John Stegner started a softball league in East Aurora seven years ago, but stepped away from the game once he moved to Cheektowaga. He wouldn’t stray from softball for long, since he became bored after a few years without the sport. It was time to build again.
He turned his focus to founding the 50+Senior Wood Bat Softball League this year in Cheektowaga, but made one major rule change from his previous league. The teams exclusively use wooden bats, slowing down the game to a safer level for the players, age 50 to 77.
“Older men, they can’t play metal bat softball anymore,” Stegner said. “The balls come too hard. Their reflexes can’t handle it. This is a place for them to play.”
The league is one of a handful to stray away from metal bats, which have become the standard for college teams and the norm for softball and little league. There are other rule changes, like allowing courtesy runners for players who can’t run as well, to make sure no one feels overwhelmed.
“It’s the only league that fit my age really,” said Steve Holtham, 64. “I live in Clarence, and they don’t have anything that’s as accommodating. Everything is fast ball.”
Through word of mouth Stegner formed four teams for the inaugural season, with games taking place Saturday mornings at Cheektowaga Town Park. The goal is to get to six teams by 2017.
It may take another year to drum up interest for players, but Stegner has already gotten calls from church leagues and other senior leagues about the advantages of playing with wood bats.
“There were leagues with 40 teams that were just so sick of the metal bats,” Stegner said. “One league switched 120 teams, they took some heat for it, but they switched to wooden bats because of insurance questions.”
Although the league, established as a non-for-profit, will be lucky to break even this year, Stegner’s goal is to raise enough money from the $40 playing fees to donate to local Vietnam Veterans organizations. A Vietnam vet himself, the cause is one that is close to his heart.
“There are some organizations that work with guys with problems in nursing homes,” Stegner said. “We want to throw some money their way.”
A handful of other veterans joined the league when they found out the eventual goal. Even if participation doesn’t increase in year two, the league will be closer to positive cash flow since they won’t have to purchase as much equipment as they did this year.
The season concludes with the first championship Saturday at 10:30 on the fifth field at Cheektowaga Town Park. There were bumps in the road, but Stegner is happy he’s gotten things off the ground.
“In time more experienced players will come out,” Stegner said. “This was a lot more of a struggle … but this year has been a lot of fun.”