaws against the Weakened Warriors.
He’s been in the EMass league for 21 years — his Canton-based team was an annual champion until the league went to a draft format to create competitive balance — and played baseball at Canton High and Northeastern before founding the Canton Men’s Softball League in 1968 when he was only 19.
“I’ve been involved in baseball or softball in some form or fashion since Little League.” he said.
DeFelice is one of a good number of the league’s players still competing successfully in national and international tournaments, having been a part of three championship teams in the 75-and-over division to go along with a room full of other trophies and awards.
A newcomer to the league this season, Girolamo “Jerry” Taverna, 55, of Hull, marveled at the hitting skills of some of his teammates on the Outlaws. “It’s a great compete level. Some of these guys are in their 60s and they’re hitting like .650 or .750,” he said. “And there are 10 players out there and four outfielders.”
The league has five divisions in all, with both weekday and weekend schedules, and the various divisions have different skill levels, ensuring there is a place for anyone who wants to play. There are paid umpires at all levels and teams play at well-manicured fields in the MetroWest area.
The rules allow for generous use of pinch-runners for hobbled players after they reach base, but as the season that begins in May drags on, the number of players available to run for teammates starts to dwindle.
On Sept. 25, the American Division was to hold its playoff semifinals, with the final scheduled for Oct. 2.
The byplay between players who have known each other for years is part of the fun. Stevie Poole, 62, of Hudson, the coach of the Hitizens, “skies” at second base, leaping to snag a line drive, drawing both the cheers and catcalls of his teammates.
“I think he got up so high, you might have fit the scorebook between him and the ground,” laughed Hitizens catcher Tim Collins, 57, of Framingham, who is also — like myself — a USA Softball umpire, and appreciates the collegiate atmosphere that dominates the league.
The Hitizens’ Levine said the camaraderie and good-natured ribbing keeps him coming back year after year and has him always competing with a smile on his face. “There’s not a bum in the bunch.”
Just think, Tom Brady. In just six years, you’ll be ready to start that second career.