by Bill Barrows
Sunday’s Ice Cream in the Park event was the perfect setting for an Old Timer’s Softball Game that actually became a tribute to men spanning about five generations of Wabash area softball players. Mayor Bob Vanlandingham was asked a few months ago to see if this game could become a reality by Mary Delauter, one of the organizers of the event in the park.
As one of the former players who played on teams coached by the mayor, long before he entered politics, I felt honored when he asked me along with Steve Dyer, another longtime softball player to help him organize the game. Weeks were spent contacting players, setting up practices and researching old rosters and teams.
We set up three different practices to at least give the players a chance to workout, take some ground balls, fly balls and batting practice. A good number of players attended each scheduled practice session. Things were coming together. After the first one, I couldn’t decide if I was more euphoric for still being able to hit, field and throw (albeit with less power, range and accuracy) or relieved for just getting through it without getting hurt. I’m guessing a lot of guys felt that way.
One of Mayor Vanlandingham’s, I mean, Coach Vanlandingham’s goals was to honor people who created an athletic tradition where brothers played with and against each other and fathers felt proud, still able to play when their sons were able to join them on the field at the City Park in Wabash. Some of the players who played in the game started playing in the mid 1950s. Some look like they could still play at a high level even today. Most, me included, were very grateful to simply be asked to participate.
The two teams were introduced to a crowd of people assembled that reminded me of softball in its heyday here in Wabash. The Mayor coaching one team, his longtime protégé (me) coaching the other. The stands on both sides of the field were filled from dugout to dugout. Plus, I’ll bet there haven’t been that many automobiles lined up past the outfield fences since the mid 1980’s. It was impressive. As I stood along the 3rd base line looking at the crowd, it brought back a lot of good memories.
Those of us playing in the game had a tremendous opportunity to watch as many former players who were not playing in the game were introduced as they entered the field. Watching a younger brother walk out and hug his older brother on a ball field is an emotional site that was witnessed today. That emotion was honest and sincere.
The best moment of the day occurred next. Starting pitchers Jerry Hipsher and Dave Ervin escorted longtime umpire Ray Drudge, who unfortunately is now blind, to home plate where Mayor Vanlandingham talked about their relationship cemented on that same ball field after years of working together professionally. We all watched and listened as the mayor presented him with the key to the city. Those of us near home plate were witness to the raw emotion of seeing a son, who also played the game, recording a proud family moment while watching his elderly father being honored. Tears flowed, including my own. It was a very powerful and special moment.
Then the game began. Over the course of 6 short innings, relationships were rekindled. Guys who didn’t know each other very well seemed to become friends with a kid’s game as a common thread. Men who had never had the opportunity to play on the same field due to the generation gap shared the playing field and numerous memories. And grandsons got the chance to see that grandpa can still play a game that they play now as youths. On the field, there were still flashes of brilliant athleticism that surprised even the men who provided that brilliance.
Some two hours later, we walked away from Vaughn-Rantz Field with smiles on our faces knowing that we succeeded in entertaining those who faithfully attended. No one had become injured and we will all live to tell even larger tales about our softball careers than before. Oh yes, there was a final score. 6-3, which was a small detail, compared to the smiles, hugs, and high-five’s exchanged throughout the day. Who won? All of us who still care about a game that we love. And…..the protégé learned a lot from the mentor.