Ever wonder what it is like to "return" to sixth grade sports? No, I don't mean physically returning to the classroom where you attended as a sixth grader and then went to gym class. And, no, I don't mean having a reunion of your classmates that were sixth graders. What I mean is a sort of coming home to what you might have done athletically as a sixth grader. That happened me quite recently while residing seasonally in The Villages, Florida. First, just what is this place called The Villages?
It is a community that now exceeds 100,000 folks age 55 or older; it is the largest of its type in the world. A year ago, I had never heard of it, and now my wife and I have a home there. She calls us "snowflakes" and not snowbirds since we are not full-time residents during the inclement weather we all call winter with its cold and snow. The Villages is in central Florida, about an hour's drive north of Orlando. It's chock full of golf courses (30+ "executive courses" and several country clubs); swimming pools abound. And Pickleball down there is what baseball is as the American pastime. Tennis and paddle tennis courts can be seen most everywhere. There must also be 3,000 clubs of every variety and description. The Villages is well-known in the press (didn't 60 Minutes do a segment on it back whenever?), some not necessarily the most positive like when two consenting adults of the opposite sex were arrested for some "extracurricular" activities normally found in the bedroom but were found doing "it" in open spaces. Hey, this is an active community in every sense of the word. The sales of Viagra must have a field day there. Just google The Villages and find out what it has to offer (though its politics is conservative with a definite leaning Republican edge).
One of the other outdoor endeavors is an incredible softball program (slow pitch 12-inch with baseball gloves). I'm told there must be 3,000 men and women playing the sport, all the way in the 90s; yup, into the 90s! So, coming from a baseball background, I wanted to play. Before anyone can play, one has to go through three separate evaluations and then be drafted. Sounds like MLB, huh? So I went through the prescribed program, was drafted and did pretty well with my rating. My first game was this past Saturday -- in what is called the neighborhood league [though I also play in the Rec league too]. It is supposed to be friendly and not really competitive as are the other leagues, particularly the Villages' Rec league with its five divisions (Div. 1 is for the best players and V for the "older,"perhaps less mobile players (remember, this community is for the 55+ set so being "old" is a relative word). Well, if the neighborhood games are set up to be anything but competitive, then the Pope is anything but Catholic. Seriously, they are fun and the guys are friendly and out merely to have a good time -- but to win nonetheless. I play on a team called 466South, managed by a long-time former high school coach in New Hampshire, Dave Berry, very likable and congenial.
But let's get back to sixth grade.
The morning of the game, I found some of my old baseball clothing, even baseball pants that dates back when I wore them in a summer league while still in law school...and that is 42 years ago. Yes, somehow I was still able to fit into them (snuggly, I must admit). I found some of the old style stirrup socks with white, thin "sanitary" socks that fit underneath that are slowly coming back into vogue these days with the pros. With a top or two I also found, I was ready to play. This would be my first competitive baseball game since my days playing Big Ten ball for the Illini of the University of Illinois in Champaign. Actually, I played, to reiterate, in the summertime while I was in law school and thereafter in pick-up hardball and softball games in the Chicago area where I practiced law.
Dave asked me to play first base and I did so with relish and exuberance. My wife, Elena, and also daughter, Lauren, even attended. It was a chilly morning so both were bundled up. For my wife, it brought back memories of her watching me play college ball from 1966-1969. Daughter Lauren was not even a twinkle in either of our eyes back then since she would not to be born for another decade. Our son, Jason, is one of the sports medicine docs for the Gators at the University of Florida in Gainesville, had given me "strict" physician orders how I should warm up -- you know, being an "old fart" doesn't allow for the flexibility of the tendons and muscles we once knew in our youth. So, I stretched and stretched and stretched.
The game was a seven inning affair, and we ultimately won by a run in extra innings. I did amazingly well in the field (even a nice long stretch to get one runner out chugging down the base path), but sucked at the plate. Trying to hit a slow pitch 12" in a game situation using a prescribed bat that is designed to be dull and lifeless when not having hit in game situations for I'd say 30 years or more will take some time to get used to as I found out. My rooting section (wife and daughter) took a few photos and my daughter a video or two on her iPhone. As is typically the situation, one or two of the stills showed up on Facebook. And one of my best and long time friends, Mike Feinstein of Arlington Hts., Ill., saw one of them (me playing the first base position, readying myself to field a grounder) after which he then sent me a text message,
"looks like you're in sixth grade." He then referenced Bill Buckner, the noted Red Sox first baseman who let an easy roller go between his legs in a World Series game -- Mike was trying to tell me something, I surmised.
Mike and I attended sixth grade 55 years ago at Dawes School in Evanston, Illinois, in 1960. To be able to get on a ball diamond at least looking the part of a baseball player I once was 55 years ago was certainly a treat, as it is no doubt continues to be for the hundreds of other men and women who play softball in The Villages -- and no doubt for all others who are active in an athletic sense in their respective activities or sports down there. I expect continuing to do the same same in the coming weeks.
Can this then be "Back to the Future" -- you know, the movies starred in by Michael J. Fox?