The baseball whizzed past a young boy’s head as he turned to run after it. He was on it in a hurry and threw it back to the infield with as big a heave as he could muster. The boy cried out excitedly to his grandpa making sure his actions didn’t go unnoticed.
As the team got back into their positions at Mid-America Sports Complex in Shawnee Mission, Max Utsler, the boy’s grandfather, returned to his familiar post at first base. In an ironic role reversal the players in the Men’s Senior Baseball League play a children’s game while their grandchildren come out to watch, chase down foul balls and provide moral support.
Utsler, Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Kansas, could not extend his team’s season Monday after it fell 4-2 in the first round of the 45-and-over playoffs in the Kansas City Men’s Senior Baseball League.
The men of the league, however, continue to extend their playing days well beyond their athletic primes. Only two members of the team are under 60 despite playing in an age bracket that allows men as young as 45 to play.
“There are guys that are 10 even 20 years younger than us,” said pitcher Jerry Noack, who continues to pitch despite undergoing knee replacement surgery before this season.
Hardball, not softball
The game has not escaped any of the players even as their youth has. Though they play at a slower pace, the men share the same stories as young players, have the same competitive fire and even use the same salty language.
It is not uncommon to see baseball players make the transition from baseball to softball as they advance in age but the men in this league make it clear that they are not softball players. The Kansas City MSBL website even displays the slogan “DON’T GO SOFT, PLAY HARDBALL!”
“Sometimes I leave for a game right from work and people see my uniform and ask if I’m playing softball,” Utsler said. “I make sure to tell them I play baseball, not softball.”
A universal game
Though the team is made up of a specific age group, the players are a diverse group. There is a veterinarian, a police chief, a man who works with homeland security and professors of various subjects.
The national MSBL organization caters to more than 45,000 members across the country with leagues for men as young as 18 all the way to the 74-and-older league. MSBL also puts on annual tournaments in Florida and Arizona.
“The beauty and genius in the game of baseball is that the percentage of times you’ll get a base hit on a slow roller to short is the same in our league as it is in the Majors,” Utsler said. “Even though we’re playing at an entirely different level the game is the same.”
The game, and the season, ended abruptly on a double play. Utsler and his teammates slowly, almost regretfully, congratulated each other, packed up their things and headed home.
There was still the sense, though, that permeates all levels of baseball, that regardless of the score that day, there will always be another game, another season.