'Softball heaven:' Collier County senior league has grown considerably over the years

Roger LaLonde Staff
Collier County Senior Softball League Commissioner Dan Balagna also plays in the Majors Division of the league. He is shown pitching with a protective screen in case a hard line drive is hit his way.

Photo by ROGER LALONDE // Buy this photo

Roger LaLonde Staff Collier County Senior Softball League Commissioner Dan Balagna also plays in the Majors Division of the league. He is shown pitching with a protective screen in case a hard line drive is hit his way.

Roger LaLonde Staff
Al Murray, 84, delivers a pitch behind a protective screen in the AAA Division of the Collier County Senior Softball League. AAA and the Majors divisions total 200 players who compete on Tuesday and Thursday at Veterans Community Park in Naples.

Photo by ROGER LALONDE // Buy this photo

Roger LaLonde Staff Al Murray, 84, delivers a pitch behind a protective screen in the AAA Division of the Collier County Senior Softball League. AAA and the Majors divisions total 200 players who compete on Tuesday and Thursday at Veterans Community Park in Naples.

As the softball arcs and spins downward, John Ketterman, 65, isn’t thinking about the two stents placed in his arteries on Jan. 28. Instead, he readies to crack the ball for a base hit.

He is a good example of how ardent Collier County Softball League players are about their sport.

An outfielder, Ketterman said, “I love playing, I only missed one game.”

Howard Lowe, 65, said, “When I am out here I am in softball heaven.” Some 200 softballers hit the fields at Veterans Community Park off Immokalee Road on Tuesday and Thursday each week in a 20-game season.

Their ages range from 50 to the mid-80’s. In its 24th year, Max Hurt recalls how he and Jim Kirby got the league started.

“We just wanted to put a group together to play a few games,” he said. “We started with four teams.”

There are now 14. Before the season starts in January, players are evaluated and placed on teams by their softball skills.

Dan Balagna, league commissioner, said there are two divisions, the Majors, with six teams and AAA, with eight.

“The Majors includes players with better skills and some can hit the ball 340-350 feet,” Balagna said. “AAA, with players matched to their skills, is very competitive. Having two divisions gives players more opportunity to compete.”

Balagna, 69, plays in the Majors as a pitcher and infielder.

Shelia Gave, 70, is one of four women that play with the men. She has been playing for 15 years.

“I was accepted by the men (in AAA) right from the start,” she said. “Some women on the other side of the fence weren’t necessarily nice.”

She also has been playing on a 70-year-old-plus travel team, made up mostly of players from Canada. She looks ahead to two more tournaments in April with them, but they had to move up to the 75-year-old class, due to other team members’ ages.

Al Murray, 84, is a standout for his AAA team.

“I started out as an infielder at 40, but when I moved to Florida 20 years ago I got into pitching,” he said.

In the last 13 years he has been on 52 national championship teams. He has played internationally, competing in places like Cuba, Taiwan, Hawaii and Spain.

Pitchers in the league are protected by a heavy-duty screen that they step behind after they deliver the pitch. Unfortunately for Murray, a line drive he thought would hit the screen got by and by reflex he tried to catch it.

“I tried to make a backhanded catch and the ball hit the higher part of my wrist and I missed two weeks,” he said.

Tols Mihailoff, 72, plays in the Majors and travels on top-level teams. “I play on a national team, the Florida Legends, and they are one of the best teams in the country,” he said. He also plays on The Lightning, made up of area players that have won six out of the last eight Florida championships.

Registration for each player is $110 that covers the season and summer pick up games.

Ted Todd Allstate Insurance and Physicians Regional Hospital are key sponsors, with Collier County Parks and Recreation giving the league preference on the fields, Balagna said.

“Ted Todd provides about a third of the money needed for the league,” Balagna said.

All 14 teams wear Ted Todd Insurance shirts, in varying colors.

Todd, 59, also plays. This is his third season.

“The first year I played the team won the championship,” he said. “The next year we came in last. It’s the luck of the draw,” when teams are selected.

Each team is named after its manager. Stew Casterline’s Team Casterline won the first half of the Majors division, going 9-1.

“The teams are very close in talent, but we have a pretty solid defense and have won a lot of close games so far,” he said. In the game on Feb. 13, the team scored five runs in the last inning to win.

Tom Gardner’s Team Gardner won the first half of the AAA season with an 8-2 mark.

The seoncd half winners in each division will go against the first half winners for the overall championship at the end of March. If a team wins both halves, the next best team will earn a wild card into the championship round,

The league donated an Automated External Defibrillator for Veterans Park this year in honor of the late Mike Ginsburg, who died of a heart attack four years ago after taking batting practice. Balagna said the league has also created the Mike Ginsburg Sportsmanship Award, given to a player that demonstrates Ginsburg’s special quality for fair play and good sportsmanship.

The league’s website is colliercountyseniorsoftball.org. There is information on how to register to become a player and a schedule to see games.

“If we get more players we can make more teams,” Balagna said, on his way to a tournament in Altamonte Springs.

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