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80-something softball player says game keeps him young

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By John Henry

Special to the Star-Telegram

Back in the Depression days of the 1930s, when Grand Prairie was not much more than that and an air field, young Troy Wammack beat a path to the local fields to meet up with buddies to play as much baseball as the sun would allow.

After his days at old Grand Prairie High, World War II, studies at SMU, a family life and professional career would all follow.

Through the cycle of life and when he was all grown up, Wammack found his way back to the diamond to meet up with new buddies.

He is now 88 and a pitcher and manager of the Fort Worth Senior Cats Gold softball team. For the past 25 years, he has been a member of the Metroplex Senior Citizens Softball Association.

Little did Wammack know in those early days that he had found his secret to longevity.

"I personally believe it's added about 10 years to my life," said Wammack, who retired from a bookkeeping and tax service business in 1999. "My business kept my mind active and softball has kept my body active."

The octogenarian is one of 600 players on 33 teams all over Fort Worth and Dallas in the senior softball league. Senior Cats teammate Bobby Moore, at 84, is the only other 80-something in the league.

The Senior Cats play in the C Division for players 65 years and older. The A and B Divisions, for younger and more skilled retirees, are 55 and up.

That means Wammack, who is the oldest player in the league, competes against some players a generation younger than he is.

When some of these whippersnapping Baby Boomers were just beginning their formative years, Wammack was taking his first job as an accounts payable clerk for Canada Dry Ginger Ale in Dallas in 1950 as a 26-year-old.

"I'm mesmerized by him," said Jim Thomas, the president of the league. "Can you imagine still being out there? You got 65-, 66-year-old men who can still hit the ball pretty good.

"He is a unique individual."

A Hall of Famer

Wammack is not the fast-pitch player he once was in his late 30s -- 50 years ago -- or when he picked it back up in 1987.

He still swings the bat, though he doesn't run anymore.

Wammack, like several in the C Division, has a designated runner.

As the pitcher, he stands about 55 feet from, like Thomas said, guys who can still whack it pretty good.

"You got to be alert out there," said Wammack, who took a line drive off his hand during a game Thursday. Nothing that a little ice couldn't handle.

When Wammack returned to the game in 1987, he dived in head first.

Since that year, he has played in leagues from Irving to Arlington to Fort Worth to DeSoto to Grand Prairie.

He also played on traveling tournament teams, which went to Houston, Oklahoma City, Albuquerque, N.M., and Las Vegas.

In 2000, Wammack was elected to the Texas Senior Softball Hall of Fame.

He has slowed, but he still plays the game for the same reason many of these guys and ladies do, Thomas said.

Exercise and enjoyment are in the top spot, but there are other more subtle reasons, Thomas said. The competitive fires still burn for many and the fellowship and friendships made.

"These rascals ... they're still competitive," said Thomas, 69, who plays on a B team. "But it's really interesting; there's a lot of camaraderie. They'll have team parties; they'll develop personal friendships; they'll get together and do stuff.

"It's kind of an interesting phenomena with belonging ... when these guys latch up with a team they have a tendency to stay with them a long time. Many of them don't play for anybody else."

Wammack, who is a widower, said his doctors have never told him to consider quitting.

And for good reason, said Omar Franklin, a certified clinical gerontologist.

The positive health benefits of remaining physically active and socially engaged as people age are well documented, Franklin said.

"Remaining socially engaged definitely results in the decline of depression, which is directly associated with isolation and withdrawal among all age groups, especially the elderly," said Franklin.

A time to quit, maybe

Wammack speaks and acts gently, though he still has the competitive drive.

"He always says, 'Nobody's listening to me,'" said Cathy Shipman, an infielder and one of three women on the Senior Cats, about her manager, before adding the punch line ...

"It's not that we're not listening ... it's that we're all deaf."

Good times, good times, even on a day in which the Senior Cats couldn't get enough runs or timely outs against the Arlington Spurs at Gateway Park in Fort Worth.

It's all good.

It was difficult not to think of a story about America's "Gentle Philosopher" when an inquisitor recently -- mistakenly -- asked Wammack the date of his upcoming 90th birthday.

At a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game, the story goes, the famed writer Will Durant was asked if he was 94 or 95.

"Ninety-four," Durant is said to have replied. "You don't think I'd be doing anything as foolish as this if I were 95, do you?"

Wammack, who will be 89 on Nov. 3, said he has thought about hanging it up.

The secret to the quality of his longevity, he said, always comes back around to the game.

He smoked "when I was a kid, when you think it's smart, you know." And he enjoyed the drink as a younger man.

