Diamond women

BY BOBBY PEPPER
Daily Journal

Tina Verell enjoyed every opportunity during her youth to grab her bat, cleats and glove for a game of slow-pitch softball.

Verell is now 35 years old, and she feels the wear and tear of softball games past on her body. The Tupelo resident's knees ache and there's soreness in her joints and muscles.

But Verell does have a remedy to eliminate those aches and pains. All she does is grab the bat, cleats and glove and find another softball game.

“You can't get it out of your system,” she said. “It's something you always want to do.”

Verell and about 250 other women age 35 and older showed this past weekend that it's still fun to sweat and play hard and get dirty. They competed in the Amateur Softball Association Women's Masters 35-Over Slow Pitch National Championship, a double-elimination tournament featuring 17 teams representing 11 states at Tupelo's Eastwood Complex.

No matter if they're from Mississippi, Pennsylvania or California, the thirty- and forty-something softball players have had to juggle their lives, family, friendships, health and careers to continue playing the sport they love.

“We feel lucky that we're 35 and still going,” Verell said. “A lot of people aren't that lucky.”

Local teams

Lee County was represented on two teams Outback/B & S Auto, made up of players from Tupelo and Columbus, and Queens 35 and 40 Something, comprised of players from Lee and Monroe counties. The other area team was the Pontotoc Fallen Stars.

Shirley Ray of Nettleton, the tournament's ASA representative, said the Masters 35-Over level is one of the levels for women sanctioned by the nation's governing body for amateur softball. She said said the local teams were assembled just for this tournament while visiting teams like the national champion Lakerettes of Conneaut, Pa., keep a core group of players together for years.

Still, the local players went into the tournament with plenty of playing experience.

Verell, a member of Outback/B & S Auto, plays in the Tupelo Parks and Recreation adult leagues as well as women's and co-ed (men and women) tournament teams. Mary G. Partlow, a Tupelo resident and a first baseman for Queens 35 and 40 Something, said playing softball lasts nearly all year.

“Last year my season did end until November because I played co-ed,” said Partlow, who turns 36 Thursday. “We started practicing in February and then league begins play in April. When the league ends, we play tournaments and then co-ed.”

A year of softball usually include plenty of league games during the week and weekend tournaments that run through a blistering summer afternoon and continue late in the evening.

Melinda Hood, a 41-year-old Pontotoc County resident who a league and tournament player in Lee County, said anyone who enjoys softball will play it regardless of time and location. She said she keeps her bag filled with bats, fielding glove, batting gloves and cleats in her car.

“My stuff stays in the trunk because we're on the go so much,” she said. “You never know when you're going to pick up a game of softball. I've been in tournaments with people I didn't even know, but I love to play so much.”

Sport of their lives

Most of the local players never had the chance to play high school or college softball. Slow-pitch softball didn't become a sanctioned high school sport in Mississippi until the late 1980s; by that time even the 35-year-olds had graduated.

“They didn't have a team when I went to high school,” said Ann Whitfield of Tupelo, who played third base for the Queens. “If I had played in high school, I might would have gotten a scholarship to play somewhere.”

Instead, Whitfield developed her passion for softball through youth leagues and then adult leagues during the summer. In her adult life, Whitfield has played in district, state and national tournaments.

Whitfield said she isn't close to “retiring” from softball. “I look forward to it every summer,” she said.

Partlow said she tried to give up softball 11 years ago after the birth of her first child, but couldn't stand to walk away. “It's a love that you have. You just don't want to give it up,” she said. “It also keeps you healthy. And there's a bond you have among the people who are actually doing it.”

Some players often make softball a family adventure. Partlow and Whitfield have two daughters each and they said it's a thrill for them to hear their children cheering when Mom gets a base hit or makes a scooping catch for an out.

“They love it. The kids enjoy going to the games,” Whitfield said. “They have their own chairs and they sit there and watch the game.”

Partlow said softball is beginning to rub off on her children. “My 5-year-old wants to go everytime I put on an uniform,” she said. “I do believe she learned how to walk on the softball field.”

Verell, who plays catcher for her local teams, said softball is a common bond in her family.

“People ask me, You still play,” and I say, Yeah, I still play',” she said. “My husband's 41 and he still plays.”

One benefit from playing softball, especially on a successful team, is the trips made by those teams to district, state and national tournaments.

Delise Teague, a 40-year-old teacher from McNairy County, Tenn., makes the drive to Tupelo to play for the teams she's been a part of for four years. She said softball has opened the way for new experiences.

“I'm definitely devoted to the sport,” she said. “It helps keep me in shape, it keeps me young and it helps keep me focused. I've played in two countries, nine states and over 60 cities. Softball has taken me to a lot of places I wouldn't have a chance to visit. I've met people I wouldn't have othewise met.”

Age no factor

Whitfield recalls a moment when a teammate was informed that she was “too old” to play softball.

“She's 47 and we play together every year. We look forward to it,” Whitfield said. “They told her last year she was too old to play, and I mean something went all over her for them to tell her that. She hit the ball clean to the fence.”

Ray, the national tournament's ASA representative, said the women who continue playing softball into their 30s and 40s do it for the enjoyment and to stay in good health.

“They still have a love for the game and they want to keep in shape,” she said. “They enjoy the camaradarie of their teammates. A lot of them have been playing together for years.”

Verell said it takes good conditioning to stay healthy in softball. As the years increase, so do the likelihood of injuries while diving for a ball, running the basepath or sliding into a base.

“You're sore the next day after you get through but you don't feel it when you're playing,” she said. “We just shake it off and keep playing. You're going to have the injuries, but we go out there and warm up, say our prayer, and hope for the best.”

After dropping their first game, Outback/B & S Auto came back with two wins before being eliminated and finishing in a tie for seventh place. The Queens 35 or 40 Something and Pontotoc's Fallen Stars dropped two staight and finished tied for 13th The team that eliminated both Outback/B & S and the Queens from the loser's bracket, the Traders of Collierville, Tenn., fell to the Lakerettes in the championship game.

Partlow said she doesn't think any one of the tourney players is ready to “retire.” They all enjoyed playing too much to give it up.

“It's for the love of the game,” she said. “I'm going to go on as long as my knees and back will let me go and they wheel me out to the field.”