Wooden bats were the norm when most of Manasota Hardware’s players started playing softball.
Today, there’s more grey hair than not on their heads, and their faces have a couple wrinkles coursing through them, but the softball diamond has continued to be their destination several times a week.
The Manasota Hardware players have more than 100 combined years of experience in the game. The G.T. Bray senior softball team is not to be reckoned with, even for much younger teams.
“We went to the playoffs at 10-6 last year,” said Manasota Hardware coach/player Richard Chamness, 59, owner of Manasota Plumbing and Hardware. “We are just base hitters, and we, maybe, have one power hitter, but we have experience on our side, I guess.”
Manasota Hardware (4-4) has the stamina to compete. The team also travels and will play in a 50-and-over tournament next weekend on the east coast. They make it a point to participate in several tournament throughout the year and have won two this season.
“Surprisingly, the competition is (tough) if you’ve never seen it,” Chamness said. “Those teams can beat nine out of the 10 teams out here. They can pop the ball and hit the top of the trees. Some of those guys are 65 and over. I’ve been playing in that league for 10 years now, and I’m still amazed.”
Competing against those fountain-of-youth squads helps Manasota Hardware stay neck and neck with the young boys at G.T. Bray.
Of course, they aren’t the strongest or fastest, but Manasota Hardware plays fundamental softball, relying on solid contact and limited errors. And they have something the kids don’t.
“They have experience,” said Keith Van Ostenbridge, who plays for Chiles Group. “They are old veterans, and I love them. I want to be like them. They are skilled. They know everything to do at every point. They have all the tricks of every book.”
And that veteran instinct allows Manasota Hardware’s third baseman Bobby Van Horn, 64, to play parallel to the bag or at times in front of it.
On Thursday night, every third baseman on every other team was playing in shallow left field to guard against a smoking line drive down the line.
“I play that close, because if I didn’t, I couldn’t get the ball over to first base,” said Van Horn, who’s had three knee surgeries. “I just got to have my reflexes when they hit a line drive at me. You just have to pick your poison.”
Norman Learn used to play with old wooden bats, and a smile flashes across his face when he reflects on them.
The Manasota Hardware’s first baseman, who is also an avid golfer, has played softball for nearly 40 years and never wants to leave the orange clay behind, literally.
“I’ll play it until I drop,” said Learn, 71. “When I drop, I’m going to be cremated, and I’m going to split my ashes between the softball field and the golf course. I want some to be here, and I’ll let the golf course be at my daughter’s choosing.”