More than a number: Senior softball athletes showcase a love for the game that has grown stronger over time

May 15, 2019, 12:55 p.m. (ET)

Athletes like Gary Hicks (pictured right) are proving that age is nothing but a number. With a playing-career that has spanned nearly five decades long, Hicks is among the many participants in senior slow pitch softball who prove day-in and day-out that their passion for the game of softball has only grown over time.

Playing in his first game at 16-years old, Hicks has seen both sides of the game as both a player and umpire. Attributing his lengthy slow pitch softball career to his good health, the level of talent of the teams he’s played with, great teammates and most importantly a supportive wife, it was a chance opportunity to umpire at an invitational tournament in Burlington, N.C. that introduced Hicks to senior ball.  

“I was impressed by the skill and competitiveness,” said Hicks.

Still actively playing, word of Hick’s playing abilities spread to a team out of Richmond, Va. who started recruiting him for the 50’s Division of Senior Slow Pitch – and as the saying goes, the rest is history.

Along with Hicks, participants in the senior division are largely part of the Baby Boomer generation that played from the 1970’s through mid-90’s when participation in adult softball was at an all-time high. That competitive itch remained – and so, too, did the level of play.  

“I think most people don’t realize the skill level of many of the senior athletes, especially at the major and major-plus levels,” Hicks noted when addressing some of the misconceptions people may have with senior softball.

While the competition on the field and the dedication to the game matches the intensity of the “glory days”, what sets senior softball aside from other divisions of play is the camaraderie between players and teams and a respect for the game that can only grow with time.

“I know it’s cliché, but senior softball is like one big family,” Hicks continued.

The term family is especially true for Hicks and his daughter Jessica who is following in her father’s footsteps both as an athlete and sport administrator. Towing his daughter around in a little red wagon at ballparks across the United States, Jessica has grown up around the game of softball.

“I was in diapers when I first started going to my dad’s games,” Jessica remembers. “I pretty much grew up at the ballpark, which I wouldn’t have any other way. I remember that I couldn’t wait to go watch him play and be at the ballfields with him. I was always sad when he had a late game on a school night and I couldn’t go with him.”

Hanging out in the dugout or playing with kids from her father’s fellow teammates, those early days developed a passion for the game that has stayed with Jessica. Starting out at the rec level, Jessica played through her high school years and still actively participates in recreation play at a local league.

Jessica took that passion and turned it into a career with the Burlington Parks & Recreation Department as the Adult Athletics Supervisor. Her love for the sport of softball has led to a 21-year career in the Athletics department that has only deepened with time.

Jessica Hicks (with USA Softball Director of Membership Services John Miller) accepting a James Farrell Award of Excellence for Burlington, N.C.

Much like the Hicks family, the sport of softball has been a part of USA Softball of North Carolina Commissioner Tony Laws’ (pictured below) life.

“The thing that has helped made softball so important to me over the years are the friends and relationships I have gotten from the game,” said Laws.

As a player and administrator for the sport for 50 years, he has either watched or played with and/or against many of the players still involved in the game – and it’s those memories that have curated a passion for the senior division.

The Director of Parks & Recreation for the city of Burlington, N.C., Laws has helped establish the city as the unofficial home for senior slow pitch softball. Burlington, whose history of hosting high level men’s slow pitch tournaments dates back to the 1960’s, is the perfect site for the participants, not only for the support the city shows for the event but because many of the players are familiar with the area from their earlier playing days.

Having hosted Senior Slow Pitch National Championships for over 15 years, it has given Laws the opportunity to observe trends within the game. Although the level of talent and passion continues to thrive, the participation and overall awareness of the game has seen a decline in recent years due in large to confusing classifications within each age group and a lack of seasonal events.

“One of the challenges we see are the multiple age groups and classifications within each. The 60-65 age groups have at least three classifications and some have four divisions while the 70-and-over divisions have two classifications. Ultimately, you can wind up having 15-to-20 different tournaments all going on at the same time,” Laws explained.

“USA Softball’s Senior National Championship is also a standalone event with no lead up to it,” he continued.

Seeing the decline in the game he devoted so much time to, Laws realized that something needed to change in order to see this division continue to thrive. That realization drew Laws to reach out to one of the many relationships he’s developed through the sport of softball - R.B. Thomas, the Executive Director of the International Senior Softball Association (ISSA). 

Entering their 25th year of organizing senior tournaments throughout the United States, the ISSA has been an Allied Member of USA Softball for just as long and has put on some of the largest senior events in recent years. 

That history led to a partnership between USA Softball and the ISSA for the 2019 Senior Slow Pitch National Championships – a partnership which is expected to benefit both organizations and participants in the senior division.

With the goal to have 90 teams participate at the 2019 Senior Slow Pitch National Championships, as of May 15 over 100 teams have entered to participate.

“We are really glad we are able to contribute to the 2019 Championship and make it a big success,” said Thomas.

With free entry for fans, what can one expect if they watch a senior game or attend the Senior Slow Pitch National Championship, which will be held July 17-21, 2019 in Burlington?

“A senior game will have all the characteristics of the game - hitting, pitching, fielding, defense and strategy,” said Laws.

“Senior ball is still very competitive and at a higher skill level than the average person understands,” Gary Hicks added.

With age groups ranging from 50-80, the opportunity to play at whatever level you choose is one of the many benefits of the senior division.

“Senior softball has a variety of competitive classifications based upon your skills, so there is a level for everyone,” Hicks continued.

Regardless of playing ability, the thrill of scoring the winning run or sharing in the experience of playing the game that they love is consistent among the athletes who remain active in senior softball.  Just ask Gary Hicks.

“Out of my 49 years of playing, the last 15-16 years on the senior circuit have been the most enjoyable ones.”

Note – if you are interested in participating in senior slow pitch softball, please contact your state/metro association or contact Tony Laws at TLaws@burlingtonnc.gov.