by Benjamin Hochman
Originally published by the Denver Post
He was an old man who played baseball in a league for old men and he was the oldest of them all and he liked this. He arose each morning as incandescent as the sun itself and he carefully tucked in his uniform top and pulled his black socks high and crisp to his knees and was ready.
Lou Rotola turned 81 years old on this day, June 19th, 2015, and he drove an hour south from Fort Collins to Denver to play baseball.
“I can’t get a better gift, truthfully,” he said.
In his car he often listened to audio books. The old man absorbed “The Old Man And The Sea” by Ernest Hemingway. The descriptions of perseverance made sense. The story was of an old man lost at sea who caught a great fish. And he had to exceed his own waning strength to bring it to shore. The book seemed to be written not only for him but about him.
“I may not be as strong as I think,” Hemingway’s old man said. “But I know many tricks and I have resolution.”
The old man at the baseball field said: “That’s my line. That’s my line, no question about it.”
There was a league for 50-and-older and a league for 60-and-older and he’d play in both but, really, he’s in a league of his own. The old man would often power through a doubleheader during the sweltering summer, as he did on his birthday and said in a strange way that he liked the heat. He swung a fluid bat and ran out every batted ball because if he is going to play baseball he is going to play baseball.
“I’ll give you a quote on Lou,” said Mark Danuser, who runs the operation at Here To Play baseball fields, near East 64th Avenue and Washington Street. “He will say: ‘Mark, can I play two games? I don’t have that much time left.’
“Flat stomach, straight back, 81 years old, my god. A lot of guys are just hoping to be able to walk and not be fed their dinner by a spoon, and he’s out there playing ball.”
“I love the pressure”
The old man can pitch. And he often plays first base. Sometimes, a routine groundout to first becomes a bang-bang play. The old man scoots to the base just in time and then flashes a wry smile to the pitcher, because what’s there to worry about? More often than not though, he’s in command. In an extra inning of the second game of the doubleheader on his 81st birthday, he decides to not hold a runner at first. The old man recalls the batter’s penchant for hitting toward right field. The cocky runner takes a big lead but moments before each pitch the old man loudly pounces his feet in the dirt, as if he was going to cover first for a pick-off. The runner hesitates and loses a step. The old man loves the game and the game within the game.
From afar he looks regal on the bag because he is tall and thin and wears the uniform; the uniform doesn’t wear him. But up close the old man is an old man. His hair is white like the batter’s box and his narrow face is held up by long and wrinkled skin, tanned by the sun hanging above the outfield.
He is reminded of the old man in the skiff on the gulf. The fisherman’s hand would cramp and stick and look like a clenched claw. And his backbone was weak and unstable.
“I can identify with it, that’s for sure,” the old man says in the dugout during a game. “I got it all. By no means can I put the uniform on and be pain-free or ache-free. Once I get going here, I put it together. I embrace it rather than deny it. This is what you have, Lou, so make the most of it. And before you know it, I’m playing two or three games.
THE OLD MAN AND THE FIELD
“I just can’t imagine I’m playing. Not because of my age, but the fact that I get to play, with guys who like to play. And I’m leaving it on the field, oh, I’ll tell ya. And you know, you can’t sleep that night, whether you hit the ball good or not. You go over it in your head. When you don’t hit the ball on the barrel, you think — jeez, I should have waited on that swing. I love the pressure.”
Inspired by the greats
When the old man was a young man he played baseball in the sandlots of Brooklyn. Other days he would hustle over to Ebbets Field and pay 60 cents and sit in the outfield bleachers and Duke Snider would be there, right there, and sometimes he would get The Duke’s autograph. He would watch Pee Wee Reese at shortstop and Jackie Robinson at second. Campy would catch.
When the old man was just 17, he went to Florida to try to become a ballplayer, too.
He participated in a camp for 30 days in front of scouts and played in games with umpires and under lights, neither of which he’d done before.
“The Phillies and the Cardinals liked me,” he said. “The Cardinals showed up in Brooklyn at my house, and I signed the contract, $200 a month.”
He played and played hurt. His knees and his throwing arm. He played in Allentown, Pa., and Sanford, Fla., and Ardmore, Okla.
“I think I hit the Mendoza line,” he said of his poor hitting. “I started talking to myself, and I said — maybe it’s not in the cards. So 19 years old in 1954, to 2004, I never touched a baseball bat or glove.”
The old man was by then an old man.
But he flipped through a sports magazine and saw an advertisement for an adult baseball league and he knew.
He’d lived a life and yet “I was reborn,” he said of playing baseball, once again.
No retirement in sight
The old man digs his coal-colored cleats into the light-brown dirt, the right cleat four inches from the back of the batter’s box chalk. He swipes four half-swings in anticipation. The other day he’d smacked a pitch over the left fielder’s head — “shocked the hell out of him,” the old man recalled — and he shuffled to second base.
The team’s name, FOSSILS, screams across his chest. He plays for many teams in many leagues but on this day he is a Fossil. Sometimes he uses a wooden bat, because he likes the feel and there’s something very Ebbets Field about this. On this day, he’s using a metal bat and when a pitch comes he sticks out his tongue just so. It’s a natural reaction and habit and he swings and pings and scurries toward first base. He runs like an 81-year old. As he slowly moves down the chalk line, he grits his teeth wide and it also looks like a smile. He hits it hard and well and it chops fast at the shortstop, who bungles the ball.
“Way to go, Lou!” someone bellows.
A younger teammate trots out to first base in a helmet to run for the old man.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he says, standing regally upon the bag.
He is good but certainly not one of the best. And there are days when the pitches are just too fast. The old man at the field compared himself in this regard to the old man and the sea.
“A man can be destroyed but not defeated,” Hemingway wrote.
“That’s a great line — that could be me, Lou,” the old man says. “Very distinct difference. I’m not defeated today. I hit the ball a couple times on the nose, a few times I didn’t. … You stay with it.
“Retiring is not in my mind. Like, it’s not in my mind that ‘I guess I won’t play when I get old.’ Because that’s almost beyond me. … Die with your spikes on or something.”