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Sports Talk: Sports break out around North County for people of all ages

Sports breaking out around North County for people of all ages.

It was opening week and everyone knows what follows: the smell of cut grass, the stands being jammed and the whack of balls being walloped by wood bats ricocheting around the stadium.

North County Senior Softball’s grand opening had all that, too.

Well, kind of.

In the NCSS, for players 50-and-older, the aroma is of artificial turf with a hint of BENGAY. The seats reveal one spectator and there’s the ping from a juiced-up aluminum bat rather than any offensive sound heard at Petco Park.

The Padres, these guys aren’t. Instead, they’ve kept the faith that playing softball, gaining friends and enjoying each other’s company is something with no age limit.

More than 100 NCSS players, mostly from North County, return after a year lost to the pandemic. They’re safely knocking off the rust, like so much dirt from the big boys’ cleats, as they embrace softball in their twice-weekly, six-team endeavor.

“Everyone was really excited to get back out here again,” said Lake San Marcos’ Steve Ellingson, 71, and the manager of Team 6. “Really, we are all just like little kids.”

Carlsbad’s Marc Rudich, 72, breaks from the box on a base hit in a recent North County Senior Softball League game. 
Photo by Jay Paris

The youthful smiles outweighed the senior heartache no matter which direction one looked.

Then again reminders of the participants’ limitations were but a pitch away. One gentleman took a fly ball off his skull and another one pulled up lame aggressively rounding third base.

“Ankle or hamstring?” his concerned teammates asked.

“Hamstring,” he said, and their groan was noticeable.

What’s notable is grown men still circling the bases in a game they learned decades ago. The average age in NCSS is 67, with more than a couple of players north of 80.

“One of the older guys used to play for the Angels in the minors,” Jim Dionne, 76, the NCSS commissioner said. “And he still hits the ball really hard.”

It’s easy to see our sporting life find a pulse again after a year on pause. These senior players are just one example of various athletic leagues blooming for people of all ages seeking to stretch and swap stories.

“For us it’s social and we get our exercise,” Dionne said. “That’s two things we look for after we retire.”

Dionne peeked out the window after his career as a lawyer in Seattle and determined he could play three months of softball there.

Or move to Carlsbad and go year-round in a league that has three 25-game seasons, all played on the City of Carlsbad’s diamonds, which are considered gems on the senior softball circuit.

“To Carlsbad, softball is important,” Dionne said. “We rent the fields and they take really good care of them and us.”

Andy Mercer, 76, tracks a pitch during a North County Senior Softball League game. Mercer, of Carlsbad, is among the more than 100 local players returning to action. Photo by Jay Paris

It’s all for one and one for all as Team 5 forges ahead of Team 6 in the eighth inning. Team 6’s rally falls short and it losses, 26-25, because behind home plate the grease board says so.

But there were no skid marks from those exciting Stagecoach Park. For these players with age comes perspective, and win or lose was there a better place to be on a cloudless Tuesday morning?

“It’s a game that you love, no matter how old you are, and you’re around people that feel the same way,” said Ellingson, who’s retired from the apparel business. “This is competitive, but it’s also about camaraderie.”

It’s also about being sore the next morning, which is counterbalanced by the anticipation for the next nine innings.

“It’s been a whole year without playing and the guys couldn’t wait to get the games going,” Dionne said. “We’ve never had so many people sign up.”

Count me as having my name on the list and that includes on the losing Team 6.

Although it’s a defeat that comes minus a sting. Sunshine and softball rule this day, a reminder of a cherished respite for so many who’ve been missing their favorite sport.

Contact Jay Paris at [email protected]. Follow him @jparis_sports.