Men’s softball vets talk past, what’s ahead

2015 season will have new champs

If they weren’t playing for anything, they wouldn’t be keeping score.

The 2015 men’s softball league kicked off at the end of June and is now in full swing until the championship on Aug. 10.

“It gets very competitive,” said men’s commissioner Mike O’Brien. “We need an ump because we all want to win. We’re all down there because we like to play and we like to be competitive.”

This year’s men’s league is comprised of five teams: the Pounders, The Muffitts, YAC Pac 4, the Arthritics and the Slugs.

The Cops, who won last year’s championship against the Arthritics, have since disbanded, but some former players have since joined other teams in the league. Some veteran players called the Cops dissolution a “move into the real world” outside of Chautauqua evenings playing softball.

The Muffitts, composed of musical members of the Music School Festival Orchestra, is in its second year in the league. The team changed its name from the MSFO to the Muffitts this year to pay homage to Timothy Muffitt, conductor for the Music School Festival Orchestra.

“Some days, they’ll practice all day, go and play and then perform in the Amp, which is kind of cool,” O’Brien said.

Last Wednesday, the Muffits had to forfeit to the Pounders because their players were performing that evening.

YAC Pac 4 and the newfound Pounders round out the rest of the men’s league. The last time a YAC Pac team won a championship was in 2009, a year when most of the current YAC Pac team were still young teenagers.

“They’re usually counselors from Club, when this group started they were all probably 15 or 14 [years old],” O’Brien said. “Now, they’re about 17 and 18, and they’re competitors. They’re an all-around good team in fielding and hitting. They’re 2-0 right now and they’ll be a good team if they keep their guys going.”

O’Brien, who has visited Chautauqua institution since he was a child and played with the Lowriders in his youth, will play on the Arthritics for his ninth season. Though the Arthritics have yet to win a championship, the keys to success during the season, O’Brien said, aren’t unreachable.

“[It’s about] finding guys who are here and keeping them in their positions because we’re always moving people around so much,” O’Brien said. “It makes it hard to feel your team when your shortstop is gone and you’re taking your outfielder and putting him in for shortstop and you’re just scrounging. At times, you’ll see there are kids in the outfield or there’s teams with only eight guys. They can’t get anyone to show up. Sometimes it’s not even that they’re gone, it’s just that they have other commitments here, like family obligations or a show.”

Injuries hold back some teams during the season as well. In last Wednesday’s game against the Slugs, an Arthritics’ centerfielder pulled his hamstring.

“One of the problems that we have when guys step on the field, especially since they’re older, is that they’ll get a great hit and they’ll be flying around first base and they pull around second base and they’ll pull a hamstring,” O’Brien said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve seen that. They’re done, and they can’t play again. I’ve seen it three or four times when players have showed up and they haven’t played in a long time.”

And if this becomes a recurring trend, O’Brien invites all who want to play to join.

“If anyone wants to play, if you’re up here for the season or you just want to play, show up to the games,” O’Brien said. “Going forward, we’re going to be short-handed.”

Sharpe Field stories: League’s statesmen reflect on decades of competition

If baseball is America’s pastime, softball at Chautauqua is about as nostalgic as it gets.

Sharpe Field is surrounded by a stack of metal bleachers, where relatives and fans of the game come to watch. Benches are on the first and third base line, but teams share the blue bench closest to first. It’s closest to all points of interest: the bike racks, the ramp that leads up toward the bleachers and the only water fountain on the field.

On a professional-caliber field, dirt is ideally flat and firm around the bases, and the pitchers mound a circular shape with a rectangular mound in the middle.

This is not the case at Chautauqua: patches of grass are especially heavy between first and second base, and the pitcher’s mound vaguely resembles the shape of Cuba from years of pitchers walking to and from home plate. Whereas in other community fields, home runs may be the norm, ground rule doubles occur almost every inning. Bushes and flowers in far left field guard a fence that separates the field from the tennis courts, and the road that borders right field is a speed track for balls that trail in that direction.

Two games are played every Monday, Wednesday and Friday after 5 p.m. Players stretch and play catch as the sun filters through the tree line in right field before the first game. By the end of the second game after 7 p.m., shadows are tall and wide as the light settles behind the trees.

The Boys’ Club won the first men’s softball championship in 1972, the first year Jeff Miller, the activities coordinator for the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, played in the league. This will be Miller’s 43rd consecutive season in the league.

“Jeff Miller is the oldest statesman in the league, playing-wise,” said John Chubb, assistant director at the Boys’ and Girls’ Club, who also plays in the league. “Every year he’s always saying, ‘I think I’m only going to play half the time next year.’ ”

Teachers and professors, who have extended summers, as well as retirees, have always been a staple of the softball league, Miller said. Men’s commissioner Mike O’Brien and women’s commissioner Mark Altschuler are educators and have been around during the summers to see the coming-and-goings of teenagers-turned-adults.

“Part of the pleasure for the old guys like us is seeing these [young] guys come back,” Altschuler said. “When they’re 18, they leave, and when they’re 30 they come back.”

Unlike the younger generations that left Chautauqua, teams like the Slugs and the Arthritics are often older than the players who participate on them. In the 1980s, Miller and Chubb were on rival teams, the Gorilla Gang and the Underdogs, respectively. 

“We almost had fisticuffs when we played against one another around ’87 because he claimed I spiked him,” Chubb said.

“Well, you did,” Miller said.

“Calmer heads were luckily there and I was like, ‘I’m never going to play with that guy again,’ ” Chubb said. “ ‘That guy was the worst.’ ”

The two have been teammates on the Slugs since 1990, the year the team was formed.

“When we decided to get together, we decided to call ourselves the Chautauqua Sluggers,” Chubb said. “Well, that name lasted about two years and everybody was like, ‘You’re getting kind of old. We’ll call you the Slugs.’ We thought we’d be around five years. Twenty-five years later and we’re still playing. We never thought that’d happen.”

The winningest team in men’s league history, the Slugs has won 14 championships, their last in 2012.

The Arthritics, which was founded in 1989 (a year before the Slugs formed), have made two appearances in the finals and have lost on both occasions.

Altschuler, who plays for the Arthritics, was reporting on a softball game as a Chautauquan Daily recreation reporter when he was asked to join the team.

“The softball league, for me, helped me get a sense of Chautauqua history,” Altschuler said. “They would talk about games that happened in 1975. When I had the job 20 years ago, I was writing about how these guys were the seasoned veterans.”

Though team names like the Arthritics and the Slugs sound like they embody, well, arthritic and sluggish softball, the players believe the intensity of the sport is still at play in every game.

“I think it’s great pure amateurism,” Miller said. “People go down there and play, we have a collegiality, but I think people play really hard. That kind of camaraderie — it might get intense in some moments, but it’s all good.”