Their field of dreams
It’s January in Florida and that means spring training is just around the corner. For a group of about three dozen men and women at the baseball field of the Bay Oaks Recreation center campus it is just another Thursday morning and that means it’s time for softball.
The Fort Myers Beach softball league draws enough enthusiasm there are typically two full teams of around 16 to 20 people. Everybody gets to hit each inning and there are no balls or strikes called.
The star of the show is Dick Pavlak, a Fort Myers Beach winter resident and member of the National Senior Softball Hall of Fame who will turn 89 in February. He still competes in the Roy Hobbs adult baseball tournaments held in Fort Myers a the complex of the Minnesota Twins.
Pavlak’s half-brother is former Major League Baseball pitcher Ron Nischwitz. Nischwitz spent four seasons in the majors as a reliever in the 1960s with the Tigers and Indians. He was teammates with Hall of Famers Jim Bunning and Al Kaline. He was managed by Hall of Famer Rick Ferrell.
“I got to see (Nischwitz) play against the New York Yankees. He pitched against Maris and Mantle,” Pavlak said. Pavlak said his family traveled from Ohio to Detroit to see Nischwitz pich. Over his career, Nischwitz faced Maris and Mantle five times each, striking out Mantle once and limiting each to one single a piece. In six clashes with the great Carl Yastrzemski, Nischwitz allowed one hit – a triple, two walks and struck him out once. He finished his career with a 4.21 ERA. His best season was in 1965 when he went 1-0 in 20 games and sported a 2.78 ERA.
Pavlak said Nischwitz still helps him with pitching. “Last fall, I was having trouble with my breaking pitch and he helped show me what was wrong.”
Pavlak still pitches in the 75+ Roy Hobbs league. “We won the championship in November,” he said.
Pavlak said he pitched 16 innings over seven games. He has been in the league since 1990. A retired engineer and developer, Pavlak said he works out a lot.
“A lot of stretching. I always stretch before games. A lot of guys don’t stretch before games and they pull a muscle.”
Pavlak was a Reds fan growing up in the 1930s and 1940s. His favorite players were Hall of Fame catcher Ernie Lombardi, outfielder Ival Goodman and pitcher Bucky Walters. Pavlak said his son Randy encourages him to keep playing ball.
As he is talking, a rare triple play is made on the field. The players cheer on the big sluggers in the league who go by names like “Butch” and “Big Mike.”
Howie Hoffman, a New York City native who likes pitching, jokes about the league holding their first night game.
“We’re old,” he said. “Most of us are asleep at night.”
Carl Grondin, a Michigan native who has been playing in the league since 2005, said it used to be a league for seniors.
“We’ve gotten lenient,” he said.
Now there are players in their 20s and 30s. The majority of them live in Fort Myers though not on the Beach. Many will go out around the beach afterwards.
“We depend on the northerners,” Hoffman said. “Otherwise it’s just me and him playing ping pong,” Hoffman says while referring to teammate Perry Bonnette of Fort Myers Beach.
The two like to kid each other about their favorite teams as Hoffman is a Yankees fan who grew up in the Bronx and Bonnette is a Red Sox fan originally from New Hampshire. Their buddy Grondin is a Tigers fan, whose team is currently undergoing a rebuilding project.
The league has players from as far away as Germany. Peter Langman, an author from England who has written the novel “Killing Beauties,” plays despite having Parkinson’s disease. Everyone says the game improves their health.
The players are mostly men though there are a handful of women. There will be some big swings and flashy plays in the field, and not-so-crisp defense as well. Everybody gives their best.
“It’s fun, it’s relaxing. We get exercise,” said league member Gary Yoskodich.
“This is laid-back softball,” Pavlak said. “I think the whole idea is you got to keep moving around. You can’t not stay active.”
“He’s our hero,” Grondin said of Pavlak.
For those interest in joining the softball league, which is open to all ages, the games are played every Tuesday and Thursday at 9:30 a.m into April. The games typically goes for two hours. The league recently held their first night game.