Leon Speroff, 82, anticipates the pitch with laser focus that arrives just a bit to the outside. He swings, later describing the “sweet, solid crack of the bat,” with an even “sweeter, beautiful line drive into right center field.”
On this sunny day last May, Speroff enjoyed being the first opening day batter on the Vancouver Metro Senior Softball Association’s (VMSSA) new first class ball field at Pacific Community Park in Vancouver.
“I was in the moment on a perfect day, and I felt like there was no way I would not get a hit,” said Speroff, retired medical doctor and professor emeritus with Oregon Health & Science University. He has also authored 22 books. “But I couldn’t have dreamed a better hit, a solid, strong line drive that will live in my memory forever.”
Speroff, who said he just had the best season he’s ever had since joining the softball league in 2006, mirrors the feelings of many of VMSSA’s players age 60 and older. The volunteer-run softball association, which just finished its 24th season, is all about camaraderie, friendship, and good-spirited competition. Men and women can join. There are no trophies, no end-of-season tournament boasting MVPs, and no self-indulged egos on this softball league.
“Everybody wins,” said Speroff who also went through intense and successful cancer treatment in 2012. He said he gained so much support from his fellow softball teammates. “A touch from another player, a pat on the back, or the way they look at you – it lifts you up.”
“Their gifts of laughter and camaraderie always lifted my spirits,” said Speroff of the support going through cancer treatment. “My appreciation and gratitude are enormous.”
The VMSSA season runs for 16 weeks May through August. There are eight teams, and each team plays one doubleheader a week rendering 32 games a season. The 135 active members, age 60 to 84, come from throughout Clark County, Longview, Kelso, and the Portland Metro area. New teams are drafted yearly by managers to keep league members mingling with each other in an effort to continually enhance the league’s connections and camaraderie.
“Forty percent of league members play tournament ball around the Western United States,” said John Aarhus, 74, president of VMSSA and softball player. “We do keep track of standings,” added Aarhus. “And winning teams are mentioned at the end of each year.”
Many VMSSA players are lifelong sportsmen. Some tow a fun background from high school and college ball with years invested in adult softball while others are new to the game. Bringing new knees, shoulders, and new hips to the game is no problem since members can request runners, as long as you make it to first base. And to keep things safe, there is no sliding into base. Players will “run by” the base to avoid collisions.
“To stay active, you keep moving,” said Dave Keim, 70, VMSSA treasurer and league member who took a 15-year hiatus before returning to softball at 62. He was 50 when he read about VMSSA forming and still too young to join. Family, life, and raising kids are among the reasons for taking a break from ball. “When I was in my 20’s I would have said you’re crazy to think I’d play ball at 70.”
That certainly changed, and Keim, one of the league’s beloved members enjoys every single minute of the joyous game. “Now your 20-year-old head tries to get into your 70-year-old body to get moving!”
Aarhus explained that members do engage in friendly competition, and this means fun banter and good-natured jibing, which always results in further connection and, of course, laughter.
“We have the attitude that we want to win,” said Keim, “but if we lose, we are just happy to play.”
World class softball player Maury Wilson joined VMSSA in 1997 when he was just 70. He had been playing on a team he had organized in the Vancouver City League. Prior to that, his background includes starting in softball in 1946 while in the Navy and continuing on to play for more than 17 years while in the Air Force. His talent even took him to play in Naples, Italy on an All-Star team for two years. Wilson also has a lot of experience playing on civilian teams in Los Angeles and Ohio.
Now 90, he retired senior ball at 85. “I suppose I like to challenge myself,” he said about continuing to play the game. “I enjoy the competition and also the associations with guys of like minds.” Wilson said he feels fortunate to have been able to play senior softball with various teams and highly recommends joining the VMSSA.
“I have a son, 61, this year, but I am certain he harbors the same mind set I had when I was first approached to play in VMSSA, which is ‘I ain’t playin’ with a bunch of old codgers!’ Surprisingly, there are many, many players in VMSSA that are extremely talented athletes, added Wilson, “and to top it all off, the relationships we establish will last a lifetime.”
Wilson said the game further provides a positive mental and physical diversion from everyday life. “This is an outstanding opportunity for younger seniors to be active,” he said. “My gosh, we have doctors, lawyers, teachers, farmers, butchers, CEO’s, and on and on – we do not discriminate!”
Speroff said the senior softball league provides motivation and support to overcome life’s problems and to battle the challenges of aging. He said every base, hit, catch, and throw confirms the ability to play while bringing back the joy of youth. And being a part of a team becomes like family.
“There are guys from all walks of life,” said Speroff. “And yet, when we come together on a softball field, we are family.”
New Field To Rock The Community For The Next 55 Years
The VMSSA formed in 1994. Clark College was the league’s venue for games for the first 20 years. In 2014, an agreement was formed to develop a new softball field with Clark County after changes were implemented to better meet the needs for students at the Clark College field.
This sparked the mission to build a new field to call home.
The VMSSA proceeded to raise more than $300,000 for their new state-of-the-art dream field at Pacific Community Park, which will also serve the wider community when not in use by the league. The money was raised thanks to a devoted collaborative effort and generous donations from fellow active and inactive ballplayers, individual donors, friends, and family. Generous in kind donations were thanks to businesses and construction companies, which made a huge difference too. Riverview Community Bank and Sunlight Supply are among the largest donations.
“There were many who thought we couldn’t raise the over quarter million dollars required for this project,” said Speroff, also chair of the fundraising committee.
Construction began for the new field in February 2016 with opening day May 23, 2017.
“Projects like this often never see the light of day,” said Scot Brantley, project manager for Clark County Public Works Engineering and Construction,” but VMSSA’s dedication and commitment made it happen.
Brantley added that the softball association also had excellent vision, creative fundraising efforts, and a will to simply deliver a highly successful project “like none other I have worked with during my 10 years with the City of Vancouver and Clark County. “VMSSA faced all tough Clark County inquiries head on and built a first class facility that will be used for many generations.”