The rain has been making puddles all morning on the baseball diamond at Portage Park. It's 10 AM and there's a lull in the storm, but this doesn't look like a good Sunday to play ball. The Chicago Lite Seniors 12-inch softball team has seen a lot of rain outs, so they're prepared. Out come the players from their midsize luxury cars. Out come the folding beach chairs. Out come the cigars. The 13 men who showed up want to play, but a pulled muscle means more at 60 than at 16.
"Six, seven, eight years ago, these guys couldn't walk," says Gene Mozdzierz, 64, chief motivator of the team. He looks surprisingly like George Bush. "They're running now. I've got 'em in shape."
From 1949 to 1963 14 of the 29 men on this team played together as the Kolski-Boosters Semi-Pro Baseball Team, a traveling team that won ten league titles and the 1954 Illinois state title. That year they also placed seventh in the national semipro tournament, held in Wichita, Kansas. At the same time they were playing 16-inch softball, amassing 1,270 wins and only 170 losses, winning dozens of league titles and the 1958 state title.
After 1964, according to Mozdzierz, the team members were busy getting married and moving out of their old northwest-side neighborhood to the suburbs. But since he got them together again in 1989 the team has gone 150-29, winning eight senior-softball tournament titles.
Mozdzierz manages the team with Tom Hoffman, 67, who's arguing in the parking lot with Leo Twarowski, 70, about the rules in another softball league in which they play on different teams. Twarowski says Hoffman's team tried to break the rules by using unqualified pinch runners. Ted Hoffman, 62, is trying to calm down his brother.
"I've got the rules at home. I wrote 'em! I wrote 'em!" Tom yells.
"I never seen the rules," Twarowski says. "Umpire said you couldn't use the runners."
"Umpire's got nothing to do with it," Tom says. "He don't know the rules!"
"Tommy, Tommy, don't listen to him," Ted says.
"It's not your problem, so shut your mouth," Tom says. "He comes over here and starts talking, and I'm just over here--I got a beef, and I'm gonna defend it."
The Chicago Lite Seniors' semifamous member, John Skowron, 62, arrives. He's the uncle of former White Sox and Yankees slugger "Moose" Skowron. The team's pitcher, Skowron is also its champion stogie smoker and an expert on the rules of 12-inch softball for seniors: There's no sliding, and base runners can run through second and third. Runners go around home plate to avoid running into the catcher. There's no leading off bases. It's high pitch, with a 6-to-12-foot arc. "They're playing unlimited arc in some softball, which is stupid," he says.
It starts raining again, and Skowron gets up to talk to someone across the parking lot. Gene Parker, at 70 the oldest of the Chicago Lite Seniors, comes by. "I'm just an old man," he jokes. "Somebody put a chair out for me." He sits in Skowron's chair and tries to move it out of the rain. "We've gotta be crazy coming here on a Sunday morning," he says.
The rain's coming down pretty hard now, and a half dozen members of the team move into the back of Ted Hoffman's Blazer. Most of them grew up Catholic, and all of them grew up jocks.
"Hey Parker, you go to church?" Skowron asks.
"I went to church yesterday," Parker says.
"Well then why's it raining?"
Skowron says that whenever the team travels to play in tournaments--in Champaign; in Bettendorf, Iowa; in Mishawaka, Indiana; in Oshkosh, Wisconsin--the members always find time to go to church. "Maybe they pray for me," Skowron says. "I need all the help I can get. My ma always said to me, if you can play ball, you can go to church."
"You probably went to the track on Saturday, and you probably lost," Parker says to Skowron.
"I went to church," Skowron says.
"So you didn't go to the track?" Parker asks.
"Every trip we go on, I have to give Skowron food money," Ted Hoffman says.
"They should pat my buns," Skowron says, "because I'm working so they can collect social security money. I'm the only guy here who don't gamble."
Three of the Chicago Lite Seniors have given up on the weather and left. Mozdzierz tries to drum up support for a basketball game in the park's gym. The men are slow to respond. Finally Parker makes a move. "I think I'm gonna run around the gym a little," he says.
"You need it," Skowron says. "You've been slowin' down a little."
"That's because you've been taking me to the track all the time--I've been sitting down all the time!" Parker says.
"Oh no," Skowron says. "That was Teddy that did that." He adds, "We can needle the living hell out of each other. But if you walk out of here without a smile, there's something wrong with you. We talk about everything from soup to nuts."
Mozdzierz says the Chicago Lite Seniors will play as long as its members' legs hold out. Their original sponsor, a local beer distributor, died last year, but his will says his estate will sponsor the team as long as they keep playing.
"Gene [Mozdzierz] just pulled us together," Skowron says. "He called me up one night and said he's bringing the guys out of retirement. I almost flipped." He says Mozdzierz asked him, "Are you still playing ball?" "What?" Skowron replied. "Is the pope Catholic?"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.