They've still got their game on

"From the way they talk, the Ace Paving Masters slowpitch team has some softballs in the pail that are nearly as old as the players.Another bad one, pitcher Harold Conway laments as he weeds out a particularly decrepit spheroid while pitching batting practice one morning last week, tossing it aside distastefully.They're all bad ones, somebody shouts from the outfield.When infielder Rosie Hagins, taking his turn at the plate, smacks a ball over the left field fence at Linder Field, there is concern.You better get that ball, someone yells at the players closest to where Hagins' shot cleared the fence. That's a good one. We don't have many good ones.The softballs Ace Paving practices with might be bad because they're so old. Or, they might be bad because the team's players - all of whom are at least 60 years old - has been hammering them around so relentlessly for so long.The Kitsap-based team, which pulls a few of its players from as far away as Tacoma, has been together for a decade, starting as 50-plus team and rolling on. The players might retire from their jobs, but they don't retire from the team.It's been pretty much the same group of guys, says outfielder Gary Eaton. Quite a few of these guys played together in high school.Five of them, in fact - Conway, Lawrence Greaves, brothers Jim and Bob Munger and Kenny Berg - were teammates at Central Kitsap High School in the mid-1950s. Eaton is one of several with Bainbridge Island roots. They range in age from 60 to 69, with Conway laying claim to seniority among the seniors. All but two are retired. Most have slowpitch resumes that stretch back over decades, while a few, like Hagins, are relative newcomers.I'm from Florida, says Hagins, and I never heard of slowpitch until I got up here.But you find no cliques in this group; just cogs in a well-oiled slowpitch machine. A well-oiled, well-aged slowpitch machine.There are other senior teams around, Eaton says, but there aren't many who are as competitive as we are.And that competitive bent knows no age boundaries. The Masters play their regular-season slate in the Bremerton Parks Department's ASA Division V men's league, holding their own against teams of much more youthful, but not-that-much more spry, opponents.The young kids play a short fielder against us because we hit up the middle so much, Eaton says. They don't do that against anybody else.When they play against teams their own age, however, they are a terror. As in last autumn's Huntsman Senior World Games, they won the gold medal in their division with a 9-1 record. They'll return to St. George, Utah for the 2000 edition of the games Oct. 9-21 to defend their championship.Already this summer, they finished third in a 60-plus tournament at Wenatchee; won a tournament in Kelowna, B.C. by going unbeaten in their division; and took third in a hometown tournament hosted by Silverdale's J&R Tavern.The Masters play defense with speed and agility that belie their senior-discount status, getting down to the toughest grounders and sprinting under fly balls hit deep in the gaps.And they hit a little, too. They finally had to fashion a metal screen to protect their pitchers during batting practice. They nicknamed it the Kenny Berg Screen, because, Conway explains, Kenny likes to hit it up the middle so much.It might be named after Berg, but the other Masters take their turn bashing away at it, bending the wire screen and denting the metal frame with solid shots that, except for its presence, would be up the middle for singles or putting deep bruises in the hides of opposing pitchers.That penchant for hitting up the middle results in some astronomical batting averages. In Wenatchee, Bob Merchant hit .692. In Kelowna, Conway compiled a .714 average and three teammates all were over .600. In the J&R tournament, Bob Munger batted .667 to edge teammates Howard Huntley and Duane Linkmyer (both .666) for team honors.Prior to the Senior World Games, the Masters are preparing for the state 60-plus championships back in Wenatchee in mid-August, as well as their own tournament in Bremerton Sept. 26-27. It's a heavy schedule, but as several of them are quick to chime in, It's what we love doing.According to Eaton, the team is always looking for a few good men to fill the ranks. After all, no one play forever.These guys only look like they can."

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