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Michigan seniors still chasing some softball glory

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
John Govert, left, Joe Thomas, center, and Rich Huey are ready to give it their all for the Hartland Hit Men in the National Senior Games in Eagan, Minnesota, next week.

Hartland — When Jim Wallace helped launch the Hartland Senior Softball League in 2011, he did so with one goal in mind: give players 55 and over the opportunity to have fun, get some exercise and meet new people.

It began as an idea that came up during a meeting at the Hartland Senior Center. The only problem was no one wanted to take charge — in the planning or execution.

"I showed up at the first practice and everybody was standing around," Wallace said. "I said, 'Come on, guys. Want to throw and loosen up? Let's hit some fly balls and let's do some infield.' "

And just like that, Wallace was asked to run the league. And with the help of his friend Gerry Mostowy, they went to work.

"That first year we had 18 people — 16 guys and two women," said Wallace, 72. "We tried to find communities and went in with Novi and Northville (to organize senior teams), but they were only interested in younger guys. We started advertising and pretty soon we had a draft with four teams, then had six teams and this year, we added two more teams and we're at full capacity with eight teams."

Now, every Wednesday morning, more than 100 avid softball players pack the Tag's Sports Complex donning a jersey — and the occasional knee brace — for either the SELCRA Dawgs, Loose Senior Center, Hartland Express Grill, Tony Sacco's Red Legs, Black Rock Sizzlers, Northwest Pipe, APTC or O'Malley's Pub.

And while feet may drag around the bases and throws may not have as much zip, the competitive juices, passion and love for the game still flow as strongly as they did 30, 40 or even 50 years ago.

"We've got a great bunch of guys out here, they're just older and a little slower," said Wallace, who began playing softball in 1965. "We're just kind of on the back nine."

Never in Wallace's wildest dreams, though, did he imagine he would assemble a 13-man all-star team and get the chance to represent Michigan in the 2015 National Senior Games in Minnesota.

"This is the pinnacle," said Wallace, the team's captain and manager. "I told the guys, 'Let's just go and have fun and if anything else happens, it's icing on the cake.' "

Wallace's team, the Hartland Hit Men, is one of nine vying for the title in the men's 65-and-older division. They will compete against squads from South Dakota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Florida and New York.

The Hit Men, whose first game is Wednesday, is composed of the top one or two players from each team in the league. The majority of the players are retired and live in either Hartland, Howell, Brighton, Milford or the surrounding area.

Lee Piepho, Terry Szklarski, Stan Dobby, Ed Gren and Frank Portelli roam the outfield, while Steve Fortenberry, Rich Huey, Harvey Winegarner, John Govert and Wallace solidify the five-man infield. Norm Brusseau and Larry Burroughs share pitching duties, Joe Thomas is the catcher and Mostowy is an assistant manager.

'It's in your blood'

Many of the men believed their playing days were over for one reason or another until they caught wind of the Hartland Senior League.

Gren, 72, had stowed his glove and cleats after having triple bypass surgery in 1996, but decided to dust them off in 2011.

"I thought I'd go out and test the heart a little bit and see if it would take it," said Gren, who stayed in shape by hiking regularly with his wife. "Sure enough, I've had no problems. It's one of those things where if you're going to croak, you might as well do it in left field rather than sitting on your couch."

For Brusseau, a retired Detroit police officer who played baseball until he was 35, an eye disease confined him to his basement for four years. Then one day, Brusseau simply decided he had had enough.

"I joined a golf and softball league and it's made a world of difference," said Brusseau, 69, who owns a security business in Detroit. "I've stopped taking a lot of the medications that I was taking for it and you know what, you start getting used to it.

"It's hard to give up when you've done it all your life. Once you give it up, there's not much left to do. It's just in your blood. I just love the game."

Thomas, 65, became infatuated with softball after graduating from Alcorn State in 1973, but went on a 20-year hiatus from the sport while serving as Southfield's chief of police. He always knew he wanted to play again, and it was a chance encounter with Wallace at a Home Depot that spurred his comeback.

"I was approached by (Wallace) and he looked at me and said, 'You look like a softball player. You ever play softball before?' " said Thomas, who is currently Inkster's interim police chief. "I joined right away."

Road to nationals

While most of the guys have been playing softball for more than half their lives, the Hit Men have only been together a short time.

The players jelled quickly and turned in an impressive showing at the 2014 Michigan Senior Olympics last summer in Clarkston, winning the 60-and-over division.

They did, however, have to overcome a scary moment when shortstop John Nelson suffered a massive heart attack during the sixth inning of their first game.

"A guy hit a single out to me (in left field) and I come running in, scoop it up and John came out to take the cutoff throw," Gren said. "When I threw it to him, it almost went through him and he fell over. I thought he maybe sprained an ankle, but he was having a heart attack."

Luckily, a cardiologist and an emergency medical technician were at a nearby field and rushed over to help.

"I was looking right at his face and he had no pulse," Gren said. "I'll be darn, when they hit him with that defibrillator, he came right back to life. He looked at me and said, 'Ed?' I said, 'My gosh, John, are you all right?' And they rushed him to the hospital and gave him five bypasses."

As it turns out, playing softball that day was a blessing for Nelson.

"He was originally going to drive up north to work on his cottage by himself but he didn't know (his arteries) were 70 percent blocked," Wallace said. "It's pretty miraculous he survived."

Going for gold

When the Hit Men open pool play against Human Kinetics and the Springfield Railsplitters on Wednesday, it will mark the first time competing in a national event for many of the players.

For Thomas, who was part of the Alcorn State football team that won back-to-back black college national championships in 1968 and 1969, taking the field at the Lexington Diffley Athletic Facility is going to be an unexpected return to the big stage.

"I never dreamed that I would be playing at the national level again," Thomas said. "This is like a dream come true that you can live your life twice."

The team knows it will have its work cut out going against some of the top seniors from across the country.

"Everybody wants to excel and everybody has their own talents," Piepho said. "Some guys (on our team) can hit the long ball, some guys can spray it and some guys are real good defensive players."

Regardless of where the Hit Men finish, just reaching the event ranks as one of the most gratifying feats in their athletic careers.

"I think the older you get, the more you appreciate it," Wallace said. "For us to achieve anything like this, as nice as it is, it's something special that we'll be able to tell our grandkids."

James Hawkins is a free-lance writer

National Senior Games

Who: Hartland Hit Men (65-and-over softball team)

When: Through July 11

Where: Lexington Diffley Fields and Northview Fields, Eagan, Minn.

Details: nsga.com and hartlandseniorsoftball.com