A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
Life after retirement with the Manhattan Beach Senior Softball Association
- Written byStefan Slater
It’s a good day for softball in the South Bay.
Steve Nicholson, the commissioner of the Manhattan Beach Senior Softball Association, stands with Gary Butcher as they watch the start of a league game at Dorsey Field, Live Oak Park. It’s a warm, clear day, and both men stand close to the backstop, laughing and commenting on the plays.
“Did you see that hit?” asks Gary, smiling, eyes focused keenly on
the field. Behind them sit a dozen or so teammates, former teammates
and spectators on the concrete bleachers—they’re all mostly quiet until
that distinct, solid thump of a decent hit rings out. And then they rise, cheer or joke about whoever’s next at bat before settling back down to a muted mumble.
“We have a huge variety of skill levels,” says Steve. “Some guys make incredible plays, some just goof around—you get like that when you get old.” The two men are typical of the Senior Softball Association: late-60s, longtime residents and loyal baseball or softball fans.
Though Gary still works as a building contractor and land developer, Steve is retired—much like the rest of his teammates. While Gary heads off to greet other players, Steve sits and continues to watch.
“When you’re retired, it gives us something to do, it’s my little appointment,” says Steve about his weekly games. Raised in Manhattan Beach, he played Little League here at Dorsey, and before retiring, he worked as a financial professional and also managed an alarm company.
But now he focuses his time on his family, his health and his teammates. “The camaraderie and the experience,” says Steve, when asked about why he plays softball. “It’s addictive, but there’s a lot of friendship here. Last 10 years I didn’t have time for sports, but once I retired, well, oh, boy.”
He shakes his head, laughs and then rises to greet another teammate with a smile and a handshake. Steve, much like the rest of the nearly 100 or so senior men who are part of the association, plays softball every week. Everyone at Dorsey, no matter their background or age, is united by a love for softball and a deep-seated need for camaraderie and competition.
The association began in 1993 with four teams. Currently there are five: Brokbutcher.com, Admiral Risty, Kettle, Jets and Bare Elegance, all named after their respective local sponsors. It’s free to play, though players must supply their own playing equipment. The association operates throughout the week with pickup games on Tuesdays, skill drills on Monday and Friday, and league games on Thursdays.
Age runs the gamut. Players have to be at least 60 to participate usually, but this year the association made an exception by allowing each team the opportunity to recruit two 57-year-olds (nicknamed “babies”). Some players are in their early- to mid-80s as well.
“We have to avoid collisions,” says Sam Barr, a player for Admiral Risty. He says that the seniors are careful when running, they don’t slide home, and they do their best to avoid getting injured—though he’s quick to add that even players with medical conditions rarely miss games, even when they’re ill.
Dennis Lew is the team manager for Admiral Risty, and he also helps coordinate logistics for the association. “You’re dealing with seniors—99% are retired,” he says.
During his time working with a title insurance company, the LA native helped manage the company’s softball team, so he has plenty of experience when it comes to playing. “It’s wonderful to make friends with gentlemen from all walks of life: engineers, accountants, lawyers, laborers. When you play, it doesn’t matter what your background is.”
Dennis also works hard to make sure he stays in touch with all of the players—even if they’ve moved away or can no longer play. “We still get a lot of fans. Once our physical problems come in, it doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the camaraderie.”
Ray Latchford, a New Jersey native, suffered from a double stroke recently and can no longer play. “I’m on the shelf,” says the former Marine and Northrop Grumman engineer, terse and to the point. But Ray is attached to the league—as the commissioner emeritus, he can be found at Dorsey Field on most days, watching and commenting on the game.
The 81-year-old grew up playing baseball, and he started playing with the league years ago by chance. “I was walking to the library. I saw all these old guys playing, and they said come out and play,” says Ray. It was as simple as that.
Most players share a similarly diverse background and passion for the game. Ken Sackman, a former attorney from Pennsylvania, used to work at a General Mills plant back East when he was younger. “I made enough Cheerios and loaded them into boxcars to make enough to go to law school,” he says.
Gary, who plays for Brokbutcher.com (owned by his son, Brok), used to play for the California Angels. He fondly recalls the days when he played so hard, “you couldn’t even pick up a comb to comb your hair.”
Baseball runs strong in his family. Brok used to play for the Anaheim Angels, and his eldest, Jason, played with the Dodgers. For Gary, it’s hard to imagine life without a bat in his hands. “I’d probably go insane if I didn’t play,” he says.
Bart Mills, a retired writer who worked with a number of LA publications, looks forward to his weekly softball games. “I love the competiveness and the social aspect. I like to win,” says Bart, adding that his doctor was incredulous when he asked if he would be able to throw overhand with an injured shoulder.
The team aspect is also vital for Bart—although less for the direct support and more for the chance to make the games a little more interesting. “You compete with each other to find the best insult for the opposing player. Just for fun,” he says.
“I’m three blocks from where I grew up,” says Sam. The former GTE employee (he now helps most of his teammates with their computers as a hobby) notes that the association gives him the chance to stay in touch with close friends. “It’s like Little League. It’s that same feeling,” he says, adding that for many in the association, that sense of friendship keeps a lot of men going through troubling times. “So many of the guys lose wives. We mean the world to them.”
Two of the “babies,” Elwin Pichon and Ken Burgardt, have already tapped into the energetic spirit that drives the association. “I’m a big little kid,” says Ken, a New York native. Elwin, originally from Louisiana, leans in and adds, “We’re all big little kids.”
No matter their age or background, all of the players are united by a love for baseball and softball, as well as a rarely waning need to have a little competitive fun. It’s what the association is all about.
Ron Wall, who’s in his mid-80s and is one of the oldest players, spells it out simply when asked why he plays. “I have to. To keep me young.”