Thorny takes two deep breaths. He takes the first pitch for a ball. And then, with a grunt heard ’round the park, the Marine veteran whacks the ball to deep left field.
“There you go, Thorny!” a teammate yells.
After the coronavirus pandemic hit in the spring, Thornton, whose off-field first name is John, wondered when — or if — he would play again. Like other leagues, from T-ball to the majors, the Montgomery County Senior Sports Association softball program was put on hold. Risking a broken hip rounding first is one thing; tempting the fate of a deadly virus that is particularly virulent in seniors is a whole different ballgame.
“We all wanted to play, but at our age we knew how dangerous it would be,” said Jim Ehrenfried, the 86-year-old manager and star pitcher of the Jaguars who has been sidelined by a recent heart attack.
Among these retired lawyers, business executives, bureaucrats and military officials, almost everyone knows someone who got sick, whether a family member, a neighbor or a friend of a friend. Thornton, a devout Catholic who attends Mass every day, mourned two people who died — his neighbor and a man he had been delivering Holy Communion to in a nursing home.
“It really hurts,” Thornton said. “But I know they are both in a better place.”
The pandemic was painful in other ways, beyond stealing precious time from Thorton and his aging softball buddies. They couldn’t see their grandchildren. They couldn’t go to church. Even a trip to the grocery store felt risky. There was no golf, no swimming, no softball.
“It was terrible,” said Hal Reuben, the 76-year-old manager of the opposing Lions and a former lawyer at the USDA. “There was nothing to do. All you could really do was take long walks.”
They missed the game, of course. But after playing together for years, what they really missed was each other — the after-game lunches that stretched on for hours, the nicknames (Band-Aid One, Band-Aid Two, Spikes, Pooch, Tommy Terrific), the playful ribbing over heart bypasses and stress test results, and getting on base any way possible.
Like during the recent Lions- Jaguars matchup.
“Take a pitch!” a Lions player yelled about the Jaguars pitcher. “He’s wild.”
The batter did not take a pitch.
“Nobody wants to take a pitch,” the Lions player said. “Take a walk, for Chrissake. Get on base.”
For Thornton, who drives down from Pennsylvania to play in the league, missing “the community aspect, that was tough.”
Once the county loosened restrictions on recreational sports, the league started up in September with mandatory masks and other modified rules, including no tags.
But not everyone returned to the over-70 league, which dropped from six teams to four. And some of the players who did had to dismiss objections from their families. So far, only one local player in a county league has contracted the virus, forcing several teams into quarantine for two weeks. The player recovered.
“My daughters worry a lot,” Reuben said a few minutes before the game began at Olney Manor Recreational Park. “They’re constantly telling me to be careful. We can’t let our guard down.”
So does Thornton’s wife.
“She’s concerned,” he said. “But she accepts it. She knows what this means for me, how important it is. I don’t take off my mask.”
In many ways, the masks are just an additional health accessory for players who are already heavily accessorized with medical equipment.
Before the game, Reuben spent several minutes wrapping his toes — all of them — with gauze and tape made by Johnson & Johnson, a company in which his family, for obvious reasons, owns stock.
Underneath their baseball pants — or jeans, or sweatpants, whatever is comfortable at this age — they wear knee braces and other contraptions.
At least one player wears an athletic cup. Demonstrating it for this reporter, he knocked on it twice.
“No pictures of that,” Reuben said.
The games are more competitive and better played than many leagues of 12-year-olds.
Balls are often hit to the fence 200 feet away. Double plays are regularly turned with gloves older than the wearer’s grandchildren. Players who can hit but not run are allowed pinch runners from home.
“Runner from home!” the umpire will yell.
For big hitters, outfielders will often switch spots, with faster (typically younger) players moving to spots where the hitters usually hit. (Players grumble about others with lines like, “Yeah, but he’s only 75.”)
There is a lot of chatter.
“Look him over, Marv,” a teammate urges. “Crowd the plate.”
A player in the dugout lets loose some profanity about errors “and not thinking. Damn it.”
When the Lions came off the field after a rough inning, one of the players moaned, “We’re playing like a bunch of seniors.” Tommy Terrific blamed the umpire: “He made a mistake!” Reuben huddled up with his team.
“Everybody calm down,” Reuben said. “Get your heads in it.”
The conversation in between innings is mostly all softball and strategy, but sometimes life sneaks in.
Ehrenfried took a phone call from his doctor about his heart condition. Tommy Terrific will sometimes veer into politics, trash talking the religious right, to which someone will typically respond, “Focus on the game!” The nearby bathroom is used frequently by the prostate-impaired.
But the determination of the players — in the face of age, a pandemic and serious health issues — is something to behold.
Thornton, clearly nursing a bum left leg, flied out when he came up with the bases loaded, but then went into the outfield and made a tremendous catch, limping back in between innings.
“He won’t quit,” Ehrenfried said. “He will never give up. Ever.”
Thornton came up to bat again later. He took his customary two deep breaths with his eyes closed, visualizing the ball hitting the bat on its sweet spot. He fouled off a pitch down the left field line, grunting loudly. He grunts when he runs, too.
“I’m pushing out as much air as I can to get more in,” he explained later.
After the foul ball, the count was 2-2. Thornton smacked the next pitch over the left fielder’s head, grunting as he rounded the bases. He stopped at third, breathing deeply. His teammates went wild.
Limping off the field after the inning ended, Thornton said, “If I was 100 percent, it would have been a home run.”