RURAL HALL, N.C. (AP) — Glen Motsinger admittedly wasn’t feeling right when he stepped into the batter’s box to take his cuts.
“I think I pulled something this morning,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t be running.”
His competitiveness, the pull of athletic pride and a desire to never let down his teammates on the Mock Beroth Bombers softball team, wouldn’t allow him to miss an at-bat, much less an entire game.
Never mind the fact that Motsinger, at 87, ranks somewhere near the median age for the champion Bombers. He could be forgiven if he’d sat out.
Across the diamond, a member of the opposing team—dubbed the “Young Guns” mostly because none are older than 80—couldn’t conceal his admiration.
“It’s an honor to be out here with them,” said Mike King, a relative spring chicken at 73. “It’s so much fun to see the delight in the guys’ eyes. And they can play. They have talent. They hit, throw and they can field.
“It’s just that some of them can’t run.”
A serious group, serious fun
Most of the 20 or so guys on the Bombers’ hand-written roster have been playing ball together for years.
The team organized, more or less, through the Winston-Salem Recreation and Parks Department as a way to participate in the North Carolina Senior Games.
Funny thing, though, they’ve done more than just participate. Among the senior set, the Bombers might even qualify as a dynasty. (We’ll leave that debate to the talking heads and softball historians.)
In the 80-plus category at the Senior Games, the team won gold medals in 2016 and 2018 and a silver medal in 2019. The pandemic put a temporary halt to their run on hardware, however.
And before that, in 2013, many of the same players were on the team that took first place in a senior national tournament in Cleveland. “We were lucky enough to win that one,” said John East, an 89-year-old shortstop.
Like a lot of his teammates, East found out about the team through word of mouth. He quickly realized they were “a serious group.”
“We used to compete in the 65 (age) division, then 70 and then 75 in those five year increments,” he said. “We aged out of every league we could play in.”
Then COVID-19 turned daily life inside out. The Bombers sat out for safety, but came back out after the onset of widely available vaccines and effective treatments for infections.
And now it’s game on. The Bombers play the Young Guns every Monday night.
Remaining active and socially connected matters—a lot. With an age range of 82 to 94, each man is driven to continue with exercise and team sports.
And the players, who come from a wide range of professional backgrounds and life experiences, couldn’t stand to just sit still.
“It’s a great thing for these guys to be out here playing ball and moving around,” said Jim Matney, 76, the Bombers’ coach. “These guys here keep me young. I’m hoping more older guys come out.
“I’m proud to be just a small part of it.”
It takes dedication
Truth be told, Matney is far more than a small part of the organization.
He’s the guy with the clipboard, a main point of contact who tracks the roster and regularly checks in on his players.
Matney is a recruiter, a scheduler—“We’ve got a game Aug. 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 prime supporter of the team and her husband’s efforts. “He really loves it,” she said. “And we just enjoy coming every week.”
For safety reasons and common-sense concessions to age, there are a few rule changes.
The pitcher is protected by a sturdy net. Players on the Young Guns bat the opposite way; lefties in the right batters 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 home plates—one for the catcher to tag and a second one a few feet away for runners attempting to score.
“We don’t want any collisions,” Matney said.
If an individual desires, designated runners are permitted. And there are other hurdles not addressed in rule changes.
Before warmups and the pregame prayer, a mischievous smile spread across 94-year-old Bill Inman’s face when East told me I’d have to speak up.
“He can’t hear too good,” East explained.
On cue, Inman pulled a small package of dime-sized batteries from his pocket and said “Maybe I should put (some) in my hearing aids,” he said.
It’s not all fun and games for the Bombers, however. One player keeps a list of teammates who have passed away.
Winning is nice, of course. But coming out week after week means something more to these guys.
That was obvious within seconds of meeting 89-year-old John Womble, who was watching from his car before joining his teammates in the dugout in his new white game jersey.
A rapidly approaching surgery curtailed his active participation.
“I just love to play,” Womble said. “It’s just that I can’t anymore. But I want to be here for the guys.”