The Ridgefield Reds play with great heart— and sore muscles
Maybe 40 really is the new 30. But even that new-fangled math doesn’t explain how some older athletes are able to keep competing, and winning, well past their prime. Forty-year-old Brett Favre took the Minnesota Vikings to the playoffs, 59-year-old Tom Watson nearly won the British Open, and 62-year-old Paul Gibbins is still crouching behind home plate, catching nine-inning games for the Ridgefield Reds, a men’s over-27 hardball team.
Gibbons is one of 18 men on the Ridgefield Reds, almost all of whom are over 40. The Reds competes against ten other teams in our area, many of whom boast a much younger line-up. The season lasts from April to August, which allows for 13 regular games and, with luck, the playoffs. Members of the team have also made the occasional road trip to tournaments at baseball meccas: the Hall of Fame park at Cooperstown and pro training camps in Florida.
By 30 or 40, most men have either given up playing or made the move to softball. Not these die-hards. All the Reds had distinguished careers in high school and college, and a few (Joe Espinosa and Stephan Rapaglia) even took a turn at the semi-pros and pros. As a result, the level of play is high. Pitcher Rich Sammon (47) fired off 149 pitches in a recent game, 70 percent of them strikes. And then there is center fielder Tim Debany (48), who often leads the league in homeruns.
Of course this level of competition takes a toll on aging bodies. Aside from the jammed fingers and pulled muscles, Reds players have suffered cracked bones and broken teeth. But, says Dave Lustberg (48), the play is worth the pain. “I love it. I haven’t missed a game in five years. It takes you back to when you played competitive sports.” Says Ridgefield Fitness trainer Mark Bubeck: “For these guys to be playing this long, they must have worked hard, trained smart—and been pretty lucky.”
Collectively the players are involved in 12 youth baseball and softball teams, passing along their passion for the game. Debany’s daughter Olivia caught the fever for a while, but now prefers lacrosse. She is a huge fan of the Reds though. “My dad is a good hitter and really good in the field,” says Olivia, who has a picture of her father in full uniform on her bedroom wall.
At some point, even these guys will have to hang up their cleats. At 62, Gibbins is close to retirement. “I’d like to play till 65,” giving him time to break in 30-year-old son Wylie, who just started playing for the Reds.