Jeff Helminiak / Peninsula Clarion 
                                Phyllis Erickson of Soldotna pitches during senior softball at the Steve Shearer Memorial Ball Park in Kenai on Tuesday.

Jeff Helminiak / Peninsula Clarion Phyllis Erickson of Soldotna pitches during senior softball at the Steve Shearer Memorial Ball Park in Kenai on Tuesday.

‘In it for the fun’

Seniors hit the field for friendly games of softball

There are moments like these:

“You deserve to flare up your plantar fasciitis with that move.”

“Yea. I’ll pay for it later.”

And moments like these:

A batter laces a screaming line drive at the thigh of the pitcher, who stabs the ball cleanly from the air with catlike reflexes.

A senior softball group from the central Kenai Peninsula has moments that run the gamut from skilled to comical, but the underlying motive is always fun.

“It’s not about the skill, it’s about the fun,” Mark Manuel, 68, of Kenai, said. “Some people are amazing for how fast and good they are for their age. Some are just poking along.

“Everyone is in it for the fun.”

The group was started by Paul Montenieri in 2010. Manuel said Montenieri is a softball enthusiast who played all the way through last summer but was not able to continue this summer due to health issues.

Randy Richeson, 71, of Soldotna, said he is thankful Montenieri started the group. Richeson, who is retired and has been with the group since 2010, said he fell for softball coaching in a church league.

“I just love that there’s a place I can still play softball,” he said.

The group meets Tuesday mornings in the Kenai-Soldotna area for about two hours. Up until this year, the ballfields in Soldotna were always the meeting spot. Manuel said a change in management had the group trying to settle on a location. Tuesday, that was the Steve Shearer Memorial Ball Park in Kenai.

The group is for ages 50 and up, but anyone is welcome as long as they are looking for a fun game of softball where a score is not kept and batters swing as many times as they want until they hit the ball. Overrunning the bases also is allowed to avoid the quick stops that can lead to injury.

Tuesday, the group had 10 people — five women and five men. Sharon Roesch, 63, of Sterling, said low numbers generally keep the competitive fire down. When 20 people show up, though, things can change.

“Everybody gets a little more competitive,” said Roesch, who has playing since she retired in 2013. “People try and outrun each other to the bases.”

There are limits to the hard play. The old ballfield in Soldotna was surrounded by a short fence, leading to a rule.

“Once over the fence is good,” Roesch said. “Two, and you’re out.”

The rules vary based on how many people show up. Tuesday, there was a five-person team in the field. The other five would provide a batter, pitcher and catcher. Since first base was not occupied, the batter was out if the pitcher reached the rubber with the ball before the batter reached first base.

Manuel, who’s been involved for at least four years, said the games remind him of his childhood, when kids would get together at the ballfield and make up the game based on how many were present.

The seniors interviewed all are glad to have this game in the time of the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those over 65 are at greater risk of hospitalization and death due to COVID-19.

The players Tuesday all kept their distance, when possible.

“Nobody is hugging, unless they collide on the bases and touch,” Richeson said. “It’s a pretty safe way to get together with people.”

Manuel had what he calls his COVID kit in the dugout — sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer and Kleenex. Nobody wore a mask to play softball.

“It feels safe out here,” Manuel said. “I’m not a scientist, but there’s a pretty good crosswind to blow exhalation away.”

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted the numbers of people playing. Last summer, participants could reach the high teens. The two sessions this summer have not approached that.

Richeson said half of the players just come to Alaska for the summer, so they’ve decided not to make the trip during a pandemic.

All the players would like to see more show up, emphasizing the game is about fun. Richeson said he had a knee problem last summer, meaning he could only pitch and hit. Another player would run for him.

“We try to cover for each other,” he said.

The game is a welcome break from the tail end of winter, when all but essential functions closed down due to the coronavirus.

“This is great, absolutely great,” Richeson said. “It was a long wait in isolation for most people, especially in Alaska.”

Roesch said she spent March and April at a remote parcel of land.

Richeson said his wife is a doctor, so he was already drilled in the best practices to prevent the spread of a virus. That didn’t make March and April any easier.

“We have a good friend in a nursing home,” Richeson said. “My wife and I would walk 2 miles to the nursing home to talk to her through the window. That was our workout.”

Manuel works part time at Walmart so he said he must mask up when he’s on the job. When just shopping for himself, he said if somebody approaches in a tight aisle, Manuel will turn around. He also gives shoppers space when they are selecting food and wishes others would grant the same courtesy.

Those worries recede when he is playing softball with his friends on a blue-sky day in the 60s.

“You can’t complain too much on a day like today,” he said.

Manuel said anybody wanting to play can call him at 907-690-2060 and he can give the times and field for a Tuesday game that has become even more refreshing during these tough times.

“It takes on a little different spin, definitely,” Manuel said. “We don’t have to be COVID captives.”

Jeff Helminiak / Peninsula Clarion 
                                Judy Wroe of Soldotna bats during senior softball at the Steve Shearer Memorial Ball Park in Kenai on Tuesday.

Jeff Helminiak / Peninsula Clarion Judy Wroe of Soldotna bats during senior softball at the Steve Shearer Memorial Ball Park in Kenai on Tuesday.

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