Northeast Times

Senior softball league is youthful 'medicine'

— The PSSL al­lows seni­ors to re­main men­tally and phys­ic­ally strong play­ing soft­ball two morn­ings a week.

Ric Della Penna, 60, plays for the Mar­iners at the seni­or base­ball games at Crispin Gar­dens’ fields in Holme Circle on Au­gust 9, 2012, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

Start­Frag­ment

Base­ball and soft­ball are widely known as kid’s games, and with that dis­tinc­tion comes an ever­last­ing power to make play­ers and spec­tat­ors to feel like kids as they pro­gress in­to adult­hood.

Just ask Ron Ka­rol­ski and oth­er mem­bers of the Phil­adelphia Seni­or Soft­ball League (PSSL).

Every Tues­day and Thursday morn­ing in the spring, as well as late sum­mer and early au­tumn, dozens of men, mostly re­tired and in their 60s, gath­er at the Crispin Gar­dens com­plex at Holme & Con­vent Av­en­ues to re-vis­it their youths on the soft­ball dia­mond. The league is mostly com­posed of men ages 58 to 69, but there are some ex­cep­tions to the rule, as well as two off­shoot leagues for play­ers in their 50s and 70s.

This past Thursday morn­ing, all of the fo­cus was on the teams in the 58-69 league; there are six of them — the Mar­iners, Brew­ers, An­gels, Out­laws, Car­din­als and Arno’s Or­na­ment­al Iron — and make no mis­take about it … they are highly com­pet­it­ive.

“It’s a fairly high level of soft­ball, and it’s cer­tainly com­pet­it­ive,” said Ka­rol­ski, the league’s play­er pool co­ordin­at­or and a mem­ber of the An­gels. “I don’t think any of us would like it as much if it wer­en’t. There’s a cer­tain level of in­tens­ity and pres­sure to play at a high level, and I like that it mat­ters if you win or lose.”

Surely the PSSL’s main ob­ject­ive is to be a re­cre­ation­al out­let for older people to main­tain their phys­ic­al and men­tal strength as they age, but by no means can any­one with­in the age brack­et just show up and play. The league, which has been around for about 15 years, holds try­outs for in­ter­ested par­ti­cipants, and there is a short wait­ing list to keep the num­ber of play­ers at a reas­on­able level.

“Just like base­ball or any oth­er com­pet­it­ive sport, you have to try out and let the team man­agers check you out,” said league com­mis­sion­er Dick Li­p­in­ski, who also man­ages the Arno’s. “It’s medi­cine for our guys. They just love it. Guys come hurt, they come sick and they leave the field feel­ing good and healthy. You can see that the guys need this. To me, it’s bet­ter than vis­it­ing a doc­tor. I can’t say enough about it.”

Ka­rol­ski, a Ta­cony res­id­ent and re­tired 65-year-old city Parks & Re­cre­ation de­part­ment mem­ber, got in­volved with the PSSL three years ago. He was an avid run­ner and bas­ket­ball play­er, activ­it­ies he had to give up when his aging knees no longer al­lowed him to com­pete at the level he was ac­cus­tomed to. Ka­rol­ski had spent some time play­ing soft­ball in the over-50 league, and after a brief peri­od of in­activ­ity, he learned of the 58-and-over league through some mu­tu­al friends. On a whim, he con­tac­ted Li­p­in­ski, and showed up one day when the An­gels were in a trans­ition­al, re­form­a­tion phase.

“I went to a prac­tice, said hello and that I was will­ing to play if they needed an ex­tra body,” Ka­rol­ski said. “I re­tired at 55, so I was look­ing for something to do, and the ca­marader­ie and com­pet­it­ive drive was felt right away. We like to play, but we also like to so­cial­ize and talk about each oth­er’s fam­il­ies and what’s go­ing on in so­ci­ety. A large part of the reas­on guys come out is to spend time with their bud­dies.”

Ka­rol­ski’s ad­min­is­trat­ive and or­gan­iz­a­tion­al skills stem­ming from his ca­reer as a city work­er al­lowed him to get in­volved be­hind the scenes, in­clud­ing spear­head­ing an up­date of the league’s rules and bylaws, a pro­cess that is still evolving. He at­tends coaches meet­ings and is re­spons­ible for re­cruit­ing and eval­u­at­ing in­com­ing play­ers in ad­di­tion to be­ing a play­er for the An­gels. On Thursday, the team’s pitch­er couldn’t make the game, so Ka­rol­ski vo­lun­teered to take the mound. He is­sued sev­er­al walks and the An­gels fell in a blo­wout, but the team took de­feat in stride.

“Aging is a men­tal chal­lenge, and be­ing part of this league has helped me feel vi­tal,” Ka­rol­ski ex­plained. “It keeps me men­tally and phys­ic­ally sharp, and it just feels good to be out there. I’m not the best play­er, but I give it a ser­i­ous try, as do all of the guys. Aside from play­ing, it’s al­lowed me to con­tin­ue do­ing something I like in terms of or­gan­iz­a­tion and work­ing with people. I like deal­ing with people and their prob­lems, so there really is a multi-fa­ceted ap­peal to be­ing a part of it.”

Ad­ded Li­p­in­ski: “Ron is a su­per, su­per guy. He made all of the rules and keeps everything straight. He’s my guide.”

The PSSL teams play with 11 field­ers — five in­field­ers, four out­field­ers, a pitch­er and a catch­er — and they also use wooden bats. There is no pen­alty for over-run­ning a base, and the high-arc, slow style of pitch­ing en­sures that the aging play­ers can con­tin­ue to com­pete at a high level. Still though, on Thursday morn­ing they could have been mis­taken for limber 20 or 30-year-olds, as there were sev­er­al im­press­ive field­ing and hit­ting dis­plays.

Above all, the PSSL serves as a large sup­port sys­tem for folks en­ter­ing their seni­or years. As people age, ad­versity is usu­ally a con­sist­ently un­wel­come in­ter­loper, as de­clin­ing health and per­son­al loss be­come more and more vis­cer­al. The mem­bers of the six teams lean on each oth­er, in good times and bad, and now they can’t ima­gine life without one an­oth­er.

“Three years ago, I found out my wife had can­cer,” Li­p­in­ski re­called. “I was a bag of nerves, and my team car­ried me through it. Every week I’d get so many people ask­ing me, ‘Hey, how’s Bar­bara do­ing?’ They boos­ted me up, and I couldn’t have gone through the agony without them. I needed them, and I still do. You can see that guys really need this.” (Ori­gin­ally giv­en just two to six months to live, Bar­bara Li­p­in­ski beat the dis­ease and is cur­rently do­ing well.)

“It re-cre­ates the joys of youth, al­low­ing you to look back fondly on the ath­let­ic things you could do when you were young­er,” Ka­rol­ski ad­ded. “I in­tend to keep go­ing for as long as I’m healthy and still hav­ing fun. I want to be a feisty old-timer, have my wits about me, be in good phys­ic­al shape and keep go­ing. For me, there’s nev­er a lack of vi­tal­ity or en­ergy.

“A lot of people tell me I don’t seem 65,” he con­cluded. Maybe it’s be­cause I know who Lady Gaga is, I don’t know. But either way, I take it as a com­pli­ment that I don’t seem played out. To me, I’m still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and this league al­lows us all to look for­ward rather than look­ing back or look­ing nowhere. It’s a for­ward ho­ri­zon to look for­ward to, and my mo­tor is still run­ning. Whatever the next ad­ven­ture is, I’m ready for it.” ••

End­Frag­ment

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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