A regular routine has been a key for him, as well. He gets up at 6 every morning, whether he goes to bed at 11, his usual, or the occasional 1 a.m.

He eats at 6 a.m. ... noon ... and 6 p.m. like clockwork.

"I was smoking [at 12] and then my first year in high school," Wammack said, "I was always an athlete ... and it didn't take me long to quit because I found out how it affected me."

If he ever does decide to quit softball, he'll have to convince his teammates.

Troy Wammack is family. "I haven't set a goal," Wammack said. "I just want to play until I get ready to quit.

"If I quit."

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In the Metroplex Senior Citizens Softball Association, age is just a number

By Leslie Barker

Leslie Barker The Dallas Morning NewsColumnist

Published: 29 June 2010 11:34 AM



Strip away, if you will, the fitness aspect, the entertainment aspect, the enjoyment aspect. Now ponder this: Just what is it about sports?

I will call on myself for this one, because for two hours on a Tuesday summer morning, I witnessed the answer. I watched the McKinney Mustangs almost win a softball game.

More than a week has passed since manager Jeff Small brushed the sand off first base and carried it to his car at game's end. Yet I still can't shake the feeling that I have witnessed something that embodies sports. Not because of the score, 20-19, nor of a specific play.

Basically, they're a team in the sweetest, simplest, truest sense of the word. Comfortable and familiar as an old glove, few of these 22 guys plus two women knew one another before signing up. They toss good-natured barbs ("You hear things like, 'Gosh, Roy, that's terrible!'," says president and general manager Roy Delao) as easily as they make spot-on throws. The air cracks with the swing of their bats, the song of their laughter.

Twice a week, from April 1 through the end of September, they drive to fields around the Dallas area to play under skies that are mostly cloud-free, in temperatures that soak their red jerseys almost by the time the team runs onto the field.

In the Metroplex Senior Citizens Softball Association, minimum age is 55. In the interest of injury-avoidance, no sliding is allowed. Players can overrun any base, and serve as their own umpires. When an opposing team is short a player, the Mustangs lend one of theirs. Similarly, they borrow on days when they need one.

As summer heats up, teams might play a doubleheader on one day instead of single games on two. Instead of each game having seven innings, the first might have seven, but the second only five. Similarly, on those days every batter starts with one ball and one strike. There's a five-run maximum per inning, except for the last.

"Kind of like T-ball?" I ask.

Says Jeff, 64: "There are amazing similarities between this and T-ball."

He laughs when he says it, because he knows his team is really good. Bob Sadler, 63, has a .925 batting average; Bill Griffin, 73, is hitting .711; and Fred Preston, .679. Though spirits tend to be stronger than knees, no worries. Runners can be substituted at any time.

"Need a runner!" The call goes out when Shirley Stracher, whose arm was bruised by a ball during pregame practice, steps up to bat. One time, Carlos Navarro, 69, is her designated runner. Another, it's Johnny Walker, who at 56 is known as the "team baby."

Meanwhile, the four wives in the stands (including Jeff's Anne-Marie, who keeps score) chitchat, share sunscreen, yell encouragement.

"The first year, we would sit and laugh because Dale really couldn't bend over to pick up the ball," says Ruth Smith, who signed her husband, Dale, up for the team after he retired. "Now he can play any position out there. He practices on the batting cage that our son used when he played ball. It's really helped."

Shirley, 61, and Roy, 72, live in McKinney and carpool to games. "At least once during the games, somebody says, 'Ten, 20 years ago, I'd have done that differently,' "she says.

"I tell the truth," Roy says. "Twenty years ago, I still would have missed it!"

During the off-season, he keeps the team connected with pizza parties at his house. He also organizes trips to Texas Rangers games. "Best seats in the house," Ruth says. "He pays for them."

You can't help but tap your foot to this group's rhythm, whose camaraderie is as palpable as a heartbeat. "We all had jobs," Jeff says of his teammates, most of whom are retired. "I keep in contact with one or two people I worked with, but these were people you saw daily for 20 years. Here, you have another sense of community, of brotherhood and sisterhood."

This was perhaps never more apparent than earlier this season, when Peter Bethge, a Mustang pitcher, died. You can get an idea of Peter's dedication by reading the e-mail his widow, Candy, sent to Jeff: "Tell Roy that Peter won't make it to carpool for the game Tuesday. He passed away last night."

The team had Peter's jersey in the dugout the next game. Later, at an Olive Garden dinner in his memory, they presented it to Candy, along with a signed ball and a photograph. The team retired Peter's number, 16. Anne-Marie did some research to find out what the proper etiquette would be.

"Put it [No. 16] in black on the left sleeve of the jerseys," Jeff says, "because that's the side closest to the heart."


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