VENICE — The late sportswriter Roger Kahn’s best known book is about the Brooklyn Dodgers: “The Boys of Summer.”
Well, meet the self-styled “Boys of Winter” — a group of about 30 men age 80 (mostly) and older from Venice, Englewood and North Port who get together three times a week to play softball.
Think of them as the Venice Codgers.
It was Tom Ortwein’s idea to try to get a group of older players together. He’d played on local senior softball teams for men 65, 70 and 75 and up and had found himself surrounded by players a lot younger than he was.
He decided to call around to gauge interest among his fellow octogenarians for a more relaxed game.
“I was surprised at the response,” he said.
So three years ago, interested players started getting together on the Miss Venice Fast Pitch diamond at Wellfield Park on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to play a five-inning game.
Ortwein, 89 — “90 in August” — sends out a reminder before game days, or a cancellation if the weather is going to be bad.
The one time he made a mistake, said Kaye Richey, 89, was when he emailed that the temp was predicted to be 40, which it was — in Pennsylvania, where Ortwein is from.
Other than that, Richey said, “Tom’s a good leader.”
Teams are selected on game day from whomever shows up.
“You never know who’s going to be alive,” Ortwein said.
If there are enough players, he said, they play with five outfielders, to get more guys in the game. It closes the gaps to be covered, too.
They make some concessions to age. Less-mobile players can request a substitute runner. There’s a second first base for the batter to run to, to avoid collisions. There’s no sliding.
Still, there’s the occasional tumble. Ortwein has a first aid kit handy.
An inning ends on three outs or when the at-bat team tallies five runs. Monday’s score was 15-12, reflecting the focus on offense. It included one bases-clearing home run.
Though they keep score, the idea is to get some exercise, have some fun and, in the grand tradition of men and sports, abuse each other.
When there was some confusion about who was supposed to be covering second base on a play there, the shout from the dugout to the “official” second baseman was, “He bought a ticket; he’s allowed to watch.”
“We’re hardcore,” Richey said.
Ortwein certainly is: He played in a game on Oct. 2 and had lung cancer surgery the next day.
A week and a half later, he was back on the field.
“This is my rehab,” he said.
Lloyd Brown, 81, is one of the young guys. He said plays for the exercise and the camaraderie of players his own age. He also goes to the gym a couple of days a week, he said.
Other players could be overheard talking about a Tuesday morning round of golf.
The softball season ends when the local season does and those who aren’t full-timers head back north. There will be a luncheon before then, and the players will make a donation to Miss Venice Fast Pitch for the use of some equipment.
Then in the fall, Tom Ortwein, at what will be the age of 90, will get to work on the Boys’ next season.
When he fully retired from nearly 50 years at all levels of Pennsylvania’s schools, he said he decided he wasn’t going to take on any responsibilities, and was “going to do what I want to do.”
“And now I’m doing this,” he said. “But I love it.”
“It’s what keeps us alive,” Richey said.