GOSHEN — If there was one thing I realized Saturday afternoon, it’s that I need to start exercising again.
I didn’t intend on playing in a nine-inning vintage baseball game when I left my apartment and headed to Rogers Park Saturday. I was planning on covering the game as a part of the 100th anniversary of Rogers Park. The city of Goshen invited the Elkhart County Railroaders to play in a vintage base ball game at the park’s baseball field during the day’s festivities "(“baseball” wasn’t one word in 1858, which are the rules the Railroaders follow).
When it was time for game time, though, the opposing team, comprised of non-vintage baseball players, only had five players. This left four openings on the roster. One Railroader, Kevin “Cotton” Miller — everyone has a nickname and is referred to them by it — joined the non-vintage team, meaning three spots were still open. I was then asked if I wanted to play, and without hesitation, I said, ‘Sure!’ Thus, my vintage baseball career had begun.
So, there I was, Austin “Southpaw" Hough — wearing a striped polo and cargo shorts — getting ready to play a baseball game with rules I didn’t even know. What ensued was one of my favorite days on the job so far.
I played second base to start the game. Fortunately, no baseballs were hit toward me. Having not played competitive baseball in more than a decade, I was terrified of having to make an actual play in the field.
I ended up batting sixth in the lineup. In my first at-bat, I hit a ground ball to the shortstop and was thrown out. “Man, am I really that slow?” I thought as I was trying to catch my breath from running to first base.
With all nine players now on our team, we needed someone to fill the pitcher’s spot. I volunteered, given my vast little league pitching experience. Fortunately, in this game, we were throwing underhand. With our team up 2-1 on the Railroaders, I took over on the hill.
The Railroaders eventually tied it at two before our team scored 10 unanswered runs to win 12-2. I pitched the rest of the game, allowing just the one run. On the list of athletic accomplishments for me, this one is pretty high.
My hitting performance, however, left a lot to be desired. I fell victim to some of the old-time rules, as I had two hits taken away due to a player catching the ball on one bounce. In 1858, you could field a ball on one bounce and the batter was still out.
I ultimately had one single and scored a run. When I reached third base, though, all I could think of was, ‘Man, I need to go back to the gym.’
While I had a blast playing in the game, the real story is the people who travel around the area playing a version of baseball they love.
Jason “Grits” Stacy is one of the founders of the now-Elkhart County Railroaders. The team has gone under a couple of different name changes in the 20-plus years Stacy has played on the team.
It started as a team through the Elkhart Parks and Recreation Department before breaking off into its own independent team. Stacy said the team will play up to 15 days a summer, sometimes traveling as far as Chicago to play in tournaments.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll give this a shot. See what it’s like’ and I’ve been with it ever since,” Stacy said. “I just love the camaraderie we have, not just on our team but the other teams we face. The home team supplies a meal, so we sit around with the teams we just played, visit with them. It’s just a really friendly atmosphere.”
Stacy, 45, has made vintage baseball a family affair. His wife, Jaime, and daughter, Kara, were dressed in 1856-styled dresses. Meanwhile, his son, Connor, played in the game for the Railroaders. At 13 years old, Connor “Shrimp” Stacy is the youngest player to play for the Railroaders.
Playing baseball with his son has been an adjustment for Jason.
“It’s a fun experience, but I have to remember that he’s 13,” Jason said.
Connor says he likes playing by the 1858 rules, particularly the one that allows you to catch a ball off one bounce and it still be an out. Playing for his dad, however, can be frustrating for the teenager.
“Well, if I mess up in the field, he yells at me. He’ll be like, ‘You should’ve caught that!’ and then the next time he’ll (make a mistake) and be like, ‘That wasn’t my fault,’” Connor said.
It was Miller’s first time playing vintage baseball in nearly five years. He was a member of the Railroaders from 2000-2014 before stepping away from the club.
When he heard the Railroaders needed players, though, he decided to give the sport one more shot.
“Growing up, (baseball) was always the sport to me. I don’t know why it was, but when I was five, six years old, I was drawn to baseball,” Miller said. “I just love the sport.”
Miller, 57, works at Bethany Christian High School. He was actually the vintage player that joined the non-vintage team, making him the only 1856-dressed player to be a winner Saturday.
Winning and losing don’t matter to Miller, though. He hopes to keep on playing with the Railroaders in future games.
“I’m thinking about getting back into it … if they need some help, I’ll get back into it,” Miller said. “I haven’t fully committed to that, but after being out here today and seeing some of the people I saw five years ago, it was kind of fun to think about getting back in.”
The Railroaders’ next game is Sunday at 1 p.m. at Westside Park in Nappanee.
Austin Hough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-533-2151, ext. 325. Follow Austin on Twitter @AustinHoughTGN