Bill Hansel stood at the plate, batting left-handed, and worked the count to two balls and two strikes. The next pitch in this softball game dipped toward home plate and he dropped his arms and cut his bat under the pitch. Bat speed was clearly evident. There was the crack of bat meeting ball, and the ball soared straightaway to right field, some 260 feet away.

The right-fielder turned his back to the plate, looked up and watched the ball clear the fence. Hansel trotted around the bases. It was not just one, but two, fence-clearing homeruns Hansel would hit this weekday morning. He would also stretch a sharply-hit single later in the game into a double, swiftly touching first base and pulling up unchallenged at second.

Hansel, who lives in Milford, started playing baseball when he was a kid. He quit playing some 30 years later when he was 42 years old. But he began playing ball again four years ago.

Today, he's 68 years old.

* * *

They arrive early on this Thursday morning and make their way to the four softball fields "” each with its rich brown infield dirt and emerald outfield grass "” at Riverside Park in Anderson Township, all carrying baseball mitts, some carrying bat-bags, coolers, lawn chairs.

For the most part, they are dressed in shorts and team T-shirts, courtesy of Eastgatespring, their league sponsor, a Carespring facility in Clermont County that offers senior living facilities.

"Those are my boys," says Julie Moores, of Eastgatespring, whose father, Irvin Arszman, 73, plays on one of the teams. "They're just great guys who love to play."

Many of the 100 or so softball players this morning at Riverside are beyond graying. Their hair has turned white. More than a few are bearded, some sport pony-tails. They fan out and take batting practice, play catch, warm up.

This is the Anderson Senior Softball League, a men's softball league of 112 players, every player at least 65 years old, many in their 70s and a handful in their 80s. They arrive with a competitive spirit and a collective sense of humor. One of them arrives at Riverside and drops a red bag in the middle of the walkway where the backstops of all four fields converge.

"We have a new defibrillator," he announces. He is not joking, and yet those within earshot laugh.

Some of their waistlines are a bit wider and their step may have slowed, but the poise is still evident in their comportment. Some run better than others, but most can field and handle anything hit their way. The only trouble comes when a ball carries farther than their quickness, whether chasing down a fly ball in the outfield, or catching up with a sharp grounder racing toward a hole in the infield. Yet, their instincts are solid. With a runner at first, Jim Pearson, the pitcher, on one play turns a quick comeback grounder to him into a double play, wheeling and throwing to the bag behind him and the shortstop relaying the throw to first.

That's because for the most part, these older gentlemen have all played baseball and softball before, most in their youth. They have not come late to their sport.

This is not shuffleboard.

Ron Ward, who just turned 75, lives in Pierce Township in Clermont County and has a short pony-tail, is one of the founders and is president of the league.

"We have guys from Indiana, Northern Kentucky, from all over," Ward says. "We encourage everybody. These are guys who have continued playing. I played softball until I was 55. I played with young kids, 25, 30 years old. I played second base and those kids would try and take you out. One day my wife told me I've got to play with my peers."

So that's what Ward did "” join a league and softball team for 55 and older. He continued there until he was 67, but then began to notice the difference in such things as reflexes and quickness in those 12 years separating the ages.

"I could see the difference," says Ward. "I couldn't move as fast as them guys."

In 2003, Ward and a handful of others looked into another softball league for older players. They rounded up 48 players and began with four teams. A year later they had five teams, with 70 players. Now they are up to 16 teams, with 112 players (14 players on each team), playing games on Monday and Thursday mornings. The math gets a little tricky here. There are eight teams that play on Monday, another eight on Thursday. The guys who play on both days, play on different teams, one team Monday, a different team Thursday. Guys who choose to play on just one of those days play on just the one team.

No one necessarily plays on the same team from one year to the next. Managers choose from the players "” based on ability "” like a sandlot game. Each manager takes a turn and chooses a player from the entire pool before the start of each season, April through August.

There are 11 position players in the field, including four outfielders (instead of three) and a short-fielder stationed behind second base. And there are further concessions to age. There are two first bases and two home plates to avoid collisions. A throw that beats the runner home means the runner is out; no tag is necessary.

Concessions are also made for disability or even sheer tiredness. A designated runner may run for a player with, say, a total knee replacement. On a recent morning, a designated runner was sent to first when the manager announced, "Somebody run for him, he says he's getting tired."

And injuries do happen and are attended to promptly. This morning, an outfielder had a collision with a batted ball. It struck him in the face. Play was stopped, and teammates gathered around him. A cloth was produced, given to him and he applied it to his nose. The cloth turned red.

"I'm gonna run him up to Mercy," said a woman walking him to the parking lot.

* * *

Hansel, the sharp-fielding shortstop who hit two homeruns this recent morning, is retired from General Electric and began his career as a third-baseman, has played in other senior softball leagues.
 

"This league is more fun," he says. "I just come out to have fun."

Jim Pearson, of Fort Thomas, Ky., is a pitcher. He wears a protective motorcycle helmet on the mound and is 71. This is his fifth year with Anderson Seniors, after a 20-year hiatus away from playing ball. He'd been playing ball since he was 9 years old and played into his 40s.

"I love it," he says. "It's my life."

The Anderson league is not the only one in Greater Cincinnati. There is at least one in Northern Kentucky, another in Blue Ash. Not many. Doug Carlisle, region director for athletics for the Cincinnati Recreation Commission (CRC), says that while the CRC does not have a senior league or designated team, nor does it keep track of the ages of players, "I do know we have many, many players 50 and older who do play in our softball leagues." He said the CRC has about 225 teams playing softball in the spring league, involving about 4,500 players.

Ed Masminster, of Delhi Township, has been playing ball since he was 16. The retired Cincinnati firefighter played with his dad, then played with his son. He's 68 years old and plays with the Anderson league and an indoor league.

"I've done this all my life, I just kept with it," he says. "I do it for the camaraderie. I enjoy every game."

John Parrott is 69 years old, a sure-handed third baseman who takes a few steps across the infield before throwing to first, is in his fourth year with Anderson Seniors. He began playing ball at 16 or 17, played until he was 35, quit, then began playing again when he was 50. He quit again at 55, then resumed play at 65.

The reason for starts and stops? "I was raising kids," he says. He is a retired graphic designer.

"I just love playing," he says. "I also play racquetball three times a week. "

Dale Dietrich is 76 years old. He played in the Reds organization in the early 1950s, in Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina. Retired from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he resumed playing ball when he was 64. Like Ron Ward, he'd noticed that as ballplayers got older, differences in age could make a big difference. Playing softball, the difference between 35 and 50 may not be as great as the difference between 50 and 65 or 70.

"I play it because I love it," he says, echoing most everyone else who plays.

Hansel stood near the bench and stared out at the field and that emerald-green outfield grass.

"If you're out there looking down at all that grass, it's all good," he said.