Lying on the hard gymnasium floor, stretching those winter-weary limbs, Ray Kaminski is dreaming: Opening Day. The crack of a bat. The ball arcing up into the picture-perfect blue sky and over the infield. The sprint to first base. The high-fives.
Sweet summer innings in the Northern Virginia Senior Softball League.
But, first, there are the rigors of spring training and the cold floor at the James Lee Community Center in Falls Church. This is a room full of sweating ballplayers -- far from the glamorous world of the big leagues but up close with what makes the game great: Enthusiasm. Camaraderie. Competition. And a little dash of love.
Because when, like Kaminski, you're 81 and still anticipating the new season's first step up to the plate, then you've got softball in your blood.
"It's just a whole lot of fun," said Kaminski, of Annandale, who took up the game when he was 63. "And we've also got a healthy program here." The oldest person to have played in the league, which was formed in 1980, was 84, and the average age of players is 72.
More and more seniors are drawn to the program each year, and this season officials expect nearly 400 players to compete in two divisions, which offer different levels of play.
There are still openings for men over 50 and women over 40, and spring training will continue into April, when the season opens.
"If someone wants to play, we want to see them," said Lew Lipscomb, 54, first vice president of the league. "This is just a lot of fun, and who wants to sit at home and do nothing anymore?"
The league, which is overwhelmingly male, plays its games in Fairfax County. Membership costs $50 and is open to players from any Washington area jurisdiction, but the league has to pay Fairfax County $20 for each non-county resident for use of its fields.
"It's hard to get new friends when you retire," said Dave Scheele, 64, of Arlington, who is publicity director for the league. "This is a way to do it, and anyone can play even if you've been a couch potato for a while."
Ovajean Siemens, 52, and her husband Av, 73, of Vienna, just signed up and hope to play together.
"I read about it in a newsletter, and I thought, gosh, that's exactly what we need," Ovajean Siemens said. "It's semi-structured so it will help get us in shape, and we'll have something to get in shape for. There's lot of camaraderie, and the little edge of competition is helpful. And it's all summer long."
The season runs into August, and, after a short break, there also is a fall season.
There are two levels of play, and each player chooses one. The Pioneer Division, for instance, is designed for those with lower skill levels or who have some physical limitation. It will be made up of six teams this season, and each team will play twice a week.
Ronald Hommas, for example, has arthritis in his shoulder, so he prefers the less competitive pace in the Pioneer league.
"It's like old-age Little League," said Hommas, 64, of Annandale, who has been playing for three years. "The idea is to get everyone participating and having some fun. The hard part is remembering what you used to be able to do. But I love it. I look forward to it."
Most players, even the very oldest, such as Kaminski, prefer to play in the more competitive division, which is divided into American and National divisions, each with eight teams. There are four games a week.
"They say I'm too good a ballplayer for the Pioneer," Kaminski said. "Maybe when I'm 90."
The rules for both leagues are broadly similar to standard softball. The critical exceptions are two bags marking first base, one for the runner and one for the first baseman, and no tagging at home plate. Those rules are designed to avoid collisions. But as Lipscomb pointed out, "You've still got some guys sliding and stuff at the other bases."
"It's very competitive," stressed Toni Letaw, 57, of Vienna. "Everybody wants to win."
Letaw joined five years ago, hoping her participation would spark some interest in her husband. Each season, she plays 11 games a week in a number of different leagues, including a Golden Girls league for seniors.
Her husband never took up the sport.
"He plays golf," she said.
For more information about playing senior softball, call Dave Scheele at 703-524-5576. CAPTION: Above, Bob Mickert, 64, swings, and Lew Lipscomb, 54, is poised to catch. Personal trainer Frank Roberts, right, leads exercises. CAPTION: Ray Kaminski, 81, exercises before hitting the field. CAPTION: Ken McLean, 63, practices his pitching form.