On the day my oncologist told us I was in complete remission after treatment for my lymphoma, my wife turned to me and said, “Do you think you could have done this without softball?” There is no way to answer that question with certainty, but there are some things I do know.
In the struggle with a cancer, a patient is so preoccupied with procedures, laboratory testing, and treatment that life outside of yourself is difficult to maintain. It is combat, and it consumes enormous energy. It is here that senior softball had such an impact on me. Each time I came to the ball park, I gained strength from my interactions with the ball players, even those on the opposing teams. My teammate’s cheers after a good hit and their encouragement after a weak grounder buoyed my spirits. Softball prevented me from being excessively introspective, helped to never let depression even get close to me. Bernie, one of my teammates, had it right when responding to my thank yous, he said, “This is our softball family.”
I believe that senior softball is an example of sports where victory over an opponent is not achieved at any cost, where what is right prevails over what is wrong, where an opponent’s pain is not the objective, where the reward is pleasure for all participants, and where competition is not conflict. Senior softball players bring a reasoned state of mind to their game, recognizing their gratitude for the ability to postpone for a time the effects of aging and bringing empathy for both their teammates and their opponents. Anyone watching a senior softball game cannot help but think this is an example of successful group social behavior, an observation that should bring some reassurance about the human state.
You could point out that in the absence of fame and fortune, there is little incentive for senior softball players to let loose their individual aggression and selfishness. I would respond that the wisdom earned with aging influences us to be more appreciative of being alive, less self-serving, and more empathetic toward our fellow ball players. Lasting satisfaction comes from watching the less-skilled get a hit, a teammate returning from an injury, or one of us coming back to the ball field after the insertion of a pace maker. Pleasure comes from team cohesion and companionship, and a temporary absence of politics and hatred.
Senior softball has no trash talking; it has joyful, witty bantering for the enjoyment of all. Indeed, the bantering is major league:
“Did you win? No, but we scared them.”
From an outfielder during a between-innings delay: “Come on, play ball. I’m gonna have another birthday out here.” And “Play ball. I’m getting old!”
“Is that your wife’s bat? No, her’s is too heavy!”
After a line drive whizzed past the pitcher’s right ear: “Missed. Try again!”
To a batter digging a hole in the batter’s box: “What are you doing, gardening?”
“He was playing you in a different time zone.”
“Way to stand in the outfield.”
“If I make another error, I’m getting divorced.”
“Go back to the old folks home.”
At the end of each game, there are no entitlements coming our way, only the satisfaction and pleasure expressed in the traditional high-five ceremony between teams. The spirit of senior softball is evident when the two teams form opposing lines, and we pass down the line trading high fives and “nice game” or “way to go.” No animosity. No conflict. No hatred. Everyone has a beaming smile, winners and losers. It is a mutual recognition of our togetherness, sharing another triumph over aging. The professors of anthropology and sociology should spend some time studying senior softball. There are lessons to be learned about living together and enjoying life, with respect and fairness. A way to live without war.
Every single member of our team wants to win, enjoys winning. But I notice that winning takes second place to just playing. We all have the same problem: diminished strength and stamina. We can’t run as fast as we used to. We can’t throw hard and far. And we all have trouble bending over quickly. But playing is a statement, a challenge to aging. Each and every one of us is grateful to be here, to be able to play senior softball, even with its slower pace and special rules.
The physical demands of softball improve muscle tone, cardiovascular performance, and balance. In our focus on the physical aspects of playing softball, we often lose sight of the mental involvement. You have to be thinking at all times to be aware of the game situation and what play to make, to keep track of the numbers (the score, the number of outs, how many balls and strikes). You have to keep your mind in the game. Playing senior softball is an excellent method to exercise the preventive health phenomenon “use it or lose it.”
The mental activity is constant, processing information not only in the details of the game, but in the bantering, to both give and receive quick-witted barbs and jibes. The razzing challenge is subtle, but it is there. You have to keep up. Modern research has established that the brain is “plastic,” making new neurons throughout life in response to mental activity and literally changing its wiring. The bottom line is that senior softball with its dedication to a task with intense focus is a significant help in accommodating and even overcoming at least some of the aging process.