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Slow Pitch, Fast Times

Playing still comes naturally after all these years.

Shepperson, 72, has covered first base for Westhampton Baptist for nearly 50 years, since he returned home from the Korean War to start a family and a career as an insurance investigator. He was a Methodist, he recalls, until he married his wife in 1951. He converted because her grandparents were charter members of the Three Chopt Road church.

Jerry Ferrell, who keeps his age to himself, found religion on his own. Five years after he stormed the beach at Normandy in World War II, he landed a job at C&P Telephone and a place on a softball team pitching for Grove Avenue Baptist, back when the church was on Grove Avenue. It was 1949.

Shepperson and Ferrell grew up in tough times when money was scarce and the chance to play baseball expired with wartime service. Still, the game consumed them. As a boy, Shepperson says, he’d ride his bike south from his North Side home near Laburnum and Hermitage avenues to what was called Eddie Mooers’ Field, a ballpark in Scott’s Addition where Class B Piedmont League teams would play. Often major league teams like the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees would stop in Richmond on their way back from spring training in Florida to play whatever team was around.

“I never had enough money to go inside,” Shepperson recalls, “so I’d climb up a tree in left field and wait for a home-run ball and go chase it.” He once saw Ted Williams play at the field. “I always admired him,” he says of the fellow lefty. “He interrupted his baseball career to fight as a pilot in World War II. He was what they called a natural hitter. He batted 400 one year, which is almost unheard of now.”

Church-league softball in 2004 is a different game from what it was nearly a half-century ago. For one thing, the game was fast pitch. And, Shepperson says, “You could steal bases.” Since then, the distance between the bases has increased from 60 feet to 65 feet, he adds, “making it harder for the older guys.” The equipment has changed, too. Take the bats, for instance. “When we first started they were all wood,” he notes. Next came bats that were metal with a kind of wooden-sleeved handle.

Today, aluminum and graphite Worths, Eastons and Louisville Sluggers are propped up against the chain-link cage that arches high over home plate. Thanks to the new bats, Shepperson reckons, “It’s a faster game, mostly defense. You almost have to hit a home run now to get to first.”

Or else you learn to live with it. First base is Shepperson’s specialty. It’s where he’s spotted fielding grounders or pop-ups or coaching his teammates while they’re at bat.

“OK, we’ve got one out. Watch for a line drive to left and go,” he relays to a young man, No. 32, standing half-crouched on the canvas bag, his hands on his knees. First base is also Shepperson’s finish line. If he gets walked or gets a hit, he runs full steam to the bag where a designated runner steps in.

“I probably should have hung it up,” Shepperson says, a bit winded after one such sprint. But the game hasn’t let him. “I take it on a year-to-year basis. I go out to the first practice, and I tell myself if I can still make it to first, I can still play.”

Pitcher Ferrell wears glasses, khaki trousers and No. 4 on his navy Grove Avenue jersey. He throws and swings with a form that’s consistent and meticulous. For now, he appears as serious about this as he is about making comebacks.

“Anybody can hit a slow pitch if they try hard enough,” he says. “It surprises me that anybody strikes out.” When Ferrell’s lucky, they do.

“I try to put as much spin on it as I can, and when it spins, some of the guys say it curves a little. Sometimes, if I remember, I try to hesitate a little to get their swing off. The younger guys are so anxious to hit the ball, they take the first pitch. I can see them prancing on both feet.”

On the mound, Ferrell is something of a maverick. At bat, he’s an enigma. “C’mon, Jerry,” his teammates urge. “How old’s Jerry?” one asks. “He won’t tell you straight,” answers a redheaded player. Someone blurts that Ferrell’s been playing for 50 years. Another insists it’s more like 60.

Ferrell likes to keep them guessing. “I don’t tell the guys my age,” Ferrell says. “I just say I’m on the north side of 39.”

At the top of the fifth the score is 13-0 — a Westhampton stomp. In the sky, swirling moths and the lime neon of a Holiday Inn sign replace the sun. Cars and trucks whiz along the Boulevard and the interstate just beyond the outfield. A few dozen spectators, mostly moms and wives, sit in the bleacher stand, now a blended congregation. Kids flit about or toss baseballs, gloveless, across the clover-covered dirt.

“All right Grove, we need runs,” Ferrell charges. “And a lot of ’em,” adds his teammate, No. 2.

A few thwucks and dings yield base knocks. At last, Grove scores. Still, when the umpire calls time after the 50-minute limit, Westhampton wins 16 to 1.

The two teams shake hands, pat shoulders and smile at each other like family. Then they resume positions for the second game. Ferrell predicts a turnaround. If pitching softball for 55 years has taught him anything, it’s that the game can change. “What’s so thrilling is coming back from behind,” he says. As it happens, he sticks around to see his team win 9 to 8. S

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