Villages softball gets back in full swing

Karen Malinowski, of the Combos, places a bat back in the rack as softball kicked off at Buffalo Glen Softball Complex. Softball is back in The Villages after taking a hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sometimes it’s the little things that hit home. For Don Tenne, it came with the act of watching someone change shoes. “Only in The Villages do you see a 70-year-old man putting on his cleats,” said the Village of Fenney resident, gazing out across Monday’s first action at Saddlebrook Softball Complex. “It’s so great to be here.” The ping of bats and pop of leather are being heard around the softball diamonds once again this week as the summer season makes its long-awaited launch. Monday’s Division 4 schedule at Saddlebrook marked the first games in The Villages after a 12-week layoff necessitated by COVID-19 concerns. Buffalo Glen joined the fray Tuesday, needing an extra day to let its fields dry from a weekend of steady rain. “It’s been a long time,” said Division 4 President Dave Bigelow. “So many of these people we see twice a week. We’re good friends, so it’s nice to see them all and see how they’re doing.”

Even better, anticipated storms held off both days until after games finished.

“We’re just happy to have softball back,” said Andrew Esposito, coordinator for The Villages’ softball leagues. “I spoke to most of the division leadership last week, and they were very happy to get back out there. They were happy to play some organized games again.”

Hey, even DiMaggio made an Opening Day appearance. That would be Jack DiMaggio, Pelicans right fielder who also wears the Yankee icon’s No. 5.

“I had an Uncle Joe,” he noted Monday, “but not that one.”

It turns out this DiMaggio might have preferred Joltin’ Joe’s kid brother, anyway. The New England native is a Red Sox fan — where Dom DiMaggio played 11 seasons.

On Monday, DiMaggio rapped out two hits as part of a 13-9 Pelicans win over Bigelow’s Pacers. “It just feels good to contribute,” he said.

The big play, though, came from Pelicans manager Bernie Cook, whose semi-diving catch charging in from left field recorded the game’s final out.

“It’s been wonderful,” said Cook, who lives in the Village Palo Alto. “Division 4 is about fellowship. Nobody fusses at each other.”

Cook had only one quibble with the day: “I’m from West Virginia and I’m a hugger,” he said. “It’s hard for me to not hug people.”

In keeping with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, players were urged to keep proper distancing on site. Dugouts and bleachers were blocked off with yellow tape, leaving players working to stay distanced behind the fences.

Gone for now, too, were the traditional postgame handshakes.

“We’ve adjusted to social distancing,” said Joe Grossman, a former Division 4 board member who plays for the Hawks. “We’re all trying to do the right thing. Now you see good friends you haven’t seen in a while. You want to give them a hug, and you can’t do that.”

As might be expected, the ongoing virus circumstance led a handful of players to sit out the summer as an extra precaution. At the same time, Grossman noted, that was offset somewhat by seasonal residents who stayed here rather than return north to more stringent restrictions.

“Because of the situation, I’m seeing a lot of people I didn’t expect to see,” Grossman said. “But there’s also some we’re not seeing because they’re playing it super-safe. That’s OK. It’s just good to be back.”

Indeed, the consensus was that softball with a few restrictions was better than going even longer without softball.

“In the last three months, I’ve done every chore I hadn’t done in eight years,” said John Cilento, manager of the Spurs. “It got to the point where my wife actually said, ‘There’s nothing else for you to do.’”

Said Bucks manager Dave Bronte: “There’s only so many reruns you can watch.”

For Bill Caputo, Monday’s return may have had extra meaning. February surgery on a broken finger forced the Bucks outfielder to miss the final weeks of last season. Then as he was cleared to start testing the finger again, he suffered a mild stroke.

“He’s gone through so much,” said his wife, Martha Moore. “But he’s had zero permanent physical damage.”

Almost by way of confirmation, Caputo’s fly ball a few minutes later dropped between two Pistons outfielders to plate two runs.

Tuesday was Moore’s turn on the diamond, playing in the ladies’ combined Division 1/2 league at Buffalo Glen. Ladies’ Division 3 also got its first swings.

Linda Soos, a Village of Fernandina resident, came back from visiting her son and grandson in South Carolina last week to get prepared.

“I could not wait to get back to The Villages to play softball,” said Soos, a 12-year veteran who plays for D3’s Three Up Three Down. “I couldn’t wait to get outside and breathe some fresh air — and to socialize again. These are my good friends.”

Donna Jablonski, who lives in the Village of Antrim Dells, had to wait a few extra weeks for her first softball season. “I hadn’t played in 40 years,” said the new member of the Batitudes. “But it’s Division 3 — the fun league. The gals have been great.”

Tenne, another Bucks member, took to a form of shadowboxing in his efforts to stay in form. A pickleball enthusiast as well as softball, he’d find a far corner of a parking lot and go through the motions of playing the racket sport. Then he’d pull out a bat and work on fine-tuning his swing.

“Believe it or not, it actually improved both,” he said. “I learned I need to hit the ball harder in pickleball, and I need to make sure I have that slight upswing when I’m batting.”

Practicing is one thing, of course. Playing games is another.

“Now it means something,” Grossman said. “It adds a little bit of fun to it.”

Marveled Cilento: “We’re still playing a game that at this age I never thought I’d play again.”

Senior writer Jeff Shain can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5283, or jeff.shain@thevillagesmedia.com.