Vintage baseball is a growing trend among older players whose love for the game hasn't aged a day.
The idea, Tyrone Wacker said, is acting your age.
Hmm. Counter-intuitive, you think. Walker is standing in the dugout at the ball field in New Prague on a beautiful Sunday evening. He's 67, still sweating from having run the bases, and he's talking about acting his age?
"No, really," Wacker insisted. "I'm serious. If you act your age, you have a great time. But if you think you're 25, you're going to get hurt."
Wacker took off his cap, wiped his brow and smiled.
"Everybody here is in the same boat. We play because we love it."
Baseball for the fun of it. It's an age-old adage. On this perfect Sunday evening, age is what made it so interesting. This was one of a series of games played between two teams -- one from Minnesota, one from San Diego -- made up of players 60 and older.
It was the idea of Bob Lattery and Jim Vanasek. Vanasek grew up in New Prague, Lattery in Savage. They used to play against each other in amateur ball as far back as the late '50s.
"We go way back," Lattery said. "Back to when this field wasn't in nearly the shape it's in now."
A half-century later, the ballpark looks perfect. The players? Seasoned. Age might take its toll, slow the game a bit. But it doesn't diminish the joy of the game, the smell of the grass.
Vanasek moved to California in 1971, but he and Lattery have stayed in touch and played together on teams at the senior baseball world series in Phoenix. Five years ago, Vanasek brought a team to Minnesota for a similar series. It was a one-sided affair, as many of the Minnesotans on that team hadn't played ball in a decade or so.
This time, it's different.
All the fellows on the Minnesota team play regularly now. Vintage baseball is a growing trend, as baby boomers enter AARP territory. Lattery and Dick Jacobson, a 70-year-old from Cannon Falls, have played with Vanasek on teams in Phoenix for years. They got to talking about reviving this series, and it all just fell into place.
Lattery lined up the fields and umpires. Pat Thompson put together the Minnesota roster. Vanasek brought his guys, they checked into the New Prague AmericInn and got to playing.
They started with a game at Union Hill, then played at Prior Lake. Saturday's game in Veseli was rained out. But they played Sunday in New Prague and Monday in Jordan. This time, the Minnesotans went undefeated. But the final scores really weren't the point.
"We're having more fun now," Vanasek said. "Winning is not of the essence. It's about getting out there, having fun.''
There is a lot of baseball history here. On the Minnesota roster, for example, there is Wacker and Tink Larson. Both long-time coaches, both are in the Minnesota Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame. Dave Sobiech has more than 86 over-35 victories. He won three games in last year's senior World Series and once coached former Twin Pat Neshek in youth baseball.
Longevity? Hanging in the Applebees in Chanhassen is a picture of the 1949 Chanhassen Red Birds that played in the state amateur tournament. Harry Bongard was a 13-year-old bat boy on that team. Now he's the oldest player on the Minnesota roster.
Larry Wallin grew up in Spring Lake Park. A big, strong catcher, he signed with the Mets in 1965, went to the organization's rookie team and found himself catching a guy named Nolan Ryan.
"I've never seen a guy throw like that," he said. "He scared the hell out of me in the bullpen."
Wallin came one injury away from a shot at a cup of big-league coffee. It was 1971 and he was in the Cleveland organization, playing at Class AAA Wichita. Indians catcher Ray Fosse got hurt, but Wallin wasn't available.
"Two days before Fosse got hurt, I got a foul tip in Iowa," Wallin said. "Tore the tip of my finger off. I was out for the year. Right place, right time, but I was hurt."
There are also guys like Mark Lilledahl. In his youth, he played amateur ball in Loretto, Rockford, Maple Plain. But when he got too old for that, he thought his baseball days were over and slow-pitch softball his only alternative. But then, in 2010, he went to the Minnesota Twins' fantasy camp and was named the over-50 MVP. When he got back home, he got a call from Thompson. Do you want to play in Phoenix? Nearly 25 years away from hardball, and it was like riding a bike. Well, almost.
"I'd been away so long I forgot how to get a sign," he joked.
Love of the game
The game? Age does take a toll. You don't hit the ball as hard, or throw it as far, or run as fast, when you're pushing 70. These vintage players use wooden bats, but it's not about nostalgia, it's about safety. That ball comes off the metal too fast.
But these guys will tell you that playing ball now reminds them of what it was like when the joy of playing trumped wins and losses.
"It's like when we were kids, going to the park, choosing up sides, playing from dawn to dusk," Vanasek said. "The aches and pains are multiplied, that's for sure. But I think we're having more fun now."
Pain? Wallin, the old catcher, is playing on two knees that need replacing. But he's here, hitting, pitching a bit.
"I could come out here and just watch the game," he said. "It's just being around it, the smell. I don't know if it's in your blood or what. This is a great game, and just being around it is enough."
|Seattle - LP: F. Hernandez||0||FINAL|
|Cleveland - WP: J. Masterson||6|
|Arizona - LP: W. Miley||1||FINAL|
|Miami - WP: R. Nolasco||2|
|Cincinnati - LP: A. Chapman||2||FINAL|
|Philadelphia - WP: A. Bastardo||3|
|Houston - LP: L. Harrell||0||FINAL|
|Pittsburgh - WP: J. Locke||1|
|Los Angeles - LP: K. Jansen||2||FINAL|
|Atlanta - WP: L. Avilan||5|
|Tampa Bay - WP: M. Moore||3||FINAL|
|Baltimore - LP: C. Tillman||1|
|Boston - WP: J. Lackey||5||FINAL|
|Minnesota - LP: P. Hernandez||1|
|Milwaukee - LP: K. Lohse||2||FINAL|
|St. Louis - WP: J. Gast||4|
|NY Mets - WP: S. Rice||4||FINAL|
|Chicago Cubs - LP: K. Fujikawa||3|
|Chicago WSox - LP: J. Peavy||2||FINAL|
|LA Angels - WP: J. Vargas||6|
|Kansas City - LP: K. Herrera||3||FINAL|
|Oakland - WP: J. Blevins||4|
|Washington - LP: D. Haren||4||FINAL|
|San Diego - WP: A. Cashner||13|
|San Francisco - LP: B. Zito||0||FINAL|
|Colorado - WP: J. Nicasio||5|
|Detroit - LP: J. Ortega||8||FINAL|
|Texas - WP: R. Ross||11|
|Red Bull New York||1|
|Sporting Kansas City||1||FINAL|
|Real Salt Lake||4||FINAL|