Welcome to a Field Where Dreams Come True:
On a summer morning on a softball field in a township park of a western suburb of Chicago, the batter watches the ball arching slowly toward home plate. The ball looks like a big fat marshmallow as it is lofted from the pitcher’s hand and seems to take its time getting to the plate in a gentle parabola. The batter waits before swinging, knowing that in this game timing is everything, and then as the ball finally falls downward across the plate, the batter swings hard and there is the thump of a bat on a softball 16 inches in circumference and it makes everyone turn their heads and watch the ball fly up and out over the dirt infield into the green grass of the outfield.
What happens next is anybody’s guess, of course…catch, miss, throw, run, score or just out…all the well-known options of this widely popular game played with balls and bats are up for grabs and are the things that dreams are made of, whether they are being dreamt by the very young or by the very old. In this case, what happens next belongs to a bunch of oldsters who aren’t really playing to win as much as they are playing to have fun with friends and neighbors.
These players are over 55 – most of them way over – and they play in a recreational league of teams they call the Turtles and the Snails in the game called 16-inch show-pitch Chicago Style softball because that’s where the game was invented way back when in the Windy City and played with great enthusiasm down the generations by Chicagoans and now on other ballfields across the land. But it all started in Chicago and the Turtles and Snails have been playing their slightly amended version of the game for about 25 years in their home territory of Dundee Township, which is in Kane County astride the Fox River a good 40 miles from Lake Michigan, as the ball would fly if only somebody could hit one out of the proverbial park all the way downtown.
On this Saturday morning, there is something especially eye-catching about the players beyond the fact that some are men and some are women and none of them is what anyone would call a spring chicken. First, they are all wearing some really nifty sky-blue softball jerseys with Prevagen scripted in white letters across the front to show they are all on the same team, and second, they all have the same number displayed on them to show something else about the guys and gals of a certain age.
There are many parts to this story but the one about how the Turtles and Snails got their new jerseys is especially interesting because it reinforces a very old and a very good idea of the way the world can work: how a little entrepreneurial initiative can intersect with the values of a business focused on serving the needs and lives of its customers. That’s pretty much what happened this year when Linda Koren, who is the unofficial leader/organizer/get-it-done person at the Turtles and Snails, sent an email to no one in particular at Prevagen.
“Back before COVID,” as Linda tells the story, “the township park district charged us $26 each for the season and we would get a nice softball field two days a week. They gave us a luncheon at the end of the season and they gave us park district shirts. Well COVID came along and they couldn’t give us shirts anymore. So for the last three years we didn't have shirts and so there was this question, how can we get a shirt? And then earlier this year, somebody had a senior moment. And one of us says, ‘You know I think maybe we all could use some Prevagen.’ It didn't hit me right away but then I said, ‘That's it, that is a great idea.’ And so I just emailed them a short note thinking I wouldn't ever hear back. And what do you know, I got a nice note back from a lady in their customer relations office. It was like the next day and I went, Oh my gosh, I was so surprised. It said that's a great idea. Wow.”
It had taken only about a day for Linda’s email to be seen and approved by Prevagen’s management team as a very good way to demonstrate support for a local community-based activity by people who are still enjoying an active, healthy lifestyle as they move into an older age and sometimes have trouble remembering things. With management’s enthusiastic green-light, Linda’s email was right away forwarded to the offices of Prevagen’s social media team for action. It didn’t take long for somebody to say, how about we get some nice jerseys made and put our name on them?
“And so,” Linda continues her story, “this nice lady wrote me and said. ‘Let me know how many people you have and what sizes do they need?’ Oh my gosh, I couldn't wait to get back to the team and tell everybody you know, we're gonna get shirts. I got everybody's sizes. And we thought we're gonna get a simple T shirt you know? Just regular old T shirts. But what they sent are these beautiful jerseys. Really, really nice material and nice jerseys with Prevagen across the front. And since we're a 55 and older league, they put 55 on everybody’s jersey. So everybody is Number 55.”
There is a whole lot more to this story, like how their games are always between one team called the Turtles and the other called the Snails, and not always played with the usual 10 players per side but by the total number of members who show up on any given game day, so sometimes there might be more or fewer outfielders and infielders than normal.
“It depends how many people show up,” she continues, “so if we have 12 people on a team, we just space them out in the field, because we're all elderly, so everybody gets to play.
”There are other wrinkles concerning base-running and how to score a run without having a collision at the plate. The list goes on but you get the idea…this really is a game played for the fun of it.
“The bases are 50 feet apart,” Linda explains, “and we don't have a fence so you can't say that somebody hit a homer over the fence, but there's a couple guys that could hit it out. Some of those guys are still pretty fast. So they make it all the way around. But not everybody. Like my brother once said, I can turn a home run into a double.”
The current membership roster runs to about 30 players, any one of whom can entertain you with their stories, but a chat with just one of them is enough to put a smile on your face. His name is Seymour Berman but he goes by Sy and he’s been a member of the team since shortly after it was founded back in 1998 by a retired optometrist who was the team’s beloved leader and manager until he was called away in 2015 and no doubt is playing slow-pitch on a softball field somewhere up in heaven.
Sy begins, “I’m 84 years old and haven't played with the team for the last three years or so because of doctor’s orders. But I still come out once in a while and watch them. I had double knee replacement 23 years ago and I had two shoulder surgeries so after that, I became the designated shortstop for both teams. I played the field all the time.”
Then he shares a brief story that takes you into a deeper appreciation of the fun of playing a game of 16-inch slow-pitch Chicago style softball with some friends:
“Well once we got challenged by a team of people that were all blind. There was a bell inside the ball and there was only one base to run to and everybody on our side had to play blindfolded. You're trying to listen for the bell in the ball and even though there was only one base to run to you're in a kind of softball hell because you can't see a thing. I mean, you're playing blind too. So you're trying to connect with the ball, which you probably swing at and miss most of the time, and if you do eventually hit the ball somehow, you’re trying to run to a base you can’t see and you find yourself running out in the street somewhere. I don't remember the score, but we didn't win.”
Linda remembers. “They beat us 30 to nothing,” she says. “It was a very good day.”