Despite health challenge, senior athlete stays in the lineup

Bob Soulen was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease a decade ago, but he still takes the field with his competitive over-60 softball team.
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The big first baseman trudges across the pristine infield, his walker leaving a crooked trail in the dirt. He has bandages on his knees, a bald spot where he hit his head against a door frame and an old shoulder dislocation from a spill at home.

He's already bushed because it's late in the day and this is when he starts to fade. Plus, it's 90 degrees. And sweat is staining the dark blue T-shirt with the number 25 on the back and "Mustangs" on the front.

But it's game time. The hot afternoon is giving way to the shadows of evening. And Bob Soulen, 69, who has Parkinson's disease, is going to play some ball.

Twenty miles away, 30,000 people have streamed into Nationals Park to see Washington's young pitching sensation, Stephen Strasburg. Here on Field No. 5 in Montgomery County's Wheaton Regional Park, a lone fan -- the wife of an opposing player -- sits in the bleachers to witness a different phenomenon: an aging physicist's determination to cling to the game of his youth.

As Soulen shuffles across the dirt, the other Mustangs are arriving, limbering up and playing catch, and Soulen is careful to lift his walker over the fresh white streak of the foul line. Like the diamond, the evening seems perfect, and in a few minutes there will be a pale moon rising over center field.

Robert J. Soulen Jr. of North Bethesda is a retired award-winning scientist who worked at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Naval Research Laboratory. His area of expertise is superconductivity as it relates to temperature measurement and ship propulsion.

He also plays softball in Montgomery's senior leagues and can wax about the laws of physics as they relate to bat vs. ball.

His body, however, seems to obey no law.

Ten years ago, Parkinson's, or PD, as he calls it, was diagnosed.

Parkinson's is a degenerative neurological disorder that can cause tremors, loss of motor skills and poor balance. It is not conducive to playing softball.

Soulen is a big man -- 6-foot-3 and about 250 pounds -- with a shock of gray hair. His head nods slightly and his feet kind of tap as he sits and talks. He has difficulty walking. He has railings in his home to prevent falls and often uses a walker to get around.

But he is determined to maintain ballplaying ability and practices with a tennis ball that he bounces off a wall in his basement.

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