Boys of summer
There’s a baseball league in Akron where the players don’t stop for ice cream after games but instead head home to rest their weary bones.
Sometimes it’s advisable to stop at second base instead of trying to go from first to third on a single to right field.
Throws from the hole between shortstop and third could use some wind aid to reach first base.
The Roy Hobbs League, for several adult divisions ages 28 and older, provides those who can’t shake their love of baseball more opportunities to be one of the boys of summer. It’s like the Field of Dreams being played out, except the players aren’t ghosts from the past.
“The caliber of play is such that guys that have had eye examinations and can hit the ball, half of them can still run,” said 1964 Warren G. Harding graduate Brian Kochunas, who plays for the Akron Blues. “Probably about a third of them can still throw the ball across the infield. They can all catch it, but they can’t go get it. If it’s a ball hit at you and you only have to take a couple of steps to get it, most guys can come up with the play. It’s regular baseball in slow motion.”
No one should get the impression these guys show up in walkers and wheel chairs. Many of the players still move well for their advanced ages. Their intentions are to play a competitive brand of baseball and hopefully improve their health and minds with a fountain-of-youth mindset that rekindles childhood memories.
“It sure isn’t for the money,” 63-year-old Harding graduate Bernie Novotny said when asked why he keeps playing. “I’m retired. Last year I played on three baseball teams. I’ve cut it down to one.
“If I stopped, the arthritis would set in. The more active you are, the better you feel; that’s for sure. I’m lucky I haven’t had any problems.”
The Hobbs League has age divisions for 28-and-over, 38-and-over, 48-and-over, 55-and-over, 60-and-over and 70-and-over. Some of the better teams play down in age for the improved quality of competition.
The highlight of the year is a trip to Fort Myers, Fla., in October for a national World Series tournament. Age divisions are split into classes based on quality. Championship teams are given a financial reward to help pay costs for a return to the tournament the following season.
Last year Novotny and Bruce Brewster were teammates on a team that won the 65 age division’s AAA national title. Plans call for another trip to Florida in October.
Brewster, who plays third base, isn’t about to let age derail his competitive drive.
“We play younger than we are,” said Brewster, who plays for the Blues. “We play in 55 so the competition is better. We’re not looking to play just to play. We want to compete, especially when we get to the World Series.”
The unique thing about the older divisions is the list of ailments that sideline players. Along with the usual sore arms and pulled hamstrings are knee replacements, hip surgeries, arthritic backs and, of a more serious nature, heart ailments.
Kochunas suffered a heart attack in 2011 and now has a defibrillator. He still plays in the Warren AA Baseball League and the Hobbs League, and his goal is to return to Florida in the autumn for the World Series.
Playing the game is a labor of love that carries powerful therapeutic qualities for Kochunas, a first baseman and pitcher.
“I would like to do it as long as I physically can,” Kochunas said. “It keeps you young and active and allows you to keep using parts of the body you normally wouldn’t use.
“Where else would I run to first base? Where else would I even run? I wouldn’t run anywhere. Even though it’s not fast, you’re still going through the motions. Where else would I pick up ground balls? It’s something I enjoy and is something that releases pressures and things like that. I’m still employed. This is a nice release after work.”
Dealing with the inevitable aging process has caught up to Jan Sulonen, a 1971 graduate of Warren Western Reserve. Sulonen, a pitcher on the 1971 Reserve team that advanced to the state tournament, recently spent time in a hospital because of an infection in his artificial knee. In 2010, Sulonen had neck surgery at the Cleveland Clinic.
Sulonen, who participated on a Warren team that won a Hobbs championship in 2005, plays for the Youngstown Astros of the Akron-based league. He also goes to Florida for the World Series, where games have been played at the spring training complexes of the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox.
“Once you’re out there on the mound, you get that feeling,” Sulonen said. “I’ve been struggling the last four years because of surgeries. When I was healthy, I could still throw it by some guys and get them out.
“I struggle with my control because my mechanics are screwed up because of my neck surgery. I had eight vertebrae done. I lost some upper-body strength. I didn’t know if could lift a ball, let alone throw it. My knee was bad so I had to go from the stretch all the time. All those little adjustments you have to make take your rhythm away.”
There could be plenty of jokes made about aging men playing baseball, but it was all serious last year for Brewster when a player suffered a heart attack during a game in Canton. A firefighter trained in CPR, Brewster immediately attended to the man and was pleased when he saw the victim breathing as he was taken to a hospital. Unfortunately, the man died shortly thereafter.
“It’s not win at all cost,” Brewster said. “It’s enjoying the competition and playing. You never know when it might be the last game.”
Brewster can still zip the ball across the infield from third base. He’s been fortunate enough to remain healthy and active.
“A friend of mine is a retired major at the Air Force base,” Brewster said. “We go out there and work out through the winter months. You do have to stay in shape. It’s not like rolling out of bed and it’s time to play baseball. I don’t want to be out there to be another number.”
Along the way these men are able to appreciate what they enjoyed when they played the game as kids. They can never recapture those times, but occasionally they do something on the field that makes them feel young again.
“I always get people that ask me why I’m still doing it,” Novotny said. “Because it’s still fun. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun. I think we’re fortunate to be able to do that.”
If nothing else, it helps ease the pain of all those sore muscles.