The idea for a seniors league came to Jim Morley, a 33-year-old Colorado real estate developer and former minor league outfielder, while he was sitting on a beach in Australia last January. Upon returning to the States, Morley mailed off 1,250 postcards to former players, outlining his venture, and the response was overwhelming. In the end, more than 700 players wanted to be considered for the 192 roster spots. Morley enlisted Curt Flood, the former Cardinals outfielder who pioneered free agency, to be the league's commissioner, and spent more than $100,000 organizing the league, running up tabs on three credit cards. "If it weren't for American Express, this league would never have come off," Morley says.
After reserving the St. Pete franchise for himself, Morley selected the other seven owners from 73 interested investors. Each franchise will spend in the neighborhood of $1 million in the first year, and part of its return will come from a modest cable-TV contract. Among the owners are Russell Berrie, a toymaker, who bought the Gold Coast club, and Mitchell Maxwell, a New York theatrical producer, who purchased Winter Haven. The two men worked one of the most original trades in baseball history last month: Winter Haven traded Luis Tiant to Gold Coast for 500 teddy bears and the rights to Ralph Garr.
"I see this league as a metaphor for the '90s," says Maxwell. "The players and owners are so committed to this idea—not to make money, but just to have fun. In the '80s it was take, take, take. We're all trying to give." It was Maxwell who gave Lee a chance to manage. But after the 16-3 loss to the Pelicans, which dropped the Super Sox to 1-6, Maxwell decided to take away Lee's managerial duties; he then went out and hired Ed Nottle, a manager in the Red Sox minor league system, to take over the team.
The move was an indication that the SPBA is getting serious. "Too serious," says Madlock, 38, a businessman in Pittsburgh and the Orlando DH. "I came down here for therapy, to relax. I was going to have a nervous breakdown swimming with the sharks. The real world—now that's hardball. So I don't want to get into a situation where I have to worry about winning every day. I just want to have fun. Excuse me while I go do my sprint. That's singular."
There have already been some remarkable performances on the Senior circuit. Amos Otis, 42, had three consecutive three-run homers over two games last week for Fort Myers. Thirty-nine-year-old Larvell (Sugar Bear) Blanks, a 165-pound shortstop for the Juice, hit a 450-foot homer off Mickey Mahler in Bradenton on Nov. 8. "A big man would've been proud of that one," says 44-year-old Hal McRae, who with Al Oliver, 43, forms the Hal and Al DH combo for the Explos. Eichelberger, 36, had the league's first complete-game shutout for West Palm Beach on Nov. 8 and is the early-season favorite for the league's Cy Old Award. As for Most Valuable Patriarch, well, Dan Driessen, 38, was batting a cool .487 for Fort Myers through Sunday. The two best teams in the league have already emerged: the Pelicans (8-2) in the Northern Division and the Dick Williams-managed Tropics (9-1) in the Southern. As another indication of the level of seriousness, Earl Weaver, manager of the Suns, has already been thrown out of one game and has trashed the quality of umpiring in the league. (He apologized the next day.)
The busiest men in the twilight league are, naturally enough, the trainers. "We had a 40-minute wait to get into the trainer's room this morning," said Bradenton shortstop Garth Iorg, 35. "I wish I had the ice-machine concession for this league," says McRae.
The up side, though, is that some guys are seeing their toes for the first time in years. "I was up to 228, and my blood pressure was way too high," says Carbo. "When I heard about this league, I got down to 196, and now my blood pressure is 120 over 82," Says Lee, "We're saving lives and lowering insurance premiums. There are guys here who would have been dead in 10 years, and we're adding 15 years to their lives."
The players have come back for a wide variety of reasons, and from all walks of life. Some need to make a little money, some are trying to recapture their youth, some even hold out hope that they can use the SPBA to get back into the majors. "I quit to spend more time with my family," says 35-year-old Steve Kemp of the Pelicans. "But things didn't work out, and I ended up getting a divorce. Maybe this will get me another shot as a DH somewhere in the big leagues. At least now my daughters have a chance to see me play on television."
"I know some people think it's silly that some of the players are trying to get back into the majors," says McRae. "But this country was built on dreams. And if you can't dream, you die."
That's the thing. The senior league is not about being old. It's about trying to feel young again. These players came back because they miss the action, the camaraderie, even the bus rides. "The best part about riding the bus now," says Oliver, "is that we have stories to tell."