Franz Strassman and Marc DesRoches of the Somerville Alibrandis Seniors talk at Trum Field before their game on Monday, July 18, 2016. Staff photo by Matt Stone
The baseball world is abuzz with the David Ortiz Retirement Tour. Big Papi is tearing through the schedule, hitting for average, hitting home runs, hitting everything thrown at him.
But he is 40 years old. He is as slow-moving as late afternoon traffic on the Zakim Bridge, and it’s a daily challenge for the training staff to get his balky legs stretched out and wrapped up in time for the national anthem. The game is hard.
But Ortiz makes millions of dollars to play baseball, and he lives in a world of high-end chartered flights, five-star hotels and chefs who will knock your socks off. And when you’re Big Papi you never have to circle the Back Bay for a parking space. Somebody does that for you.
But what if, aw shucks, you’re not a big leaguer but you still have a jones for playing ball? In Greater Boston alone, hundreds of amateur players — their high school and college days behind them — continue to swing for the fences, race to the hole and throw the high, hard one. They play in the Boston Park League, the Intercity League, the Yawkey League. These are circuits for players aged 28 and over, 38 and over . . . and beyond.
There are All-Star games, tournaments, and trips to Cooperstown, N.Y., for exhibition games at storied Doubleday Field. And then there are the independent minor league teams, staffed with players either ignored or already released by big league organizations, but still willing to give it a go.
We chose three players of various ages from the various ranks and asked them: How long are you going to keep doing this?
Put another way, when will their own David Ortiz moment of clarity arrive?
Franz Strassman plays for so many different teams in so many leagues that you wonder if he’s ever shown up at the wrong park on the wrong night.
“No,” he said, “but I’ve shown up for the right game wearing the wrong uniform. It happens.”
Strassman expects to play 120 games this season, suiting up for Grossman Marketing in the Boston Park League, Somerville Alibrandis in the 38-and-over division of the Men’s Senior Baseball League, the Brockton Athletics in the MSBL’s over-28 division and three different editions of the Waltham Braves in the Boston Amateur Baseball League — the over-38 squad, the over-48 squad, and the over-55 squad.
He is also a Belmont police officer, a practicing attorney and owns rental properties.
And — wait for it — he is 58 years old.
“I may know the most about baseball, I may know the least amount,” said Strassman, who, in case you were wondering, is single. “The one thing I can talk about is that every year it takes a little bit more to still be able to play. And every year you play amateur baseball reinforces the love you have for the game because of the effort it takes to compete and play without injury. You can compensate for age by working out in the gym and eating right.”
From the looks of him, Strassman lives inside a gym. He is a 5-foot-10, 185-pound keg of muscle, a man of boundless energy who can rattle off his life story in less than two minutes — from playing the trumpet in the Belmont High band, to wandering out to California for a year, to his days at UMass, to becoming a cop, a lawyer, and then stumbling upon his Vision Quest: amateur baseball.
He had always kept himself in great shape, proudly pointing out that he still owns a suit he bought at Thompson’s Clothing in Amherst Center during his freshman year at UMass. “The pants still fit,” he said. “The jacket’s a little tight.”
But when he joined an over-30 baseball league upon turning 30, things really got revved up. He had played baseball in the BPL in 1980 and ’81 before moving on to softball, but his return to baseball was eye-opening, and for keeps.
As he likes to say, and says it often in one way or another: “If someone my age with my baseball history were playing in the Park League the first year I played, it means World War II would have still been going on the first year they played.”
Sure, Strassman has had problems along the way. He had elbow woes for nine years, and couldn’t throw without a brace.
“I tried everything, acupuncture, different medications,” he said. “It finally went away on its own.”
But he still pitches (“fastball, curve, changeup, slider”) and still plays the outfield.
So, how long is he going to play?
“As long as I can,” he said. “People put this artificial list on everything they do in life. When people say, ‘Geez, you’re too old to play baseball,’ those are the people who have given up. Look, there’s no reason for me to stop playing. No one wants to admit they’re a step slower, or can’t hit the ball as far. You can accept the reality of your age, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept other people’s limitations.”
Marc DesRoches fashioned a 14-1 record at Providence College in 1999, which happened to be the last year the Friars fielded a baseball team. He hoped he might be drafted, but he was coming off ulnar nerve surgery during the previous year, and, as he puts it, “I wasn’t exactly lighting up the gun.”
He contented himself, then, with amateur baseball. The Cambridge native had started playing for Somerville Alibrandis entry in the Yawkey League in 1996 when he was 19, and now, returning home, he decided to keep on keeping on.
Alibrandis became a Yawkey League power, winning 15 championships in 18 seasons, with DesRoches and his teammates growing older and wiser, but apparently not slower and weaker.
Now 39, he has transitioned to the Men’s Senior Baseball League.
“I don’t think I’m that out of shape yet,” he said. “I think moving to one or two games a week instead of three or four certainly allows the body to get rested. It’s paced out in a way that as you get older you can still play at a high level.”
But there’s more to all this than aching muscles. For DesRoches, it’s also family life. He met Michelle DeRoeck at the 40th birthday party for teammate Mike Powers in 2009, and then, on May 26, 2010, she showed up at a game. DesRoches is very clear on the date.
“That was it,” he said. “We’ve been together ever since.”
They were married Oct. 27, 2012 and now have a daughter, Morgan, aged 16 months. They’re building a house in Dracut.
“Family life is a good reason to move to one or two games a week,” said DesRoches, whose day job is as a placement consultant with Lightwave Partners in Waltham. “I still get to be a good husband and a good dad, and then on those couple of days I have a game I can concentrate on those and play as hard as I can.”
So, how long is he going to play?
“I’d say a couple more years,” he said. “Maybe when the second child comes along, that will be the writing on the wall.”
For Jake McGuiggan, the 2016 season began with him playing shortstop for the Brighton Black Sox of the Yawkey League. The 24-year-old Hingham native and 2015 Harvard University graduate had played independent minor league ball the previous summer, but alas: The Garden State Grays, a travel team in the Cam-Am League, went belly up after the season.
He hooked on with the Black Sox, who play many of their home games at Brighton’s Rogers Park, just a couple of relay throws from Harvard’s O’Donnell Field, where McGuiggan was a four-year varsity starter, hitting .303 for his college career.
This season, he was hitting .388 with a .474 on-base percentage in 10 games with the Black Sox, prompting a call from the New Britain Bees of the Atlantic League. And off went McGuiggan for another taste of indy ball.
“I’m playing with and against guys who have Double-A, Triple-A and big league experience, so it’s been great for me,” he said. “And it’s a chance to improve my game and take it to the next level.”
The next level would be for a major league organization to sign him for one of their farm teams. Improbable? Absolutely. But Kevin Millar and Daniel Nava, both of whom played on World Series winners with the Red Sox, got their start in the indy leagues.
“Playing in the Yawkey League was a good opportunity, because it’s really good baseball and it was a way to stay in shape for a potential independent season,” McGuiggan said. “And New Britain provided that opportunity.”
But McGuiggan also has a degree in government from a prestigious university, and his desire to work in baseball isn’t limited to the playing field. He has a Plan B: When/if he’s no longer playing, he will climb into a suit and tie, polish up his resume, and apply for jobs in Major League Baseball and its 30 teams.
So, how long will he play?
“I’m not setting a timetable right now,” he said. “I can only see myself playing beyond the next couple of years if it’s professionally, whether independent ball or affiliated. Hopefully that can continue.
“But I feel that physically and mentally I have a lot more to give to baseball at this level,” he said. “I’m not ready to stop.”