RURAL ROOM, North Carolina
Glen Motsinger admitted he wasn’t feeling well when he entered the batting box to take his cuts.
“I think I shot something this morning,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t run.”
His competitiveness, the lure of athletic pride, and the desire to never disappoint his teammates on the Mock Beroth Bombers softball team wouldn’t allow him to miss a game at bat, let alone an entire game.
Never mind the fact that Motsinger, at 87, ranks somewhere near the median age for Bombers champions. He could be forgiven if he sat down.
On the other side of the diamond, a member of the opposing team – nicknamed the “Young Guns” mainly because none are over 80 – could not hide his admiration.
“It’s an honor to be here with them,” said Mike King, a 73-year-old relative spring chicken. “It’s so fun to see the pleasure in the eyes of the guys. And they can play. They have talent. They hit, throw and they can line up.
“It’s just that some of them can’t run.”
Serious band, serious fun
Most of the roughly 20 guys on the Bombers’ handwritten roster have been playing ball together for years.
The team organized, more or less, through the Winston-Salem Parks and Recreation Department to compete in the North Carolina Senior Games.
Funnily enough, however, they did more than just participate. Among the senior set, the Bombers might even be considered a dynasty. (We’ll leave that debate to talking heads and softball historians.)
In the over-80 category at the Senior Games, the team won gold medals in 2016 and 2018 and a silver medal in 2019. The pandemic, however, put a temporary halt to their run on gear.
And before that, in 2013, many of the same players were part of the team that won first place in a senior national tournament in Cleveland. “We were lucky to win that one,” said 89-year-old shortstop John East.
Like many of his teammates, East learned about the team through word of mouth. He soon realized that they were “a serious bunch”.
“We used to compete in the 65 (age) division, then 70 then 75 in those five-year increments,” he said. “We got old in every league we could play in.”
Then COVID-19 turned everyday life upside down. The Bombers sat out for safety reasons, but returned after widely available vaccines and effective treatments for infections emerged.
And now it’s gone. The Bombers play the Young Guns every Monday night.
Staying active and socially connected is a lot. With an age range of 82 to 94, every man is driven to pursue exercise and team sports.
And the players, who come from a wide range of professional backgrounds and life experiences, couldn’t sit still.
“It’s a good thing for these guys to be here to play ball and get around,” Bombers coach Jim Matney, 76, said. “These guys here keep me young. I hope more older guys come out.
“I’m proud to be just a small part of it.”
It takes dedication
Truth be told, Matney is much more than a small part of the organization.
He’s the guy with the clipboard, a primary point of contact who follows the roster and regularly checks his players.
Matney is a scout, a planner – “We have a game on August 2 against the rural hall town council” – an equipment manager and on occasion, the guy who remembered the Ben Gay.
His son, Brett, coaches the Young Guns. And Matney’s wife, LaRue, is a major supporter of the team and her husband’s efforts. “He really likes it,” she said. “And we like to come every week.”
For safety reasons and common sense concessions to age, there are some rule changes.
The pitcher is protected by a sturdy net. Young Guns players beat the opposite way; left-handers in the right-hitter box and vice versa
First base is actually two, one for the runner and another for the first baseman. The same goes for the two marbles, one for the catcher to score and a second a few yards away for the runners trying to score.
“We don’t want collisions,” Matney said.
If an individual wishes, designated runners are permitted. And there are other hurdles that aren’t addressed in the rule changes.
Before warm-ups and pre-game prayer, a mischievous grin spread across 94-year-old Bill Inman’s face when East told me I had to talk.
“He can’t hear very well,” East explained.
At the right time, Inman pulled a small packet of batteries the size of a dime from his pocket and said, “Maybe I should put (some) of these in my hearing aids,” he said. .
However, it’s not all fun and games for the Bombers. A player keeps a list of his deceased teammates.
Winning is nice, of course. But going out week after week means something more to these guys.
It was evident seconds after meeting John Womble, 89, watching from his car before joining his teammates in the dugout in his new white match shirt.
A rapidly approaching surgical intervention reduced his active participation.
“I love playing,” Womble said. “I just can’t take it anymore. But I want to be there for the guys.