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They Ache, But Still Circle Bases To Left Fielder, 83: ‘For God’s Sake, Murrell, Just Stay Out There’

The pitcher, Bill Van Dine, was hurting so bad on Monday that he spent the day in bed. His arthritis had flared up again. He is 80.

On Tuesday, game day, he rose from his bed and took the mound. “I take 11 pills a day,” said Van Dine, who started his softball career 61 years ago, playing for Coleman Florist back in Rock Island, Ill. “I don’t know what the hell they do, but they work.”

Murrell Loy, 83, was back in left field, self-effacing as ever, telling the guys for the umpteenth time that he was thinking of quitting. “My reflexes aren’t what they used to be,” he said.

Van Dine, the team manager, told Loy what he tells him at every game: “For God’s sake, Murrell, just stay out there and do it.”

Here in Sun City Center, a huge retirement community on Florida’s Gulf Coast, December means softball, and the players - John DePace, 74, who got two artificial knees last year; Jim Morrison, 69, who is wearing out his artificial hip; Bob Friedman, 69, who had a coronary bypass operation last May; and all the others, aging, battered, but unbowed - are out there and doing it for yet another season.

There is no clock in baseball, and on a rutted diamond ringed by palm trees, these retired truck drivers, railroad workers, milk delivery men, bank officers, accountants, engineers, car salesmen, schoolteachers and police officers are boys again: the boys of winter.

To watch a Sun City Center Softball League doubleheader on a warm day in December is to see what modern medicine - and the Medicare money that helps pay for it - can mean: Five teams of men in their 60s, 70s and 80s are still in the game.

Van Dine’s paid job was as an inspector for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but his true avocation was always softball. He ran the youth leagues in Rock Island and organized a men’s national tournament that drew 30,000 fans each summer. But he was not too optimistic about his team’s chances going into Tuesday’s game. “We haven’t been hitting the ball at all,” he said.

In the first inning, however, with two men on base, Wes Stockett, the 68-year-old shortstop, stepped up to the plate, taking a new, pigeon-toed stance that he had copied from watching Fred McGriff of the Atlanta Braves on television. He socked a long one over the right fielder’s head, and jogged toward home, grinning ear to ear.

“Not an ounce of fat on him,” commented his mentor, Bob Smith, from the bench. Smith, 73 and a former semipro hockey player, was the one who got Stockett out on the field six years ago.

Stockett had just moved to Sun City Center from Pennsylvania. He thought his ballplaying days were behind him. “I had a sort of breakdown,” he said. “My father had just died.”

The first day on the diamond, he pulled muscles in both legs and ended up stumbling around with a cane for a week. It is the ritual indoctrination into the league. Softball - the games, the guys - brought Stockett back to life.

“Bob Smith - he always told me how good I was,” Stockett said.

Smith, a truck driver from New Hampshire, also brought John DePace, a bank officer from Massachusetts, into the league. “He kept telling me about the softball field,” DePace said. “I had been sedentary for 40 years.”

In the summers, when the two New Englanders migrated back north, they played for the same team in the Cape Cod Oldtimers League.