Benefield: Softball team gives Santa Rosa man, 75, the final game he always wanted

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Seventy-five-year-old Gerry “Slippery” Savela says he put the request out to the universe: “Is anyone willing to let me play ball?”

The idea was born in 1978, when, as a much younger man, he read a newspaper story about a men’s over-60 league. The lifelong baseball and later softball player wanted to still be playing when he reached 75.

But life can be hard on a body. Two back surgeries, the onset of arthritis, achy knees — these are things that can sideline an athlete. Savela, who lives in Santa Rosa, hung up his glove 15 years ago, but he didn’t hang up that dream.

“(Playing ball) is the love of my life,” he said. “Depression. That’s what I felt when I had to stop playing ball. For awhile I couldn’t even watch a game.”

But dreams die hard. He still has the newspaper clipping of that men’s over-60 league. The next page of his scrapbook is blank. It’s space reserved for mementos of the moment he could take the field again. At 75.

“I just kind of let it go, but in the back of my mind was this little thing,” he said. “It was this item left in my sports life. I thought, well, why not ask the universe if it’s possible, and the universe said yes.”

It happened like this. Savela, who turned 75 May 31, put the word out — would any area team be willing to let him stand in for one at-bat and pitch to just one batter? The pitcher who was nicknamed “Slippery” back in the day wanted to see if he still had his stuff.

The universe answered.

Rhonda Nilsson, a longtime softball player, saw Savela’s plea in an email from a friend. Nilsson’s heartstrings were pulled.

She took Savela’s request to her team, the Dr. Henley’s Dazzling Dames in Spikes. They were all aboard. Then she took the idea to the board of the Rohnert Park Women’s Low-Key Softball League.

“We usually don’t let boys play,” she said.

But this was different. Savela was in.

“It was kind of a simple thing. It was not a huge request,” she said. “Since it was so meaningful for him, it made it really good for all of the people on our team and our board to be able to give back to him.

“I’m all about people having the best time that they can with their life,” she said. “This was right up my alley.”

Savela did not take his inclusion — albeit brief — on the Dazzling Dames in Spikes lightly. He went to the batting cages. He worked on his pitching. He started showing up to the team practices.

“They accepted me like I was on the team forever,” Savela said.

But at 75, his body told him this might be a one-shot deal.

“My shoulders hurt, my back hurt,” he said. “I told myself, ‘You’re only going to do this once, buddy.’”

Once was enough.

On a Thursday night last month, Savela showed up at Sunrise Park in Rohnert Park. His new teammates greeted him with a uniform jersey with “Gerry” on the front and “75” on the back. The scoreboard read “Go Gerry.”

But boy, did Savela have a case of the nerves. This night was 40 years in the making.

When he walked out to the pitcher’s circle, the home plate looked a mile away. Still, he was out there.

“I was just kind of floating because this was actually going to happen,” he said.

Pitch one: Strike.

Pitch two: The batter hit a ground ball to third base. The Dazzling Dame on the hot corner scooped it up and hummed it to first for the out. Savela walked from the pitcher’s circle with his one-batter, no-hitter intact.

“The ladies were screaming and yelling. It was crying time,” he said.

Savela waited a few innings before he felt comfortable going up to the plate. It was nearly dusk when he did. When he stepped into the batter’s box, he heard the catcher say something to him.

“Hit a bleeping home run,” she said.

A storybook ending would have Savela hitting a bleeping home run. He didn’t. He struck out. But he stepped up to the plate and gave it a go after all these years.

“These ladies made it happen for an old dude,” he said.

His new teammates, the Dazzling Dames, couldn’t have been prouder. The presented him with the game ball. On it is written “6-8-18 No hitter.”

“All he wanted to do was pitch to one batter and bat one time,” Nilsson said. “He was so happy.

“You never lose your love and desire,” she said. “I can understand the bucket list.”

After the game, at his home in Santa Rosa, Savela pulled his tattered scrapbook out to show a visitor. There were programs from games gone by and pictures of a much younger man in a softball uniform. There was the newspaper story about the old guys playing ball at 60. And there, in the back, was a blank page.

“This was the final page for the scrapbook,” Nilsson said.

Savela still shows up for the Dazzling Dames practices and games. “They are my team,” he said. But he leaves his glove at home. He’s checked that item off his list.

Any regrets?

“Absolutely not,” he said. “I swung.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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