Over-35 leaguers not ready to part with pasttime
Sep 20, 2012 06:07AM ● Published by Community News Service
One of the hardest decisions athletes ever have to make is letting go of a sport that has been a part of their lives since childhood, when ego and pride gets in the way of the body saying it’s time to hang ‘em up.
For the members of the Bordentown Patriots, though, it seemed that time had not yet come as they prepared to compete in a best-of-three series with the Runnemede Phillies to determine the champion of the South Jersey Men’s Senior Baseball League. The league is for players 35 and older.
Watching the Patriots warm up at Gilder Field on a scorching Sunday morning, one wondered if the small crowd would witness anything remotely resembling America’s favorite pastime. Even if the individual players had the fire in their hearts, would their bodies betray their spirit? Could a custodian, a maintenance worker, a FDNY firefighter, a local rock legend and a pediatrician, among others, hold out for one more shot at athletic glory?
Certainly, the chatter on Aug. 5 was different from what you would hear at an American Legion game. Ray Vetter, of Chesterfield, exchanged small talk with his childhood friend Bob Marolla, a FDNY firefighter from Staten Island, about the hourlong commute from New York City.
Anthony Winrow, a custodian from Burlington Township, had come directly from working the night shift and shared his wedding plans with a teammate. Other chatter ranged from emergency rescue training to the Philadelphia Eagles’ upcoming season and everything in between.
The calmness exuding from the players gave no indication they felt the pressure of being the top seed in the tournament, for the first time in the team’s 12-year history, after finishing with a 14-3 record and 4-0 sweep of the Phillies during the regular season. Their well manicured uniforms, metal spikes, pine-tarred bats, and supply of David sunflower seeds didn’t resemble the stereotype of washed up old men still living in a yearbook. They looked like ballplayers.
Taking the mound to start the game for the Patriots was David Krol, a 44-year-old pediatrician from Princeton. From the start it was clear he still had some of the stuff the Minnesota Twins saw in him when he was a minor leaguer in their farm system for three years, in his early twenties.
Krol’s mechanics, control, and location were everything you’d expect from a player half his age. The velocity didn’t match the summer heat, but this was beginning to look like baseball.
Then catcher Riley Berton, of Bordentown, left no doubt there was still life in his right arm as he jumped up from behind the plate and fired a laser to second base to conclude warm-ups and commence the game.
Soon sounds of mitts popping and bats cracking filled the ballpark. Every phase of the game came alive with each pitch as batters became runners, fielders made errors, and uniforms became dirtier.
For those there to watch baseball, that is exactly what they got to see. They got to see the 12-year little leaguer still alive in Daryl Petrocelli, of Bordentown, as he rounded third to score the game’s first run. Winrow showed he still had youthful exuberance despite coming up short on a diving attempt at a flyball in shallow left field.
Even manager Rich Mercantini, of Bordentown, got involved with his spirited pep talks between innings and shouts of encouragement from the dugout steps.
Between innings, players opened up about their reasons for continuing to play at this stage in their lives and the challenges they face keeping up with the physical demands of a nine-inning game. Many of the team’s members have shared the journey.
“A lot of us have been together since little league,” Winrow said. “We played Babe Ruth, high school, and even softball together as a team for as long as I’ve been playing.”
For the others, joining such a close-knit team is as good a fit as a ball nestled in a well-worn glove.
“Ray [Vetter] and I played baseball together through high school and college,” Marolla said. “He moved down here and recruited me to play with these guys, and I really enjoy it. It’s a good group of guys here.”
Most agreed it was difficult to be away from their families for a time every weekend. But many also stressed that they receive encouragement to continue playing. Krol said he hopes to play as long as he can.
“My goal is to play in a father-daughter or father-son league,” he said. “And since my kids are 3 and 4 years old, I’m hoping for at least another fifteen years.”
Anthony Winrow lives close enough that his fiancé attends the games, but guys like Bob Marolla find it increasingly difficult to find a balance.
“It’s getting tougher as the kids get older,” Marolla said. “I have two boys, 6 and 2, and they miss me on Sunday mornings. But they also know how much I love the game.”
Amid it all the players never lost sight of why they were there: to win a baseball game. As the game neared its end, and Krol completed eight solid innings on the mound, the players focus grew even more intense.
Keith “Rat” Trout relieved the sweat-soaked physician in the ninth, the Patriots within striking distance of the defending champion Phillies. But when Tim Tyler’s would-be walk-off homerun fell three feet shy of the fence in right center and into the Runnemede outfielder’s glove, the game ended 5-3, giving Runnemede a 1-0 lead in the series.
Bordentown went on to lose the series and the championship. But on that Sunday morning it was apparent the game still hadn’t left the Bordentown Patriots.
For guys like Krol, the game continues to provide a sense of accomplishment. The pediatrician pitcher only joined the Patriots this year, but has been playing in adult leagues since 1991.
“I can still play, and its fun,” Krol said. “”t gives me something to do on the weekends, and helps me stay in shape.”
Other members of the roster included Troy DiLemme, Kurt Appleby, Brian Guire, Vince Schuester, of Bordentown, Kevin Bettel of Chesterfield, Dennis Maraolda of Fieldsboro and Mike Fitzpatrick of Hamilton.