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Starting a Mid-Life Baseball Career

Go The Distance: If I Can Do It, You Can Too...Starting a Mid-life Baseball Career
by Tom Friesen, Willamette Valley MSBL (38+ Mets)

(This article first appeared in HardBall Online in July 2008)

Summer, 2002. At age 34, I found myself in right field thinking for the first time, "I’m playing in a real baseball game.” This remains the defining moment of what I call my ‘athletic career’.

I was a shy, slightly-built kid, and stuck with toys, comic books, and super heroes longer than most of my peers. By the time I developed a real interest in sports, everyone else was far ahead of me.I had a fairly successful one-year track season during my senior year of high school, but even then regretted not playing baseball. No Little League, no high school games, no American Legion, no sandlot games.

Then shortly after high school, I was involved in a serious auto accident that damaged my lower back, pelvis, and right lung to the point that ended any dream of serious athletic competition, even if I ever had I any measure of talent or athleticism to begin with. I managed to play intramural football, basketball, and softball in college, but the thought that I’d never experienced my favorite sport in real time always bothered me. What was it like to take a swing at a fastball or track down a fly ball in the outfield? I figured I’d just have to live these things vicariously through ESPN.

Years later, my best friend from college asked me to consider joining the MSBL 28+ Albany-Corvallis (Oregon) Mariners. Approaching middle age, I decided that this was one of those ‘now or never’ decisions that I’d regret passing up. I agreed to try playing a few games at the end of the season for the last-place Mariners.

And of course, I sucked.I couldn’t hit water if I fell out of a boat. Between the end of 2002 and a partial 2003 season, I believe I went 1 for 33 with 19 strikeouts, and the one hit was probably some sort of scoring error. My fielding wasn’t exactly stellar, either.This game is a lot harder than it looks on television, especially if one doesn’t have any past experience or coaching.

So, I wrote it off as a ‘life experience’ and skipped 2004 entirely, though I suspected I could do better. I was still proud I gave it a go.

Andrew Koll, my college friend and manager of the Mariners, convinced me to stick with it, and in 2005, the Mariners won the Willamette Valley 28+ championship.Though nobody would compare me to anyone resembling a real baseball player, I managed to make some contributions to our season without ever costing the team or seriously embarrassing myself.In what remains one of my best baseball memories, I had an RBI single in the title game that scored another of my best friends and helped solidify our 6-2 victory. To that point, I’d never been a part of a team championship of any kind.

I can’t tell you today I eventually developed into a good, or even reasonably reliable, baseball player. I’m happy if the first digit of my batting average is something other than zero and my fielding percentage is greater than the probability of a coin coming up heads.Still, I’m ok with that. I’m 40 years old, and I play baseball. If not for the MSBL, baseball would be another thing I wish I’d tried. I’ve won a game with a base hit. I’ve lost one with a misplayed fly ball. I’ve stolen home. I’ve started rallies and killed them. I’ve broken bats, eaten dirt, and acquired impressive bruises. My parents have seen me play. People have actually cheered for me. Wins or losses, I can’t say there are many of these experiences I’d trade for something else.

If you love baseball, but haven’t played since childhood (or ever), I strongly encourage you to consider the MSBL. Even if you stink, you can very likely find a team in your area willing to give you a roster spot if you show up to play on a regular basis. In our leagues, some teams begin the season with 20 names on the roster but have trouble fielding nine for summer games due to family vacations, workload, injuries, and the like. This is your opportunity.

My advice: if you can, play with people you know and/or like. The point is to have fun. Occasionally you will encounter a team or players that have forgotten what is at stake in an amateur baseball game – nothing particularly significant, in the big picture. There is no money, giant trophies, or lucrative professional contracts. Some teams put a high priority on being competitive, and more power to them. Winning is good too. But seek sportsmanship, camaraderie, and character first.

Second, try to be in some sort of shape before you attempt playing. As I said, it’s harder that it looks. Practice when you can. Find a local batting cage. Keep your throwing arm limber (I do this by throwing tennis balls for my dog). Test your legs if you haven’t sprinted in awhile to avoid game-time hamstring injuries. Especially if you are over 30, consider having a complete physical before taking the field. Start with the oldest MSBL age class you qualify for and go from there.

Finally, stick with it.The auto accident injuries and lack of experience as a youth still hamper me somewhat, but if I can play, so can you. If your first few games are failures, don’t worry. There is no blame in baseball (or crying, either). It’s a team sport, and if you are lucky like me and find supportive, encouraging teammates, then you are halfway there already. And remember, an added benefit is that you can poke fun at your friends who still play softball.

Play ball!

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