Larry LaRue: Tacoma team’s world softball title is one for the aged

Staff WriterOctober 30, 2013 

Fresh off a world seniors softball championship this month in Las Vegas, players for Joeseppi’s, including former Pierce County Executive Joe Stortini, center, show off another trophy won before car-pooling to Pierce County Council chambers for recognition.

DEAN J. KOEPFLER/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Bill Lavigne is an outfielder and keeps his legs in shape with wind sprints, which he runs at three-quarter speed two or three times a week.

A bad back sidelined him this month, and in January he’ll undergo surgery for spinal stenosis. When he talked to his surgeon, he had one question that was answered to his satisfaction.

“He says I’ll be able to play ball next year,” Lavigne said.

That’s important. At age 81, one never knows when you’ve made that last running catch.

Lavigne played this season for Joeseppi’s, an 80-and-older softball team, with all players between the ages of 79-81, sponsored by Joeseppi’s Italian Ristorante in Tacoma. The owner, Joe Stortini, is the team sponsor, coach and occasional player.

“I coached baseball for 25 years, and now I’m coaching guys my age,” Stortini said. “The only difference is, I never have a player’s parents complain now.”

It’s a punch line delivered with a smile and good timing. The game of baseball, and now slow-pitch softball, has long been a big part of Stortini’s life — and those of the men who play with and for him.

“It’s something we’ve done all our lives. I played in cow pastures as a kid,” infielder Everett Gish said. “We still love playing, and playing well.”

The Joeseppi’s team played in a league this season that included 55-and-older teams. Giving away 25 years to some of their opponents made competition challenging.

“It made us play a faster, quicker game,” Stortini said. “Balls hit to the outfield, we had to get them in quicker. Playing younger teams got us ready for playing the best teams in our age group.”

The team finished 27-26 in league play. It was one of a select group of teams invited to Las Vegas early this month to contend for a world title against other 80-and-older teams from around the country.

What followed was a spectacular seven-game run to a championship.

“We batted .675 as a team,” Stortini said. “In seven games, we turned 11 double plays. We won all seven games.”

Bill Wheeler, a Gig Harbor man who has played with Stortini since 1991, said they faced the 2012 World Championship team — a Southern California group — twice .

“We’ve played them many times before and might win one game in four,” Wheeler said. “This time we beat them twice, including in the championship game. We just had a great run in those seven games.”

They outscored their opponents, 115-80. One player, Norman Huletz, batted .792.

Still, these guys are … well … old.

“You worry about injuries, sure — things like hamstrings and knees — but you worry about those at any age,” Wheeler said. “All of us are in good shape. All of us played baseball in high school. Most of us played in college, and some guys played in the minor leagues.

“We’re good players who learned the game, and we still play with passion. We still have fun.”

Jim Petersen, a second baseman, was a part of four double plays the Joeseppi’s team turned in the championship game. He has played baseball or softball since he was eight.

“I’m 80 now and still love it,” Petersen said. “We go to games, and our wives come to most of them, and it’s like a family on the field and in the stands.”

There is needling, though that, too, has changed with age. When Wheeler began kidding one teammate, it was about being frugal.

“You know how many times he reuses a tea bag?” Wheeler asked. “Four!”

Stortini buys the uniforms and pays the tournament entry fees. Truth is, his players say, when they’re on the road they pay for hotels — but Stortini often will show up after a game with enough hamburgers or sandwiches to feed everyone.

“I’ve played with this team for 15 years, and in ’98 we won the championship at the 65-and-older level,” Petersen said. “We’ve always been competitive.”

But the team has changed, and not just because of injury.

“We could put together a pretty good All-Star team of guys who’ve played with the team and died over the years,” Gish said. “We’ve got a couple of guys pretty sick right now who we’ve played with.”

It’s a reminder that, playing at 80, mortality is a statistic every bit as real as on-base percentage.

But these guys aren’t trying to cheat death.

They’re determined not to cheat life.

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