RUMFORD – The sport of baseball is regarded as America’s pastime because of the memories and pleasures it provides.

Those attributes have continued to drive five veteran ball players in carrying on their love for the game.

Bitsy Ionta, Bob Russell, Mark Palmer, Steve LaPointe and Ed Paterson have enjoyed playing baseball for more than a combined 200 years.

The five friends played with and against each other for decades in the former Pine Tree League. They are currently together again as teammates on the Rumford Cardinals entry in the Men’s Senior Baseball League.

Ionta, a member of the Maine Baseball Hall Of Fame, is the elder statesman who just recently hit his 70th birthday. Although his skills aren’t what they were, he serves as an inspiration to those who simply say they won’t or can’t get out and play ball.

“It is amazing that Bitsy can still do what he does at his age,” said Paterson, a mere 45. “His passion seems to be fueled by the desire to do something that few people have accomplished, and because he can. It is impressive, and it has definitely rubbed off on all of us. It is great to be around a bunch of guys that have similar backgrounds and interests and be able to relate.”

Ionta was discharged from the United States Air Force in July of 1957, and joined the Rumford Rams in the PTL. He became an accomplished pitcher, winning 225 games.

“Every one has a hobby that they enjoy doing,” Ionta said. “Mine happens to be baseball. I’ve been fortunate to have played for as long as I have, and I’ll continue to play until I’m not competitive any more. When will that be? Who knows?”

The five friends have interesting backgrounds, however, those become secondary whenever they step between the lines. Granted, their competitive fires still flicker, but they fully realize it’s more than just wins and losses.

“At 18 years old, I was hoping to play to 40,” Palmer said. “I saw Stubby Truman still competitive at 42, so I reassessed my own career. Now being over 50, my skills certainly are not as good when I was 20, which I expect. But, I’m still enjoying playing.”

Along the way, numerous sacrifices have been necessary that have provided heartaches. Russell, 59, was the final cut on the 1964 University of Maine baseball team, which placed third in the College World Series. Following a stint in the Down East League, Russell flourished in the PTL. When duty called, he served in Desert Storm.

Many changes have been implemented in baseball through the years. These have involved a variety or things, from rules to the appearance of major league ball parks. Traditionalists, like Ionta have viewed several of these in a dim light.

“If I had my way,” Ionta said. “I’d get rid of the DH (designated hitter), aluminum bats, artificial turf, domed stadiums, the wayward strike zone, phantom tags and pants down to the ankles, and if a batter hit a home run off me and watched it leave the park, I wouldn’t drill him the next time he batted.”

LaPointe, 48, has organized the River Valley Baseball League, which could draw interest like the PTL. He offers a unique perspective that filters among everyone who has a desire for the game.

“It just seems like summer would not be complete without baseball,” LaPointe said. “The camaraderie is excellent. I still get excited each time I put on the uniform. Actually, I find some kids still love the game. I have been fortunate enough to coach (at Mountain Valley) many who have a passion for the sport.”

Each has played on championship teams from Rumford, Mexico and Dixfield in the PTL. In 2000, the five won the MSBL championship.

Palmer, 52, still relishes gripping the cowhide and propelling it toward home plate. The velocity may be lacking, but nobody can fault the effort. Still, his career encountered plenty of highlights since donning orange and black at Mexico High School. Palmer’s warning-track power held true, until he hit his first-ever home run several years ago.

“I can still remember learning the game at 7,” Palmer said. “We played at (George Harkness) sand pit on the end of Granite Street. A group of us would play all day long and if the cover came off the a ball, we’d use black electrical tape and drive nails in broken wooden bats.”

Ionta, also a Mexico alum, reluctantly admitted having set school records for six errors in one game.

They have also traveled to tournaments for the camaraderie and enjoyment of playing.

LaPointe said, “I have forged some friendships with players from other teams in our league and players from other leagues (Portland, New York). It is more of a convention of those who have a passion for the game.”

Playing together now for the Cardinals have added to their many baseball stories.

“I started playing MSBL because it was a way to still play baseball without interfering with other important things in life,” Paterson said. “It was only once a week on Sunday, where PTL was three games a week and practices. It allowed me to still compete, although in a little more gentlemanly manor, and still be able to spend quality time with my family and concentrate on my career. It also gave me an opportunity to not have to push myself as hard to compete with younger players on a continuous basis. I still feel I can compete for time to time, but not regularly.”

Along with the advancing ages, each player has dealt with an increasing array of injuries. These have included aggravated rotator cuffs, strains and (muscular) pulls in back and legs, knees without cartilage, and Achilles heels getting sore. Therefore, the need to do stretches and exercises have become a daily ritual in order to strengthen it.

“I can accept these things as they happen,” Ionta said. “But, what’s difficult to accept is the lessening of upper body strength and much slower bat speed. But, life goes on and so does baseball. My mindset now is that every season, every game or every inning may be my last, so I enjoy what I can do while I can still do it. Play hard, have fun.”


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