As Bob Nicklason sprints around a softball field, a teammate watches in awe.
“That’s an 80-year-old man! I hope to be just like him when I grow up,” 73-year-old Carl Waxman says.
Nicklason’s batting and sprinting is rewarded with an endless string of home runs during a recent game at Quigley Field in central Fresno.
You’re never too old.
After one of these runs, I ask Nicklason what keeps him playing at the age of 80. His response is quick and lighthearted.
“Whiskey, wine and wild women! No, don’t put that down!” Nicklason adds with a laugh as he watches me scribble his words into a notebook.
“Too late now, Bob!” exclaims one of his many teammates now laughing alongside him. Nicklason’s playboy reply appears to be an act shared for their amusement.
“Scratch (that): I wouldn’t be here if it was that,” Nicklason says of his three fabled Ws.
The semi-retired raisin farmer and veteran was married for more than 50 years. His wife died three years ago.
Nicklason’s teammates surprised him with a birthday muffin and the singing of “Happy Birthday” on the softball field before the start of a game last month. It’s a milestone year for both Nicklason and the league he plays for, the Fresno Senior Softball League, celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Nicklason is a beloved member of the league. Everything he says comes with a big smile and laughter.
“He’s like a bowl full of jelly – happy, easygoing,” says league secretary Ike Pursell . “I’ve never heard a bad word out of him or anything in all the years he’s been out here.”
Nicklason – who has played for the league for 21 years – is one of just four players in their 80s of the league’s 248 players, Pursell says. The league has 28 teams divided into three age divisions, starting at age 50. Pursell estimates the average age of players is 60.
Players get competitive, but they don’t take the games too seriously. Some joke about keeping canes and walkers stashed nearby – just in case.
You get to smell Bengay out here a lot.
“What I want to do at our Christmas party is give out a walker with flames,” says player Bruce Blau with a laugh.
Open-heart surgeries and shoulder and knee replacements can’t keep many away from the game they love. Part of the draw for Nicklason: “The thrill of victory!”
“You get to smell Bengay out here a lot,” Pursell says as he mans a well-stocked concession stand selling pain relievers and heat pads alongside Angus burgers, teriyaki chicken bowls and snack-stand staples such as candy and hot dogs.
The 69-year-old Pursell plans to keep playing softball as long as he can.
We have a saying: You don’t quit playing because you get old, you get old because you quit playing.
“We have a saying,” he explains, “you don’t quit playing because you get old. You get old because you quit playing.”
All are welcome to the senior league, Pursell says, from people with disabilities in wheelchairs to “young guys” in their 50s who he says are so good they should be playing for the San Francisco Giants.
A couple teenage boys recently stopped to watch part of a game from the sidewalk during a walk home from school. They left feeling inspired.
“It’s cool that they are older and still playing, having fun,” says Steven Suarez, a 19-year-old basketball and football player who plans to keep playing sports when he’s several decades older.
Adam Omar, 18, says the softball games at Quigley Field have reduced crime in his central Fresno neighborhood. The senior league players have noticed that change, too.
There used to be a lot of gang activity over here. That’s diminished over the years.
Bruce Blau of Quigley Field
“When we first started playing here, there were gunshots every night,” Pursell recalls. “Now, it’s maybe once a year you hear gunshots.”
The league has made a lot of improvements to the field, adding an electronic scoreboard, backstops, fencing, concession stand, portable bathrooms and storage facilities.
The camaraderie and exercise are among the biggest reasons Nicklason keeps playing. The starting shortstop remains strong and quick.
The secrets to his off-field training: “I just keep my legs in shape I think – I’m a farmer.” (Nicklason says that although he turned his raisin farm in Rolinda, west of Fresno, over to his son, he’s “still the boss.”)
Raisins are another secret to success, he adds with a smile.
“Eat lots of raisins, they’re good for you.”
As for a winning mentality, Nicklason has some sweet and simple advice.
“Live day-to-day. You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
Those interested in joining the Fresno Senior Softball League can contact Ike Pursell at 559-999-5144. The next season begins July 31. Cost is $50 a player for at least 17 games that each last an hour. Games are played at Quigley Field, 808 W. Dakota Ave., Fresno.