Since I’m a “man of a certain age,” I find myself cheering for athletes who continue to excel beyond their perceived expiration dates.
As a New York Jets fan I’m morally obligated to despise the New England Patriots, but I can’t help but admire 43 year-old Tom Brady.
Japanese soccer player Kazuyoshi Miura is 52, Atlanta Hawks guard Vince Carter is 43, Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara is 42 … professional sports is considered a younger person’s game but occasionally experience – and skill – eclipse trips around the sun.
Perhaps the sport that does the best job of keeping older guys in the game is golf. The Champions Tour has helped some 50-plus players make more money than they ever did on the PGA Tour.
But my favorite over-the-hill competition was the Senior Professional Baseball Association, which unfortunately had an extremely short shelf life.
Formed on May 31, 1989, it was designed to give big name stars age 35 and over a chance to keep on shining.
“This will be competitive baseball with a touch of entertainment,” SPBA founder Jim Morley told the Gannett News Service during the league’s introductory news conference.
Teams would be placed at existing spring training sites in Florida, with plans to expand to Arizona and California in the future.
The Northern Division featured the Bradenton Explorers, Orlando Juice, St. Petersburg Pelicans and Winter Haven Super Sox while the Gold Coast Suns, Fort Myers Sun Sox, St. Lucie Legends and West Palm Beach Tropics comprised the Southern Division.
The season started on Nov. 1 and consisted of 72 games with tickets running in the $5 range.
“(Fans) are going to pay $5 to see some of their idols play,” All-Star third baseman Graig Nettles said.
And there were idols aplenty, from players such as Fergie Jenkins, Rollie Fingers and Dave Kingman to managers Earl Weaver and Dick Williams. Curt Flood served as commissioner.
Considering modest fan support was all that was needed to stay afloat, the SPBA seemed like something that could become an offseason baseball staple.
“The people in Florida have a dollar to spend, and they don’t want to see Goofy all the time,” Pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee told Gannett.
I was excited about it but – since I didn’t live in Florida – never made it to a game and couldn’t watch it because the league’s modest TV contract didn’t extend much beyond SPBA cities.
Still, I looked forward to any highlights that occasionally popped up on ESPN and combed the newspapers for box scores every day.
For fans in the stands, however, the novelty quickly wore off.
While attendance was solid in the very early stages, it plummeted as the season wore on. By the time the Pelicans defeated the Tropics 12-4 in the one-off championship game, the SPBA was already on shaky ground.
All things considered the quality was decent – day-to-day players like Ron Washington and Mickey Rivers had a few innings left in them, and Milt Wilcox, Joaquin Andujar and Pete Falcone showed they could still throw strikes even if their heat wasn’t quite as hot.
Yet Florida-based baseball fans obviously preferred spring training ball to what they seniors were giving them.
When the SPBA regrouped for year two, only four of its original franchises remained and the league lineup fell from eight to six teams.
The circuit did, in fact, add franchises in Arizona (Phoenix) and California (San Bernardino), but after just a couple of months of play the wheels fell off.
Ownership and investor disagreements within with the Fort Myers team in December, 1990, forced the cancellation of that club’s remaining games, and the five other teams then voted to cancel the rest of season.
“Most of the time in this situation the reason is financial,” Morley told the Associated Press. “This isn’t financial. Fort Myers is far and away the wealthiest franchise. They have an internal partnership problem.”
The last day of the SPBA was officially December 26. Morley vowed that a new an improved version of the league would return in 1991, but it never happened.
Big league senior baseball was dead.
The window for a league like this was a small one, and I’m guessing it’s closed forever. With colleges starting in February and the World Series cutting into November, baseball is already practically a year-round sport anyway. I can’t imagine a real appetite for senior pro baseball.
If one ever pops up again, though, it’ll have my support.
As the late, great Satchel Paige is credited with saying, “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.”