For love of the game
Howland senior following doctor’s orders for return to 70-plus league
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of a series of Saturday profiles of area residents and their stories. To suggest a profile, contact features editor Burton Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By NANCILYNN GATTA
HOWLAND — Baseball is often viewed as a young person’s sport. Don’t tell that to John Neff Sr.
The 73-year-old Silver League softball player from Howland began playing the game as a child. He’s kept playing … and playing … and playing. His passion is such that even being injured did not keep him off the field.
An old ankle injury came back to haunt Neff, taking him off the diamond this season for the first time in decades. Despite the stereotypical proclivity of guys ignoring doctors, Neff said he plans to follow his rehab orders perfectly. After all, there are guys in the senior leagues who play into their 90s.
The retired Copperweld machinist said the injury happened when he was doing machining work at another shop.
“I got my foot caught in a lathe and I fell backward. I busted up my left ankle,” he said.
His friends noticed Neff’s unrelenting devotion to the game when he played through an injury that would take professional ballplayers out of the lineup. He played with 10 screws in his left ankle. He also had a plate and two large screws placed in the joint.
“I was surprised that he continued to play,” said Dick Dorazio, his Colt League, PONY League and high school baseball teammate at Leavittsburg High School.
Neff said, “My friend, Larry Thompson, took me to this water aerobics class to try to get my ankle back. I got it back to play for six or seven years.”
Jeff began playing baseball as an elementary school kid.
“My dad wanted me to play some sort of organized ball in the summer. I went out for Little League. I didn’t make it the first year. So, I went out for Pony League and I made that team,” he said.
He kept playing and eventually earned a spot on his high school team.
“We won Trumbull AA the first year I was in it. We always had a good team at Leavittsburg,” he said.
He admits to not being a great hardball or fast-pitch player. So after high school, he switched to softball when Thompson asked him to play on a team. He was also a softball player on a work team.
“We played on a slow-pitch softball shop team out of Copperweld,” Cary Carter of Champion said.
Time, as it does, moved on. About a decade ago, Neff graduated to Silver League Softball.
According to the Silver League Softball website, the league provides men 43 and older the chance to keep competing for fun, fitness and sportsmanship.
“The divisions are Red, White, Silver, Gold and Blue. Mr. Neff could play in the 61 years and older Silver division or the blue division is 74 and older when he reaches that age (next season),” Larry Chimento, Silver Division representative, said.
“I played in tournaments everywhere,” Neff said. “Our Akron team would pick five or six places to play in the summer. We would play in Texas, Las Vegas, California and Arizona. Palm Springs was the nicest place we went.”
Though he loves playing, there were times when the opportunities were more than he expected.
“I played for Stauffer Realty in a traveling league. I played six games on Saturday and six games on Sunday. We went to Columbus, Cincinnati and Painesville,” he said. “Was that grueling!”
He became part of a championship team when he played in an international tournament.
“I played on a team from Warren in an All World tournament in Manassas, Va. We won that and got rings. That was probably the greatest achievement we had playing 50-and-over softball. There were teams from all over, including Japan,” he said.
Four players from his Valley Electric team were selected to the All World Cup Team. Neff batted .750 in that 2003 tournament.
Playing softball at 50 and older is a tradition for Neff’s family. His dad played third base on his team when Neff was 19. Now his son, John Neff Jr., is following in their softball footsteps by playing in an over-50 league in North Carolina, where his team won the 2018 ISSA Eastern Spring Nationals.
He started the year playing for two silver league teams at the same time, but it became too much for his ankle.
“I’m not handling it well right now. So I just decided to quit before I make it any worse,” he said.
The final decision was made after a trip to Cleveland
“I went to an Indians game and the walk from the parking to the Indians game was devastating. My knee and my ankle swelled up. I said that’s it. I can’t play no more,” he said.
But his teammates wished for his return to the field before the end of the season.
“We were hoping he would get it fixed and that he would come back and play,” Carter said. “The guys all like him. He tells stories. He’s traveled all over the United States playing.”
“I do love it,” Neff said. “If I hadn’t messed my foot up, I’d be playing this year, next and the year after, probably. I might try and play in the 70s (league) next year or I might see if I can get an ankle replacement.”
He says he would push himself to do therapy after surgery to get back out on the field.
Neff Jr. said of his dad, “I’m sure it would be tough to come back from an ankle replacement, but if anyone can come back it would be Neff Senior.”
That’s the plan, Neff Sr. said. He misses the game and the camaraderie of carpooling with teammates Carter and Joe Newell. And there’s always the hope of another Silver League championship for him to win.