Senior softball going strong in Manistee

Manistee’s senior softball group, pictured in the front row (left to right): James “Texas” Picardat, Ray “Reverend” Latham, Ron “Slick” Helmboldt, Dave “Van Gogh” Crockett, Mike “Brooks” Kaufman, Stu “Jarhead” Swiger, Bill “Scoop” Connor, Lisa “Whitemouse” Fragomeli, Ed “Jonesy” Jones, Chuck “Crooner” Dillon and Russ “Popeye” Wrzesinski. Back row (left to right): Bill “Hammer” Mason, Roger “Smokey” Elbers, Garry “Moonlight” Cole, Dale “Merk” Merkey, John “Space” Kudalski, Bernie “Boomer” Misko, Mike “Trammel” Phelps, James “Preacher” Schmeling, Phil “Crusher” Kench, Dan “Buster” Birchmeier. (Kyle Kotecki/News Advocate)

MANISTEE — Many things are said to get better with age. At a certain point, however, athletes do not.

That doesn’t stop a group of Manistee County seniors from having a grand old time playing the game they love: Softball.

When Bill Mason retired from teaching and moved to Manistee, he was disappointed to discover the nearest senior softball league was in Traverse City.

Mason — who has been playing the game for decades — spends his winter months in Florida where he has an abundance of nearby senior leagues from which to choose.

With no local leagues in Manistee, Mason dabbled with softball in Traverse City and Benzie County, but the commute proved more than he could bear.

“I drove up to Traverse City one year, but some of those games up there don’t start until 9:30 p.m. and so I was getting home at midnight,” he said. “I was like, ‘This is no fun.’ I tried a 45-and-over league in Benzie County. That didn’t work out very well and I guess that league is folded now.”

Mason searched high and low for a suitable softball situation and when he couldn’t find one within shouting distance, he started his own.

“I went up to the MRA (Manistee Recreation Association) and asked the guy who was running it if anybody had ever come in and asked about senior softball,” Mason said. “He said one guy came in: Chuck Dillon. … He had come into that office and asked about senior softball. So I tracked him down, talked to him and his eyes were all lit up.

“Then I saw Fred Niles — who is the president of the Manistee Golf and County Club — working out at the fitness center by the hospital,” Mason continued. “So I started talking to him. And he knew Bill Connor and said he would like to play. Through word of mouth I picked up some guys at the gym. … I think the first practice had two or three guys and then we built up to maybe eight the first year.”

Things have steadily grown from there and in its fourth year of action, Manistee senior softball is hitting its stride.

“Now I have over 40 names on my email list,” Mason said. “We’re getting into the 20s now, which is nice. It’s really growing from two or three guys to 22 or 24. We have a couple guys injured or we would have had 26 there (Wednesday) instead of 20. That’s kind of how it’s evolving.”

A long-term goal of Mason’s is to have enough participants to field four teams, but he is more than content with being able to field two teams and share some laughs while playing with friends.

“To me, it’s fun,” he said. “A couple guys are really competitive, but most of us aren’t. If somebody makes an error, we don’t holler at anybody. Everybody makes errors. Who cares? I just turned 76 so my ultra-competitive days are long gone. I’m on the hill going down. I’m there to have fun, get out of the house and have something to do.”

Fun is indeed the name of the game with Manistee senior softball. At times one can barely hear the crack of the bat over the laughter of the players. All participants have a nickname, and with monikers such as Slick, Scoop and Moonlight, the participants would be hard-pressed to take themselves too seriously.

The group meets at the First Street Beach softball fields on Mondays and Wednesdays at 10 a.m. and plays on Fridays if one of the other days gets rained out. The players get together as early and as late in the year as weather allows.

“We play in May, June, July, August, September and in some years, we play into the middle of October,” Mason said. “This year, May was so terrible I bet we only got out there twice.”

Manistee senior softball is always looking to expand. The team consists of spring chickens as young as 58 and wily veterans in their 70s. And it’s not just for the fellas — women are welcome, too.

“I’m the only girl on the team,” said Lisa Fragomeli. “It’d be nice to have a few more.”

The group is a community effort and Manistee senior softball even has a list of sponsors who have helped out along the way.

“I’d love to thank the sponsors,” Mason said. “We have sponsors who buy our shirts for us. … Vanderwal, Spratto and Richards, P.C. bought our blue shirts for us along with Victorian City Car Port. Our first sponsor was Callesen Wealth Management. And we have a gray shirt from Swidorski Bros. Excavating.”

Manistee senior softball even stepped into the limelight and marched in the Fourth of July parade.

“We had a great time,” Mason said. “We had 15 of us show up. Chuck Dillon, who we call ‘Crooner,’ sings with the Salt City Dixie Jazz Band and he was leading us and man, he was eating it up. So we were walking down River Street and about every half block we would stop and sing ‘Take Me out to the Ball Game’ and the people in the crowd were cheering and singing with us. It was a great time.”

To Mason and the rest of the players, softball isn’t about the double plays and RBIs. It’s about developing friendships.

“The nicest thing is I’ve met some outstanding men up here,” Mason said. “And their wives. I’ve made some great friends. My wife teaches tai chi at Fifth Avenue Beach on Mondays, Wednesdays and Friday — free tai chi. We’ve met great people through that, too. Through sports, we’ve done really well in Manistee.”

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Posted by Dylan Savela

Dylan is the county reporter for the News Advocate, he also is in charge of the Small Town Life, religion and senior pages. He can be reached at (231) 398-3111 or dsavela@pioneergroup.com.

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