If it’s a Tuesday or Thursday morning, members of the Rattlers’ baseball team are carefully running the bases and misjudging fly balls at Mission Manor Park. What do you expect from the boys, who are over 60 years in age?
They’re just out there having a good time.
“We just have fun. We’re not serious,” said George Gafner, a clinical social worker who works in the Pima County jail.
Gafner is one of the young-at-heart guys who, for the love of the game and camaraderie, join the Rattlers and use the south-side park as their home base.
The Rattlers are one of three Tucson baseball teams made up of men over the age of 60 in the informal league.
There are rules against sliding or stealing base, and they play up to seven innings, two shy of a regular game. The atmosphere is noncompetitive but don’t tell that to the rucos, a Spanish-slang word that means old guys in English — a term some of the bilingual Rattlers use themselves.
They play hard, as much as their bodies allow them. Their aluminum bats ping when they hit the ball. They hustle down the base paths, and they field the balls with ganas — the will to win. They use lime-green baseballs, easier on the eyes.
These guys play because they can. They also play because they have long loved the game on the diamond field. Some of them, when they were youngsters, may have had aspirations to play pro ball. But these days their joy is being outside, running, fielding and, yes, striking out.
“We’re still little boys when we come out,” said Jerry Wessel, 60, who joined the team six months ago. “It’s what we grew up with.”
Wessel grew up in Dyersville, Iowa, where the film “Field of Dreams” was made. The movie, starring Kevin Costner, was about a man who, despite the disbelief and opposition of his family, built a ball field in his corn field with the dream of playing baseball with past players. And people came.
For the Rattlers, Mission Manor Park, at South 12th Avenue and West Drexel Road, is their field of dreams. Thursday the Rattlers were expecting to play against Old Pueblo, but the opposition didn’t show up. Instead the Rattlers split into two and played a game under a cool, sunny sky.
“It’s just desire,” said Ismael Cordoba, 63, who has been playing since he turned 60.
He’s one of the younger players.
The oldest player is Juanito “Johnny” Martinez. He’s 80, still pitches and is faster on the base paths than most of his teammates.
Martinez is also the team manager. He took over the duties 20 years ago.
Martinez is from Douglas and came to Tucson in 1949. He served in the U.S. Air Force for four years in the 1950s and spent additional years in the Naval Reserves and National Guard.
He’s also an over-eager batter.
“Ay, Johnny,” yells out one of his teammates after Martinez swings and misses a pitch thrown over his head. “It’s too high. You need a ladder,” yells out Efren Obregon in Spanish.
The chatter on the field is in both Spanish and English. There are even a couple of Canadians on the Rattlers’ roster.
Mel Casey is from British Columbia, and this is his sixth winter in Tucson and his third year with the team.
He loves baseball and the informality of the Rattlers.
“They’re on the same mode, win or lose,” said Casey, 65.
The team is so informal, some of the players are simply known by their nicknames: Pajaro (bird), Güero (blonde), and Manotas (big hands). And one player is known as Cananea, the Sonoran city he is from.
Several players previously played in more structured leagues. Larry Malcolmson played in a fantasy league but finds the Rattlers a more enjoyable experience.
The fun quotient is high. They leave their worries off the field. It’s all about baseball.
That’s the game the Rattlers play. As they should. They’re still youngsters.