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Going to get a little personal here for a moment.
On a cold and windy March morning in 2008, I drove out to Lincoln Park, NJ, to try out for a 50-and-over softball league. That long-dreaded moment had finally arrived: What athlete wants to concede he can no longer compete on an even playing field (pardon the metaphor) with guys half his age? But I had grown tired of getting my brains beat in by a bunch of 30-somethings (steroid users, no doubt) every week in my town on teams with guys I never really connected with. So there I was.
The Lincoln Park league consists of several divisions with hundreds of players. I was approached by a few teams but decided to cast my luck with the Amigos, many of whom had been together for years.
Now I don’t care how old you get, it’s often difficult to move into an established social situation, being the “new kid” (even at 50). These seemed like a good bunch of ballplayers; you have to have some sense of commitment to keep going well into your fifties and beyond. But more importantly, these “Amigos” seemed like a bunch of good guys. And Don Roth was one of the first to make me feel welcome.
Don and I were the only Jews on the team. I don’t recall if he told me he recognized my name as a reader of the Jewish News or if I mentioned what I did in passing, but from that point on, we always had that landsman connection.
From time to time during the season, Don sometimes complained about a persistent sore throat which made speaking above a whisper difficult. (Hey, everyone’s over 50 here; we all have some ache or pain.) Turned out he had cancer. The treatments sapped his strength and ruled out his returning to the team for 2009, but, as far as I knew, he was slowly making a recovery and hoped to rejoin the team at some point a year or so down the line. I was not in touch with him much, other than a brief email wishing him well.
After a successful regular season in which the we won our division championship, we were scheduled to play in a state tournament in Freehold which was unfortunately canceled due to inclement weather. In his parting email to the team, our manager, Sal, heaped praise on all the guys for their contributions on the field. He concluded with the following:
Don Roth, can you hear me? I’m sure in Heaven there’s some form of visual effects that allowed you to watch all our games. It’s in honor of your memory, Don, that I dedicate our overall success to you, my friend.
I was stunned. Was I reading this right? I had to confirm, somewhat awkwardly, what Sal had written. Indeed, Don had passed away in mid-July. Sal and most of the Amigos had been his long-time friends and teammates, and he had sent around a very emotional and eloquent note at that time.
I’m guessing I wasn’t on that list because I hadn’t known Don that long. But for some reason his loss hit me harder than I would have guessed. Perhaps it’s a mortality thing. When you’re young and playing games, you feel it will go on forever, that you’ll never get hurt and that the “outside world” will never intrude on the fun.
Many years ago I saw a PBS documentary about the Kids and Cubs, a softball league in Florida where the players wear white slacks, white button down shirts, and bow ties — and have to be at least 75 years old. I thought, that’s me some day.
Maybe I’ll skip Florida and, God willing, just keeping playing in Lincoln Park.