By Steve LaMontia, Director of Communications
(All photos courtesy of ‘Heater’ Healey) OK. This player profile, as part of the MSBL 35th Anniversary review, makes no sense. It’s not possible. Why, you ask? Pull up a chair and I’ll explain.
Bill Lear is 85 years ‘young’ and continues to play in the 50 and 60 divisions of the DCMSBL, located in our nation’s capital. He was born in 1937 and is still pitching. That’s all very impressive and a blueprint we would all like to emulate. But that’s not the kicker. Bill started playing baseball at the age of 65!
Plenty of my friends who are not active in our sport have retired to the golf course and their diet includes doses of Cheetos and root beer. But to start a new sport at retirement age? We will let Bill attempt to explain it.
“Jack Wells is a lifelong friend back in Pennsylvania and the week after 9/11 he called and said he was going to play baseball back in Maryland,” explained Bill. “I told him I have played plenty of softball but have never played a game of baseball in my life. He said it didn’t matter, so we went to the tryouts. I had some trouble picking up the smaller ball in the outfield but I made it through it and got picked up.”
Bill explained that the best tool in his arsenal is his arm. He has always been a strong thrower from the outfield in slow-pitch and fast-pitch softball so he dazzled some of the guys who organized the tryout.
“By the end of the first practice, they had me on the mound!”
In 2002 Bill started his new baseball career with a smaller, five-ounce ball in the 35-over and 45-over divisions of the DCMSBL and also went to the MSBL World Series in Arizona that year. The lure of a big baseball tournament, and getting away from a DC fall and winter, were too much to pass up.
“I played for the Virginia Silver Eagles in the 58-over division in Arizona. Our coach, Roger, had me pitch two innings of relief and I guess he liked what he saw. Roger told me about playing Berry’s and he said I would start against them.
I lasted 8 1/3 innings and threw maybe 170 pitches. I would have gone longer but I hit three batters and had to leave per the rules. We only lost 8-5. I learned later of Berry’s legacy and dominance. I feel good about that outing. At that time, I was approaching 80 on the gun so my arm kept me in the game.”
Bill has played the past 20 years in the league, two to three times a week. He broke his arm about 12 years ago in November and was playing by May and pitching again by August. That was the only injury that slowed him down for a while, but a new problem has surfaced that may impact his future on the diamond.
“I still pitch and play some at third base now. Back 20 years ago in the beginning I played mostly outfield because of my arm but now the infield is the best fit. But Macular Degeneration is now taking over so this may be the last year of playing, maybe.”
Macular Degeneration most certainly is serious, as it affects your vision which is so important to the game of baseball and impacts your life in general.
“I play on the 50+ Dodgers and the 60+ Mavericks in the league. Since my sight is dealing me fits, I have to take certain precautions, especially on the mound. I wear shin guards under my pants and a chest protector under my uniform shirt. I also wear a youth helmet with a face guard while on the mound. Just last week a guy barreled up a line drive that whizzed by my head and missed me by about six inches. I can’t see it coming too well sometimes. I need the extra protection.”
Around 1951 they started a church softball league in Maryland and that began Bill’s softball years. In 1964 they moved to New England and he continued to play fast pitch. In 1965 he switched to slow pitch and has continued to play up until this year, while also playing baseball.
Bill has continued to make the trip to the desert in October to participate in the MSBL World Series.
“I also played with the South Dakota Rushmores in Arizona. My last trip was about five years ago as a member of the New England Red Sox. I have played in about ten of them and am planning to go this year but my wife had a serious accident so we may not make it.”
What are some of your fondest memories on the diamond?
“This year was tearful because the whole Dodgers team gave me the MVP and named me to the All-Star team. I guess it’s a reward for my body of work and passion for the game. It meant a lot to me.”
A couple of other special moments came as a rookie back in the early 2000’s when he was only 65 years old.
“This goes back to the 35-over league. We had a stacked super team in the league who had a couple of ex-pros from the Orioles and I struck out two of the ex-pros in a row.
But maybe the best performance I ever had was back around this same time. It was a super-hot day in Northern Virginia and we only had nine players and I was playing the outfield. Our pitcher hurt himself on the first batter and I had to take over. I no-hit them the rest of the way and they stopped after seven innings because of the heat.”
We couldn’t conclude our conversation without a discussion about longevity. What does he do to stay in shape? What is his routine to stay in the game, especially against the odds of his eyesight issues?
“I still throw 200 balls a week along with playing. I have my net set up in the backyard. I work hard on my screwball, and that saved my career. Even though I still approach 60 (miles per hour), it won’t blow away anybody anymore. I needed that screwball.
Regarding staying young, just stay in shape, work hard, and you can play as long as you want. Do not stop doing something every single day. Stay active and relevant.”
What is the funniest thing you have seen while playing?
“In softball, we went through a period of high-performance bats. The hot bat then was the Ultra before it was declared illegal (around 2001) but we all had a bat and we were playing baseball, too, because you could still use metal bats.
Some of the guys wanted to use the Ultra bats in baseball just for fun. My buddy Ron hit one over the light pole by ten feet and it went maybe 450 feet with this metal bat. The catcher just picked up the bat and handed it to Ron as he crossed the plate and there wasn’t even a comment. It was like nothing had ever happened. I’ll never forget the look on the catcher’s face. It was priceless.”
Any advice to our readers of all ages?
“Life and baseball work the same way. Try to be the best person you can be. I have found over the years that baseball has been more acceptable than softball. I have also found that baseball is a true team game and have met so many nice people. I grew up on a dirt road with a lot of rocks and threw rocks and hit them with a bat. I threw balls against the barn while listening to the Senators. All because of the love of the game.
To sum it up, the most significant thing I have accomplished is having to been able to find a place to play until age 85. I feel I was a better-than-average defensive player and a bit worse than average offensive player for these 21 years. Unfortunately, my last 10 years have been significantly impacted by Macular Degeneration.
Thanks so much for this experience. It means so much to me to have been able to play the game I love and to have met so many great people over the years.”