AP NEWS

Distinguished Dozen: Bringing people together with softball

December 30, 2018

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — In 2002, Larry Stremikis founded a senior softball organization to promote physical fitness and friendly competition in Charlottesville.

Now, more than 15 years later, Stremikis’ vision has blossomed into so much more than athletic competition. His organization, the Charlottesville Retreads, has created a kinship among seniors that extends well beyond the softball diamond.

“When I wake up the morning of a game, I don’t say, ‘I’m going to play a softball team.’ Instead, I say, ‘I get to play softball today,’” said Jim Mehlin, a Retreads softball player. ”(The fact) that senior softball is available is a true gift, a privilege, one made possible by the tireless efforts of Larry Stremikis.”

Hard work is nothing new for Stremikis, a former maintenance manager with United Airlines. After retirement, he turned his attention to his other love, softball, organizing a 60-and-over travel team to play in tournaments throughout the commonwealth year-round.

Stremikis, now 75, ran an ad in The Daily Progress to gauge interest and scheduled a meeting. Approximately 20 guys showed up for the initial meeting at Rhett’s River Grill, including Earl Gore and Steve Cooper.

“No one knew anyone, but we all become friends,” said Cooper, who had recently moved to the area from California. “This was a great way to meet people and some became close friends, and we socialize with our wives.”

The Retreads competed in the Charlottesville Recreation League that first year, playing against teams nearly half their age.

“We only won two games,” Gore said. “But I recall one of those younger guys we played against saying, ‘You guys would have been a great team 30 years ago.’”

A year later, there were enough players to form a 55-and-over team, and league interest has continued to grow. The league expanded to include a 40-and-over women’s league, as well.

“After that first year, we began playing against players our own age,” Gore said. “Those of us who were at the beginning are now in our late 70s and once again find ourselves competing against younger players, the 55-year-old newcomers.”

Stremikis worked with the local recreation department to organize games early to meet the needs of the players. The Retreads play games every Tuesday and Thursday at Darden Towe Memorial Park at 10 a.m. About 50 players come out to play a doubleheader.

“Larry made sure everyone played in the games and he even sat out the game so that others could play,” Cooper said. “On the days when it was very hot, he would hang tarps to protect the dugouts from the sun. He would also bring water for everyone to drink.”

In addition to regular weekly games, once a month Stremikis would organize games with teams from Richmond and Altavista. The teams would eat lunch together after games and most of the time Stremikis bought and prepared the food.

“Larry supervises the food preparation activities and often this is so demanding that he does not get to play in games,” Cooper said. “Don’t think Larry is not a great softball player, but he does focus on food prep at picnics and personally contributes a large bowl of his special potato salad at every doubleheader.”

Frank Robinson, a Retreads player, said the league is more than just competition.

“Our goals are camaraderie, no injuries and running around outdoors for a few hours,” he said. “Notice I didn’t mention winning. Of course, we keep score, but at the end of the day, we’re all friends and scores are quickly forgotten.”

Stremikis’ love of the Retreads and the players extends beyond the diamond.

When players were injured or sick, he would check on them regularly to see how the recovery process was going and check back with members of the Retread community to give them the latest.

In 2011, Mel Richardson, one of the original Retreads, died following a battle with cancer. Stremikis coordinated a group of players to attend the funeral and held a celebration of life at the softball field for team members and Richardson’s surviving family members and friends. In addition, he had a plaque made in Richardson’s honor that is now installed at the first base dugout bench on Field No. 1 at Darden Towe Park.

Prior to his passing, Richardson issued a statement praising Stremikis’ work.

“I am so grateful for the opportunity to play senior softball,” Richardson stated. “The love and concern of my fellow softballers has indeed changed my recovery in a way I couldn’t imagine. This group has given (my wife) Mary and me the strength to persevere when we were pretty beaten down. At times like these, which were few but dynamic, our conversations would drift towards softball and what it meant to hit the ball and run the bases and what it meant to Mary to have your words of encouragement and steadfast support. We all need a community in which to do this, and I have never been associated with a finer bunch of men and women to make this journey with.”

Gore estimates that more than 200 players have participated in senior softball in the area thanks to Stremikis.

“The Charlottesville Retreads organization provides recreation and, perhaps more importantly, has become an important fellowship network for all who participated,” Gore said. “Before Larry, there was no senior softball in Charlottesville. Now the program is one of the best anywhere.”

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Information from: The Daily Progress, http://www.dailyprogress.com