Play Ball

I turned 60 not long ago. It was hard to believe. Sixty is old. Or it was when I was 19, and 29, and 49. I’ve been hearing recently that 60 is the new 40. Nice try. No, 60 is 60. I just have to redefine it because I’m not old yet.

I was 20 years old in 1967. I was young with a vengeance. I inhaled. At Middlebury. I was dead center of the youth culture, and as editor in chief of Crawdaddy—“the first magazine to take rock & roll seriously”—I was professionally young well into my 30s.

I’ve played softball pretty much all my life. I was a hot shortstop, one of those thin, quick boys with soft hands and a strong arm who covered a lot of ground. (I’m no longer any of those.) As I grew older, I simply refused to stop playing. Teammates would ask me, “So how old are you, anyway?” I’d tell them, and they’d go “Nawwww!  Fifty-seven? Me and the guy in right field together are 57!” I lived for that. And then the legs went.

Arthritis. No more cartilage. Bone on bone. This was distressing. At first I shuffled from chair to couch; then, when I could no longer stand, I just took to throwing myself from place to place. Pain would strike without warning. I popped OxyContin like it was Pez. I was on my way to a wheelchair. I shopped for surgeons, and they all told me the same thing: I had to have both knees replaced. The most important question I asked was, “Will I still be able to play ball?” What I feared most was not the pain or the effort it would take to recuperate. What I truly feared was that I would never be the same, that I would go from being a young 57 to an old 58. Softball was my connection to my youth, to my entire sense of myself as, improbably, a young man. If I lost softball I would jump start the hearse.

Double total knee replacement. I didn’t have a leg to stand on. The surgery went well; I was attentive and serious about my rehabilitation. Eight months later I was back on the ball field. My team, the Wolfpack, won the league championship that year.

What is really wonderful is that at my age—and how I hate that phrase—a guy expects to be in worse shape this year than he was a year earlier, and in worse shape next year than he is this. No one likes the downhill slide. Doesn’t apply to me. I’m getting better!

It’s a paradox: have major surgery, reverse the aging process.

So there I was, 60 years old, standing at second base in a New York City playground on artificial turf, which is essentially a sheet of plastic glued onto a slab of asphalt. The 25-year-old batter swung and hit a line drive behind me into center field. I took off. (As much as I can still motor, which tops out at around second gear.) I was three steps from home plate when I heard my teammates yelling, “Down! Down!” It’s what you tell a ballplayer when he and the throw are going to arrive at the same instant. I didn’t have time to think. I slid.

I didn’t go in headfirst; I’m not crazy. I threw a straight-ahead, feet-first, figure-four slide, just like I’d been taught in Little League. The umpire was right on top of the play.


When I pulled myself off the ground and trotted back to the bench, the guys were hysterical. I heard about it the rest of the night and expect my run to glory to go down in the annals of Wolfpack lore. For my part, it was one of the great moments of my life. I ran, I slid in under the tag, I scored…and I survived. Not bad for an old man.

Author Peter Knobler is currently collaborating with David N. Dinkins on the former New York City mayor’s autobiography.

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  1. I have known Peter Knobler for 22 years – since he was 43 and I was 17. We met the summer before I headed to Midd. Even then he was the “old guy that went to Middlebury”. We played softball together for years. Through his knee surgery and my back surgery. The man has game. He has the kind of form on the ballfield that every 17-year old player emulates. And this article is a very candid reflection of the spirit that goes with that form. He used to tell me of his “anti-establishment” youth at Midd. Don’t look now, old man…you just proved that you embody “the strength in the hills” and the Middlebury spirit. – Greg Boosin, Midd 94.5

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