SABR members play "base ball"

SABR members play "base ball"

CLEVELAND -- Jeff Kolodkin and his friend Evan Hayden were ringers. Neither man wore the uniform of the day, which was vintage 1800s.

They were also playing a game that neither one of them had seen before. They were playing a game of "base ball" on the grassy oval of University Circle, the city's cultural district on the East Side of town.

Kolodkin and Hayden weren't official members of either of the two teams that, thanks to the Society of American Baseball Research and its annual convention, brought "Vintage Base Ball" to the area Thursday. They were, however, by far the youngest participants in a game steeped in another era.

"I had a blast," said Hayden, a soon-to-be freshman at Case Western University.

He wasn't alone.

Before the rains washed out the event, two teams of players filled the green expanse, and all of them seemed to revel in the occasion -- a turn-back-the-clock experience from the game's yesteryear. Dressed in period uniforms, they played old-style base ball.

No gloves, a bigger ball and odd rules.

"It's different; it's unique," said Steve Koster, one of two dozen or so men who joined Kolodkin and Hayden. "I'm not a big fan of the beer softball leagues."

For Koster, Vintage Base Ball fits into where he is at this point in life. He's married with children, and the softball leagues, he said, seemed to exclude that part of his life. Vintage Base Ball doesn't.

The league doesn't carry the macho-man image of softball or of the over-30 baseball leagues that have become the vogue.

"There's more of a friendly atmosphere among the teams," said Koster, who's been playing the game for about six years now. "We're competitive on the field, but there's a more friendship and a camaraderie."

He described his participation in Vintage Base Ball as a family affair. When his team, the Canal Fulton (Ohio) Mules, takes to the road, he brings his family along as well.

The road trips are built around more than the games, Koster said. They are scheduled in cities around the region that offer cultural experiences, as well. So if his wife and children tire of watching the game, they can head off to a nearby museum or historical society and soak up that experience while he finishes the ballgame.

Koster, who works for a bathroom remodeling company, admitted he's somewhat of a late arrival to base ball. The manager of the Mules, Koster's team, isn't.

Ed Shurman traced his interest in base ball back to 1994, which was about the time he joined SABR. As a boy in Ohio, Shurman had always found American history fascinating. But like most of his childhood peers, he never thought about baseball in a historical sense.

Names like Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Bob Feller and the like did resonate with him, but the men who played in the 1800s meant nothing to him as he was growing up.

About the time he turned 14, he stopped playing baseball altogether. He fell victim, he said, to one of the unkindest cuts of all: coaches telling a kid he didn't make the team.

"They basically said, 'Only the good kids could play,' " said Shurman, an exhibition designer. "So this was my opportunity to play baseball again, not softball."

He was first introduced to base ball in '94 when the Ohio Village Muffins from Columbus, Ohio, taught Shurman and some of his friends the game. They were hooked.

Before warm weather and the baseball season rolled around in 1995, Shurman and his friends had their own base ball team. They'd used the months after the introduction to buy equipment, design uniforms and learn more about the game. Three other teams in the area came on board that season, and the Mules were in a league of their own.

Now, Shurman and the Mules were taking on a SABR team with a handful of youthful ringers like Kolodkin and Hayden, both strangers to the game and its rules.

Under those rules from the 1860s, an umpire called balls and strikes. The teams didn't have pitchers; they had "hurlers." They didn't have catchers; they had "behinds." But watch closely the peculiar mix of rules and the elements of today's game display themselves.

It was still baseball that Shurman and the boys dressed in 1800s garb played, even if it was two words (base ball) instead of one [baseball].

"I thought it was real fun," said Kolodkin, a soon-to-be freshman at Elon College in North Carolina. "I've never done anything like this. I haven't played baseball in a long time, but it was fun to go out there and play nostalgic baseball."

Justice B. Hill is a senior writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.