Senior leaguers get ready to play ball in Warren

Michigan Senior Softball League seeks players, sponsors for two divisions this year

By: Brian Louwers | Metro | Published March 17, 2021

 Patrick Chmiel, 68, of Warren, and Roger Ricci, 83, of Grosse Pointe Woods, said the Michigan Senior Softball League will have two divisions for the first time this season. Games are played at 10 a.m. on Tuesdays  and Thursdays beginning May 18 at Halmich Park in Warren.

Patrick Chmiel, 68, of Warren, and Roger Ricci, 83, of Grosse Pointe Woods, said the Michigan Senior Softball League will have two divisions for the first time this season. Games are played at 10 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning May 18 at Halmich Park in Warren.

Photo by Brian Louwers

METRO DETROIT — If you ask Bob O’Brien how long he’s played ball, he’s quick to tell you.

“Forever,” said O’Brien, 78, of Shelby Township.

He hails from Houghton in the Upper Peninsula, where it wasn’t uncommon to find snow on the field when it came time for spring baseball. He said he started playing young, began league competition at the age of 13 and never really stopped.

“I have not missed a year until last year because of COVID, and also because I wasn’t feeling so great,” O’Brien said.

Eight years ago, he joined the Warren-based Michigan Senior Softball League and now serves as the league’s vice president.

They’re seeking players 68 and older for teams in two divisions. Games will be played on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 a.m. beginning May 18 at Halmich Park in Warren, on 13 Mile Road between Ryan and Dequindre roads.

“The league had always been a 70 and older league. After I had taken over from Phil (Wendel), we started saying the league was getting too old,” said Roger Ricci, 83, of Grosse Pointe Woods, the league’s president. “The guys who were in their 80s were staying on, and we weren’t getting any new blood in.”

He said the league board lowered the age to 68 to attract new players and eventually dropped it to 65.

“We got an influx of young, 65-year-old guys who made it very competitive and we quickly saw that it was a peril to the older guys,” Ricci said.

They bumped the age back up to 68 and are now planning to split the teams into two divisions to better accommodate the younger or more competitive players, along with the rest.

Ricci said they’d like to have at least four teams in each of the divisions. All teams are drafted by the league, and the managers sit in on the draft.

“We try to do this so that we balance the teams,” said Ricci, who grew up in Detroit’s Palmer Park and said he has been playing ball “all my life.”

He said he played in tournaments until he was about 65 and then took a five-year hiatus because of work commitments that kept him from traveling.

Ricci said he found and joined the Michigan Senior Softball League when he was 70.

“I can recall as a kid saying I would take up golf or tennis, because those are the only games you can play in your senior years,” Ricci said. “Obviously, that’s been proven false because softball is still out there.”

Warren resident Patrick Chmiel said he found the league three years ago.

“I was recovering from cancer, saw the ad in the paper and it really was a lifeline for me,” Chmiel said. “I’m in it for the long haul.”

He’s now the league’s treasurer.

Chmiel started playing in the league at 65, taking advantage of a drop in the age requirement. When he joined, he was one of the young guys. At 68 now, he still is.

He’s been “grandfathered” in, but Chmiel said he took a “34-year hiatus” from playing ball before he joined the league at Halmich.

“Of 120 guys, we have quite a few that are very competitive. We have quite a few that are here for the social aspect, which is good,” Chmiel said. “We’re an inclusive organization. We never turn anyone down and we offer an opportunity to play for everyone. We have a wide range of characters.”

Art Plonka, of Sterling Heights, joined the league at 70. He’s now 74.

“I’ve been playing ball since I was 7,” Plonka said. “I kind of never lost a step as far as running or hitting is concerned. I didn’t have to relearn anything.”

Plonka, who serves as the league’s special events coordinator, said many of the players come in with experience and that some, like him, never stopped playing. Even last year, when the league shut down due to the pandemic, Plonka and others played in another area league. By finding pickup games around town, he said he was still able to play six days a week last summer.

“The truth is the camaraderie and the fun that you have outweigh the amount of work you have to do to get in shape to enjoy it,” Plonka said. “The friendships I made in softball are incredible. I probably met 300 or 400 guys throughout Michigan, in Georgia and Alabama, at national tournaments, all competitive.

“It’s incredible the friendships you make here. They’re really lasting,” Plonka said.

One of the highlights for him came when a 94-year-old batter in a playoff game hit a grand slam.

Plonka said, “How often do you get to mob a 94-year-old guy for hitting a grand slam in a playoff game?”

Frank Garoufalis, 82, of Sterling Heights, is on the mend after a bout with the coronavirus, but is already looking forward to playing this year.

“I played hardball until I graduated from Pershing High School,” Garoufalis said.

He played until he was 28, had a long and successful career in horse racing as a jockey agent and now feels right at home in the league.

“It’s a great league and the guys, everybody is so friendly,” Garoufalis said. “You know what I mean? They welcome all new ballplayers. It’s a really nice league.”

The cost to play is $75 per player for 20-25 games with paid umpires. That includes a jersey and a hat. The league also has a pizza day during the season, a banquet at the end and an all-star game. A one-game knockout playoff is planned.

The Michigan Senior Softball League will host an open-air meeting at 1 p.m. on April 20 at Halmich Park. Players will be evaluated during two pickup practices on April 27 and April 29. Team assignments and practice times will be announced the week of May 10, with opening day slated for May 18.

League sponsors in 2019 included Hopcroft Funeral Homes, American House, Mainline Plumbing & Sewer, Bright Side Dental, Ram’s Horn, Wm. Sullivan & Sons Funeral Directors and Rinaldi Sausage.  

The league is looking for additional sponsors and players. Anyone interested in sponsorships or joining the league can call Pat Chmiel at (313) 801-2378, Bob O’Brien at (586) 850-3001 or Roger Ricci at (313) 770-4545.