Most guys play their last game of baseball in high school. The majority wind up settling for recreational softball as a substitute, but many never stop yearning for "the real thing." Now, thanks to the Men's Senior Baseball League, the over-the-hill gang is getting a new lease on its athletic life.
Baseball for older men is not a new idea. The nine-team, nine-city NorCal Old-Timers league, for example, has its origins in the San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland old-timers clubs of the 1940s. Until recently, however, such leagues have been few and far between, with little interleague play.
The MSBL, which provides both a national organization for existing leagues and the framework for new circuits, is the brainchild of Steve Sigler, 39, of Jericho, N.Y. Over the years, Sigler, who pitched and played second base for Martin Van Buren High in Queens, N.Y., (class of '66) found himself growing increasingly disenchanted with softball. "I wanted to play baseball again," says Sigler. "I grew up playing baseball—it was my love, and it's ingrained in me. Softball is just not the same game—it's a poor substitute. In baseball there's leading, there's stealing, there are pickoffs. You play nine innings, instead of seven; there are curve-balls, changeups, sliders."
In September 1985, Sigler, who has two sons, organized a team made up of Little League fathers to play a couple of games against Little League dads from a neighboring town. By the following summer, Sigler had formed a four-team league for players 30 and older. Last season the league expanded to 17 teams across Long Island.
Early last summer, Sigler's wife, Connie, read a story about Tom Hayden's Dodgertown West league and suggested contacting Hayden. Steve wrote to Hayden, who is a California state assemblyman, and proposed meetings between their leagues' clubs. Hayden quickly agreed, noting their shared "deep belief that hardball, not softball, is the destiny of Middle-Age Man!" In October, Sigler and his mates traveled to Los Angeles for a five-game series with Dodgertown West. The Long Islanders won four out of five, but more important than the outcome, says Sigler, was "the interchange, the camaraderie, the exhilaration of playing baseball on a national scale."
Buoyed by the success of his local league and his team's West Coast swing, Sigler began contacting sports editors around the country to gauge their interest in a national organization. The response was positive, so he began work on the project in earnest. With the appearance last October of a short USA Today article, which brought 350 requests for additional information, MSBL was off and running.
MSBL consists of 20 leagues across the country and approximately 200 teams. Half a dozen established leagues, including the NorCal Old-Timers. Dodgertown West and the Sacramento Veterans League (former major league stars Luis Tiant and Orlando Cepeda are members of the Sacramento league) have become MSBL members. Leagues have sprung up in cities all over the country, including Atlanta, St. Petersburg, Fla., Baton Rouge, Detroit, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Lansing, Mich., and Denver. The culmination of this inaugural season will be the MSBL World Series, sponsored by Smith Barney to the tune of $25,000, which is scheduled to take place Nov. 3-6 in Phoenix and Tempe, Ariz. A total of 36 teams will compete in two divisions, one for 30-and-over players and one for those 40 and over.
Since going national, the Siglers have been active indeed. Steve, who is the chief financial officer for a Queens stationery company, works the equivalent of two jobs. He also still coaches his younger son's Little League team. Connie puts in three hours a day handling the correspondence that continues to pour in regarding MSBL. "At the beginning it was overwhelming." she says. "I said to myself. Oh, my god, what did I start here? But now I'm used to it, and Steve and I have actually become closer because we have this in common."
Another husband-and-wife team who have discovered the rewards of senior baseball are Joe and Rhonda Casazza of Allentown, Pa. The Casazzas heard a radio interview with Steve in early February, and within six weeks had organized the six-team Lehigh Valley MSBL. "I find it very exciting," says Rhonda, "that the response has been so enthusiastic. It's fantastic that so many guys over 30 are interested in an organized league."
MSBL is obviously an idea whose time has come, and the concept has struck a responsive chord. Says Kansas City-area MSBL organizer Pat Rushing, "The Kansas City Times did a story about our starting a league here, and the paper put in my address, but it didn't print my phone number. The article appeared in a Thursday morning edition, and that day we had a three-inch snowstorm. When I got home that afternoon, there were notes taped all over my front door from guys who'd come out in the storm to say they wanted to play baseball."
Aside from a few rule changes in deference to aging bodies—e.g., courtesy runners for injured players, free defensive substitution except for pitchers, a 10-man-minimum batting order—MSBL conforms to standard baseball rules, with major league-style uniforms, carefully kept statistics and the inevitable rhubarbs. The cost of playing for an MSBL team varies, depending upon the local league. In the Roy Hobbs League of Woodland, Calif., each of the eight teams is sponsored by a local business. Consequently, players pay only $60 apiece. A league without team sponsors may charge a player about $200 for his first year, approximately $110 of which goes for uniforms and equipment and thus is a one-time expense.
With the national organization in place, Sigler is making long-range plans. In 1991, MSBL, a member of the U.S. Baseball Federation, the country's sanctioning body for amateur baseball, will send a team to the Masters Games, a quadrennial international competition for senior athletes, in Boston.
Summing up MSBL's philosophy, Sigler makes two final points. The first is that although the name is Men's Senior Baseball League, women players are welcome. (So far, none has joined a team.) The second relates to MSBL's motto, "Don't go soft, play hardball." Says Sigler, "I just want to offer an alternative to softball for men who would like to play baseball with guys their own age. A lot of men want to play the game they grew up with. There is no reason why an older man can't play hardball."
At 39, Sigler may not be a New York Mets prospect, but he has pitched his league well.
PETER READ MILLER
Hayden has long championed baseball for the softball set.
Jay Feldman has written a number of baseball stories for SI.
For more information on the Men's Senior Baseball League, write: MSBL, 8 Sutton Terrace, Jericho, N.Y. 11753, or call 516-931-2615.