SOUTH DENNIS – If you close your eyes for a few moments, the sounds surrounding the fields at Johnny Kelley Park will take you back to your youth.
“Nice pitch Jimmy!” shouts one ballplayer. “Atta boy, Billy! Nice play!” hollers another.
Open your eyes and you’ll see a familiar game – baseball – being played by group of men in their 70s and 80s. On the surface, the game looks the same, albeit a little slower. The players are still able to hit the ball into the outfield, they glide around the bases and toss the ball around the diamond.
Much appears to be the same, although some of the players have picked up new equipment since their glory days of yesteryear.
“We’ve got knee replacements, hip replacements, pacemakers – not everybody, but there are certain guys,” explains 85-year-old Bill Perlman. “But we’re still out here doing it as long as we can.”
Fifty-four teams entered this year’s Cape Cod Senior Softball Classic, which made its return to play last week after COVID-19 forced the cancellation of last year’s tournament for the first time since the classic began in 1991.
The tournament is broken down to six divisions based on age groups — 50s, 60s, 65s, 70s, 75s and 80s —with the younger three divisions playing Sept. 10 to 12 and the elder groups playing Sept. 13 to 15. Games were played at the Potter and Memorial Fields in Harwich, Sandy Pond Field and Homer Field in Yarmouth and at Kelley Park in South Dennis.
While many of the teams are based on Cape Cod and entered the tournament after completing a summer schedule in the Cape’s senior softball league, the classic also attracts players from around Massachusetts, as well as the neighboring New England and northeastern states. A team from Cuba even entered the tournament years ago.
“It started small, as all things do,” said Wayne Draeger, a 75-year-old from Orleans who played in the classic while also serving as the tournament director. “They invited some surrounding leagues to come play if they wanted to, and it’s grown to the point where we now attract teams from across the northeast. It’s become sort of the All-Star thing for all of the leagues to say, ‘Well, we’ll send our best players to that Cape tournament to see if we can compete with teams from Rhode Island.’”
While all of men playing are competitive, many of them also feel grateful to be in good enough health that they are able to continue to run – or shuffle, in many cases – out onto the diamond with their teammates.
“For us, it’s the camaraderie,” said Perlman, who traveled to the Cape with his team, which features players from Morris and Essex counties in New Jersey. “We get together and we’re away from home – we love our wives, we do, we do – but we get out and go out to eat and tell stories and then we get to fool around and play ball. At our age, just getting out to play ball, we’re thankful every day.”
But don’t let the ages of these ballplayers fool you. Most of them maintain the competitive spirit they possessed as youngsters, which becomes apparent when there is a rare slide into a base or a brief heated exchange between teammates after a play goes awry. However, Draeger is quick to point out that the players are all well-behaved and respectful of the tournament’s officials and umpires, the bulk of whom are local volunteers.
All of the classic’s participants from the Cape played a 30-game regular season in the senior softball league and then a postseason, so they also have plenty of stamina to keep playing.
“During the seasons we play on Monday and Wednesday mornings, but there is an opportunity to play on Saturday mornings and there’s an opportunity to practice every Tuesday morning and Thursday morning,” said Jim Gresis, a 73-year-old from Chatham who serves as the president of Division 3 in the Cape’s senior softball league.
“Some guys can do five days a week.”
The Cape’s senior league was well represented in this year’s winner’s circle. The Cape Cod Sharks, a team comprised of men from the Lower and Outer Cape, captured the 80s division title Sept. 15 with a 16-10 victory over Hannington’s from the Boston area.
The Sharks were one of the biggest success stories from this year’s classic, but the tournament has always been about much more than wins and losses. It’s about bringing the players back to the days of playing with their friends under the sun — and that is the feeling the players enjoy the most.
“We all played Little League, Pony League, and lots of guys were good and played in college, but this is basically going back and being a kid again,” said Joe Nugent, a 78-year-old player from Chatham. “You’re having fun, you want to win, but it’s like, ‘God, I remember this from so many years ago!’ and that’s the fun part.”
Email Brad Joyal at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @BradJoyal