You're thinking, out-of-shape players who have been out of sight, out of mind for too long. You imagine batters adept at the hit-and-waddle, outfielders who attempt corrective-shoestring catches and pitchers who paint the gray. You can't tell the players without a Baseball Encyclopedia, you say.
While the play in the newly formed Senior Professional Baseball Association (SPBA) is certainly a cut below the big-league version, it's a mistake to think of the Florida-based SPBA as a league in which every day is Old-Timers' Day. The players on the eight teams that will each play 72 regular-season games through January are in surprisingly fine fettle, and their play has been surprisingly crisp. If the major leagues are The Show, then this is The Late Show, a chance for the players, who are 35 and over (catchers may be as young as 32), to become part of a team once more and a chance for fans to watch some of their favorites again. "I saw Field of Dreams four times," says 42-year-old cosmetologist and Winter Haven Super Sox DH Bernie Carbo. "This is like a League of Dreams."
Just as in that movie, famous players started appearing from out of nowhere when they heard that the SPBA would begin play on Nov. 1: Dave Kingman, Bill Madlock, Jon Matlack, Ferguson Jenkins, Bert Campaneris, Graig Nettles, Cecil Cooper, Mike Cuellar, Juan Tyrone Eichelberger...well, some are more famous than others. While Jenkins is probably the only future Hall of Famer in the league, there are many former All-Stars, and baseball fans can still get a rush from seeing names like Tiant, Blair, Hrabosky and Rivers in the box scores.
Of course, not many baseball fans have actually seen a game in the Seniors circuit. Because of ballpark and player availability, the SPBA had to begin play at a time of year when tourists are out of season in Florida. Consequently, there have been games at which it would have taken less time to introduce the spectators than the players. League officials are hopeful that the tourist migration, which begins in December, will boost attendance significantly; until then, it's difficult to determine whether the league can put up the numbers necessary for survival. The ceiling on a player's salary is $15,000 a month, with the average closer to $7,000. To break even for the season, a franchise would have to average 2,000 spectators a game; so far the league average is 1,113, with a high of 3,404 for the West Palm Beach Tropics' opener and a low of 324 for a Winter Haven Super Sox game.
The Super Sox are not to be confused with the Sun Sox (Fort Myers) who are not to be confused with the Gold Coast Suns (Miami and Pompano Beach) who are not to be confused with the Tropics (West Palm Beach) or with the Juice (Orlando). Rounding out the league are St. Petersburg Pelicans, the St. Lucie Legends and the Bradenton Explorers—or Explos, as they're called in the local paper. Something will have to be done about the team names. But as Pelican relief pitcher Joe Sambito, 37, says, "There are some wrinkles in the league. No pun intended."
One of those wrinkles was evident in a game the other night at Al Lang Stadium in St. Pete between the Pelicans and the Super Sox. The last-place Sox were trailing the first-place Pelicans by a score of 3-2 in the top of the third. With a man on second and one out, 38-year-old cleanup hitter Leon Roberts, who hit 22 home runs for the Mariners in 1978, was due up. Wait a minute! Up to the plate stepped a pinch-hitter. Number 37. Bill Lee?
Now, the Spaceman, as he was so aptly known during his illustrious major league career, was a pretty fair hitter for a hurler, and Roberts had been suffering from an intestinal bug. But there was suspicion running rampant in both dugouts, in the press box and in the stands that the real reason Bill Lee was being sent in to pinch-hit by the Super Sox manager was because the Super Sox manager was none other than Bill Lee.
Lee, 42, was greeted with a chorus of boos as he stepped in to face righthander Milt Wilcox. The negative reaction resulted, in part, from the unorthodox strategy and also from the fact that a few days before, Lee had referred to St. Pete skipper Bobby Tolan as "an anal-retentive black man" and to the Pelicans as a "militaristic regime." The boos turned to jeers when the orally fixated Lee was caught looking at strike three. When the inning was over, Lee trotted out to left field to assume the position. In the next half-inning, he butchered two balls, helping the Pelicans to build a 10-2 lead. Lee did take the mound for three innings, and gave up St. Pete's 15th and 16th runs. As a hitter, he doubled in the fifth and laid down a perfect bunt in the seventh—perfect for third baseman Roy Howell, who stepped on the bag to get the force with two outs and two on.
After the 16-3 massacre, Lee told reporters (all two of them), "I'm waiting for the moon to lose its horns. That's what Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé Indians said before he defeated General Sheridan at Big Hole." As Lee offered up his factually flawed history lesson, his players looked at him with eyeballs almost audibly rolling.
Some people are rolling their eyes at the whole concept of seniors baseball. David Letterman even did a Top 10 list of things overheard at a SPBA game. For example, "That's not Morganna, that's Bea Arthur." Or, "Oatmeal, get your red-hot oatmeal."