By R. Alan Richardson
There’s a reason why grown men cry after watching a great baseball movie. There’s a reason why they scream at stroke level volume when their favorite team wins the pennant or the World Series. There’s a reason some grown men continue playing baseball into their 30’s in a league in Athens. They will tell you it’s simply for the love of the game. This is a love nurtured from the first tee-ball game they ever played, the first game of pitch with mom, dad or big brother in the backyard, and the first plastic bat they were given on their second birthday. It’s as much a need of their inner being as needing to eat.
The Athens Area Men’s Baseball League fills that need for many of these young men still longing for something more than the boring game of slow-pitch softball. It’s a highly competitive league with rosters filled with former high level high school, college, and even professional players. Morgan County sports several former Bulldogs on their roster, the Polecats.
The teams play by major league rules except for a few minor changes. For example, since many of these men have families to support, they have outlawed running over the catcher and breaking up double plays. Substitution rules are lenient in order to get all the players as much time on the field and at the plate as possible.
The Polecats are 10-1 and in first place with the lone loss coming at the hands of second place rivals The Desperados. In the loss the team was uncharacteristically cold at the plate (only one hit), wild on the mound, and somewhat sloppy on defense. It was described by several players as their worst outing of the season. However, Catcher Rob Brown is having a fantastic season at and behind the plate. He leads the league in homeruns, hits, batting average, and OBP (on base percentage). More importantly than the loss is that the Polecats remain solidly in first place.
Manager and player, Danny Tillery, has been involved with the team since its inception. He said, “The league started around 2000 in Greene County with 10 teams and has been highly competitive for a long time. When I took the team over we were terrible the first two years, but we began to improve and recruit some better players. We have a number of former Morgan County Bulldogs playing for us and we have really improved. Some of these guys were late bloomers that have worked hard to be competitive in this league. Others are from Gainesville, Oglethorpe County, and Athens. Things really began to turn around for us in 2013 when we won our first League Championship. We won it three straight years up until last year when our archrivals, The Desperados, beat us in the finals”.
It’s nice to win, but the Morgan County boys were asked why they really play in the league when at the last game there were about 10 adults, two children, one baby, and one dog as fans. Here are their responses.
Cornelius Garrett: I love baseball. I have since I was a little kid. When I’m on the field I feel young again. It’s a passion I hope to pass down to my kids.
John Milledge Wells: For the love of the game. I’ve grown up playing my whole life. It’s something I’ve always known and loved.
Jeffrey Crosby: Your title pretty much sums up the reason I play in the league. I developed a love for the game as a young boy and I still love to play. If you asked my wife, she would probably say she is ready for me to give it up but she knows how much the game means to me.
Tim Azar: I play in the league because all I have played since high school is slow pitch softball and it was boring. There is no challenge in hitting a beach ball floating over the plate. Defense is my favorite part of the game, and it’s hard to enjoy defense when people are hitting homeruns every at bat, so I had to switch back to the real sport.
Bill Wayne Hutchins: I grew up playing baseball and it basically taught me everything I needed to know about life. This game is life broken down into nine innings, and every second of a game can be directly related to life in the real world. I have baseball to thank for so many things. Without it I wouldn’t have a college degree, lifelong brotherhoods, or an unbeatable mindset to name a few. This league just gives me an opportunity to live in that atmosphere for a few more years.
Danny Tillery: I love the game! I’m like a nine-year-old kid when it’s time to put on that uniform. Where else can you get that? We’re all very competitive. It gives us a platform to get away from grown-up life for a little while. What’s really cool for me is that my son studies the game and gets to watch us play. That’s just cool.
Taking a conversation from one of the most famous of baseball films ever made, “Field of Dreams”, starring Kevin Costner as Ray Kinsella and Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe Jackson, this was the dialogue.
Ray Kinsella: I bet it’s good to be playing again, huh?
Shoeless Joe Jackson: Getting thrown out of baseball was like having part of me amputated. I’ve heard that old men wake up and scratch itchy legs that been dust for over fifty years. That was me. I’d wake up at night with the smell of the ball park in my nose, the cool of the grass on my feet… The thrill of the grass. Man, I did love this game. I’d have played for food money. It was the game… The sounds, the smells. Did you ever hold a ball or a glove to your face?
Ray Kinsella: Yeah.
Shoeless Joe Jackson: I used to love travelling on the trains from town to town. The hotels… brass spittoons in the lobbies, brass beds in the rooms. It was the crowd, rising to their feet when the ball was hit deep. Shoot, I’d play for nothing!
I guess for the Polecats this is their Field of Dreams. They play for one reason; the love of the game.