Local seniors take to the diamond, look to expand

Front row from left: Stu ”Rookie” Swiger, Bill ”Scoop” Connor, Ed “Pig-Pen” Jones, Mike “Brooks” Kaufman and Ron ”Slick” Helmboldt. Back row from left: Bernie ”Boomer” Misko, Fred “Duke” Niles, James “Preacher” Schmeling, Chuck ”Crooner” Dillon and Bill “Hammer” Mason. (Kyle Kotecki/For the News Advocate)

Front row from left: Stu ”Rookie” Swiger, Bill ”Scoop” Connor, Ed “Pig-Pen” Jones, Mike “Brooks” Kaufman and Ron ”Slick” Helmboldt. Back row from left: Bernie ”Boomer” Misko, Fred “Duke” Niles, James “Preacher” Schmeling, Chuck ”Crooner” Dillon and Bill “Hammer” Mason. (Kyle Kotecki/For the News Advocate)

By KYLE KOTECKI

For the News Advocate

MANISTEE — 74-year-old Bill Mason loves softball. With the nearest senior league in Traverse City, Mason decided to get the ball rolling on senior softball in Manistee.

“My wife and I go to Fort Myers, Florida for six months and I play senior softball down there four times a week,” Mason said. “We retired from Oakland County to here 12 years ago. There’s no senior softball around except for Traverse City.

“… That’s a long way to go up and drive back, so a few years ago I found a couple guys that were interested in playing,” he continued. “We started with two, three or four guys and just had batting practice. Now sometimes we get up to 10, 12 or 14 guys and we choose up teams just like you did when you were ten years old.”

Playing softball makes the guys feel like kids again. First names are eschewed in favor of nicknames such as “Scoop,” “Slick,” “Boomer” and “Pig-Pen.”

In the parking lot, you may find Bill Schmeling, the Lutheran pastor, or retiree Bill Mason. On the diamond, however, they are “Preacher” and “Hammer.” And they’re ballplayers.

“We have a hell of a good time,” Mason said. “Lots of fun. We go out to eat afterward. I’ve met a lot of good guys, so we’re trying to grow this thing.”

The effort is in its third year and has been growing steadily. Ultimately, Mason would like at least 20 people regularly show up so they could play nine-on-nine baseball.

The number of attendees dictates what the men can do, be it five-on-five or six-on-six with modified rules to accommodate the limited number of fielders. If the numbers are particularly low, they just take batting practice and shag fly balls.

“The goal would be 20-some guys,” Mason said. “I have over 30 names on my roster but they don’t all show up at the same time. But we have fun. … Five-on-five’s fun. Six-on-six is fun.”

Six-on-six may be fun, but Mason would like to see the numbers of players increase. He knows there are more ballplayers out there. It’s simple math.

“They tell me that in the 70s or 80s there were 40 men’s — not coed like they have now — men’s softball teams in the area,” Mason said. “Those guys are now in their 60s. I’m going to be 75 next month. Those guys in their 60s and 70s, where in the heck are they? We only have two guys who are from Manistee.

“That is unbelievable to me that all these guys played years ago,” Mason continued. “I don’t know if they’re all golfers or what. … We have very few Manistee natives playing.”

The crew has even found itself a sponsor.

“Mr. (Nicholas) Callesen of Callesen Wealth Management, we’re very appreciative of him buying us some shirts,” Mason said.

And lest you think these aging athletes can no longer get it done, “Slick” Helmboldt destroyed a bat Monday with a fearsome swing that sent both the ball and the top section of the bat into the outfield.

“One guy last week put three over the fence,” Schmeling said. “One bounced over my truck out in the parking lot.”

Not Aches, pains nor even a hematoma will keep these players off the field, though Mason admits some precautions must be taken.

“We take it easy around the bases, most of us,” Mason said. “We take it one base at a time.”

The group meets at the First Street Beach softball fields every Monday and Wednesday at 10 a.m. and usually wraps up around noon.

“We start in May,” Mason said. “We play through June, July, August and if September is nice we play into September. I leave for Florida in October so we play for five months.”

The group has eight to 10 players who show up regularly, and there are always a few people who show up more sporadically. They have recruited new players from their churches or even by asking passersby if they would like to take a few at-bats. The crew is always on the lookout for more players.

“We’ve got about five guys on the DL,” Helmboldt said. “They get lame so easy. One guy was working on his boat and wrenched his back. He’s been out about a month.”

Mason would like those interested in joining to stop by the First Street Beach softball fields on a Monday or Wednesday morning. All you need is a glove and a nickname.

If you don’t have a glove, someone will happily lend you one. If you don’t have a nickname, one will be provided for you.

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