Senior softball league is youthful ‘medicine’

Ric Della Penna, 60, plays for the Mariners at the senior baseball games at Crispin Gardens’ fields in Holme Circle on August 9, 2012, Philadelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouchnikova)

Baseball and softball are widely known as kid’s games, and with that distinction comes an everlasting power to make players and spectators to feel like kids as they progress into adulthood.

Just ask Ron Karolski and other members of the Philadelphia Senior Softball League (PSSL).

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning in the spring, as well as late summer and early autumn, dozens of men, mostly retired and in their 60s, gather at the Crispin Gardens complex at Holme & Convent Avenues to re-visit their youths on the softball diamond. The league is mostly composed of men ages 58 to 69, but there are some exceptions to the rule, as well as two offshoot leagues for players in their 50s and 70s.

This past Thursday morning, all of the focus was on the teams in the 58–69 league; there are six of them — the Mariners, Brewers, Angels, Outlaws, Cardinals and Arno’s Ornamental Iron — and make no mistake about it … they are highly competitive.

“It’s a fairly high level of softball, and it’s certainly competitive,” said Karolski, the league’s player pool coordinator and a member of the Angels. “I don’t think any of us would like it as much if it weren’t. There’s a certain level of intensity and pressure to play at a high level, and I like that it matters if you win or lose.”

Surely the PSSL’s main objective is to be a recreational outlet for older people to maintain their physical and mental strength as they age, but by no means can anyone within the age bracket just show up and play. The league, which has been around for about 15 years, holds tryouts for interested participants, and there is a short waiting list to keep the number of players at a reasonable level.

“Just like baseball or any other competitive sport, you have to try out and let the team managers check you out,” said league commissioner Dick Lipinski, who also manages the Arno’s. “It’s medicine for our guys. They just love it. Guys come hurt, they come sick and they leave the field feeling good and healthy. You can see that the guys need this. To me, it’s better than visiting a doctor. I can’t say enough about it.”

Karolski, a Tacony resident and retired 65-year-old city Parks & Recreation department member, got involved with the PSSL three years ago. He was an avid runner and basketball player, activities he had to give up when his aging knees no longer allowed him to compete at the level he was accustomed to. Karolski had spent some time playing softball in the over-50 league, and after a brief period of inactivity, he learned of the 58-and-over league through some mutual friends. On a whim, he contacted Lipinski, and showed up one day when the Angels were in a transitional, reformation phase.

“I went to a practice, said hello and that I was willing to play if they needed an extra body,” Karolski said. “I retired at 55, so I was looking for something to do, and the camaraderie and competitive drive was felt right away. We like to play, but we also like to socialize and talk about each other’s families and what’s going on in society. A large part of the reason guys come out is to spend time with their buddies.”

Karolski’s administrative and organizational skills stemming from his career as a city worker allowed him to get involved behind the scenes, including spearheading an update of the league’s rules and bylaws, a process that is still evolving. He attends coaches meetings and is responsible for recruiting and evaluating incoming players in addition to being a player for the Angels. On Thursday, the team’s pitcher couldn’t make the game, so Karolski volunteered to take the mound. He issued several walks and the Angels fell in a blowout, but the team took defeat in stride.

“Aging is a mental challenge, and being part of this league has helped me feel vital,” Karolski explained. “It keeps me mentally and physically sharp, and it just feels good to be out there. I’m not the best player, but I give it a serious try, as do all of the guys. Aside from playing, it’s allowed me to continue doing something I like in terms of organization and working with people. I like dealing with people and their problems, so there really is a multi-faceted appeal to being a part of it.”

Added Lipinski: “Ron is a super, super guy. He made all of the rules and keeps everything straight. He’s my guide.”

The PSSL teams play with 11 fielders — five infielders, four outfielders, a pitcher and a catcher — and they also use wooden bats. There is no penalty for over-running a base, and the high-arc, slow style of pitching ensures that the aging players can continue to compete at a high level. Still though, on Thursday morning they could have been mistaken for limber 20 or 30-year-olds, as there were several impressive fielding and hitting displays.

Above all, the PSSL serves as a large support system for folks entering their senior years. As people age, adversity is usually a consistently unwelcome interloper, as declining health and personal loss become more and more visceral. The members of the six teams lean on each other, in good times and bad, and now they can’t imagine life without one another.

“Three years ago, I found out my wife had cancer,” Lipinski recalled. “I was a bag of nerves, and my team carried me through it. Every week I’d get so many people asking me, ‘Hey, how’s Barbara doing?’ They boosted me up, and I couldn’t have gone through the agony without them. I needed them, and I still do. You can see that guys really need this.” (Originally given just two to six months to live, Barbara Lipinski beat the disease and is currently doing well.)

“It re-creates the joys of youth, allowing you to look back fondly on the athletic things you could do when you were younger,” Karolski added. “I intend to keep going for as long as I’m healthy and still having fun. I want to be a feisty old-timer, have my wits about me, be in good physical shape and keep going. For me, there’s never a lack of vitality or energy.

“A lot of people tell me I don’t seem 65,” he concluded. Maybe it’s because I know who Lady Gaga is, I don’t know. But either way, I take it as a compliment that I don’t seem played out. To me, I’m still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and this league allows us all to look forward rather than looking back or looking nowhere. It’s a forward horizon to look forward to, and my motor is still running. Whatever the next adventure is, I’m ready for it.” ••