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David Weinman: Best part of baseball is making new friends

My first memory of baseball is from observing the game on television while visiting my grandfather in Indiana. He said he was watching the Indianapolis Indians game. I was 4 or 5 years old. “Are they real Indians?” I asked. I knew a lot about Cowboys and Indians, but nothing about baseball.

We moved to Syracuse when I was just turning 8, and all my new friends played baseball incessantly during the summer. I had been wearing baseball pajamas to bed for the last three years, so I was ready to be a real player.

I was pretty bad at first. Most of us are. It’s not that easy to hit a baseball. Former Pirates great Willie Stargell explained it well: “They give you a round bat and they throw you a round ball and they tell you to hit it square.”

Although I never was able to achieve my dream of being a professional player, I was good enough to pitch on semi-pro teams in the Syracuse area. Later, when I moved to Buffalo to go to dental school, I played in our Buffalo MUNY AAA league. When I was 27, I began to develop arm trouble. It was time to switch to softball, and I became an outfielder.

I’ve played softball every summer since. Even the summer my right hip went bad, eight years ago. I was lucky enough to have a high-tech hip replacement that has allowed me to continue to play. Now that our two daughters are grown, I have been able to extend this old passion of mine a bit longer. A few years ago I learned about a group that travels all over the world organizing softball tournaments for people 50-plus years old.

When I first saw the email regarding tournaments to be held in Madrid and Barcelona, Spain, I thought there was no way my wife, Mindy, would want to go. It would mean closing our dental practice for two consecutive weeks, something we had never done. We didn’t know any of the people involved or how it would be run. To my surprise, Mindy was interested.

Soon I received my uniform in the mail, dark blue with a red “USA” across the chest and on the hat. I was assigned to one of the two squads of guys from around the United States, and we scrimmaged at the old Olympic baseball stadium in Madrid. It reminded me a little of the former Rockpile here in Buffalo. We played our tournament at a different location, which had two beautiful, new artificial turf softball fields. The Madrid teams were primarily young men and a couple of young women. Few spoke English, but our team’s translator, Kiko, helped a lot.

After a week in Madrid, we took an eight-hour bus ride to Barcelona. There we once again scrimmaged in an Olympic baseball stadium, this one from 1992. It was a beautiful stadium, with a perfect real-grass field, the way baseball should be. Later that week we played teams from Barcelona and from Germany. We learned there were quite a few native Cubans on one of the teams, the “Industriales,” and again they were all much younger than 50. Those guys gave us our closest game, but we Americans, old as we were, left Spain undefeated, and with lots of new friends. I was named “best defensive player,” a real thrill since it was my first trip.

Since then I’ve played twice in tournaments in Hawaii, and our next venture will be tournaments in Ireland and Scotland this summer. I love the game, there’s no doubt about that. But the best part, and you only learn this later, is the friends you make along the way.