PARMA, Ohio - It was a hot grounder to the right side of the infield which took a strange bounce and caught a player on the leg. When he winced with the shot on his shin and knee, immediately his teammates and players from the opposing team surrounded him to make sure he was okay.
They were all senior citizens at least 60 years of age although there were several in their 70s and 80s. The Huff-N-Puff Softball League is not really about winning games, but playing the games and establishing a stronger fraternity on the field.
While the player, who was only slightly hurt, limped to the bench, his teammates walked with him. "We're more concerned about the injury than winning the game," said Ray Page, president of the Huff-N-Puffers. 'We're just here to play ball and have fun."
That has been the goal for nearly 30 years for the league which is headquarters in Parma where most of the games are played twice a week. There are about 200 members in the league, which requires any player to be at least 60 years of age. Most are significantly older than that.
Len Thasho, a U.S. military veteran of World War II who was wounded in battle in Europe, is approaching his 90th birthday. "I'm the third oldest in the league," he said. Thasho made his comments as he came to the bench from his position at 2nd base. A former pitcher, he said when he hurt his thumb, he had to leave the mound. "I don't throw the curve ball anymore, but I can play second base," he said.
The league is comprised of nine teams. Twice a week, there are games at James W. Day Field in Parma. The Huff-N-Puffers follow special rules to lessen the chances of contact or injury on the field. When the older group—men in their 80s and 90s play—the pitchers hurles the slowpitch softball with a protective cage in front of him, often seen in batting practice of Major League Baseball.
There are other rules, such as a pinch runner for the batter if the batter has determined he cannot run the bases. Also, there are 13 players in the field so each man does not have to cover as much ground for a batted ball. Other than that, the rules of softball are as they were when the men were kids.
"I've been playing since I was 10 or 15," said Thasho, noting this season amounted to his 80th year as a softball or baseball player. Each man has a number on the chest of his jersey. It is the year in which he was born. Thasho is proud of his number—1924.
Most of the Huff-n-Puffers have seen decades of playing sports. "That's all we want to do," said Page. "We're little kids, but were all old men."
However, they play as if they were decades younger. Many swing a heavy bat, sending the ball deep into the outfield. They run the bases amid squeals of encouragement from the bench. In the grandstand are usually wives or children who are proud to see these senior citizens still in the game.
Mostly, that is what the Huff-n-Puffers league is all about. Keeping the men in the game. The game of life.