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The Boston Globe

Beisbol In Boston: Like The Red Sox, The Over-40 Boston Senators Field A Team Dominated By Latinos. For This Changing Town, It's About Time

By Johnny Diaz

June 2, 2002
Copyright © 2002
The Boston Globe. All Rights Reserved.

"Saca la, saca la," Lazaro Ponce cheers on the batter, telling him to blast the ball out of the field.

"Tira lo sin mantequilla!" shouts outfielder Leon Saturnini to the catcher, advising him to hurl the ball without butter.

The ball greets the bat, a pounding thwack like a gunshot thunders the air, silencing - for the moment - the stream of Spanish infield chatter at Roslindale's Fallon Field.

All eyes are locked on the little white sphere as it soars high, high, and higher against the bright blue Boston sky. The ball begins to fade . . . only to fling back like a boomerang. It flies backwards, plummeting towards the bleachers behind home plate, where passers-by, a photographer and writer, duck for cover.

"Heads up!" players burst out.

Ponce, bellowing and laughing, chides his batter, "Do you want me to reverse the field for you? We can do that, you know."

Ponce has had his eye on the ball ever since he was a youngster in his native Havana, where he trained with Cuba's national team. Nearly a half-century later - and about 1,800 miles to the north - Ponce has found a new field of dreams, helping run the first Latino- dominated baseball team in the over-40 Boston Men's Senior League. In many ways, the presence of such a team in Boston is long overdue, given census figures showing a burgeoning Hispanic population. Like their big-league counterparts, who are led by Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Ugueth Urbina and Manny Ramirez, the Boston Senators are dominated by Latinos - men who grew up on the ballfields of Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Like this year's Red Sox, Ponce's team hopes to more than hold its own in the 10-team division, which is beginning play this week.

Some are in their 60s. The youngest is 40.

Age and winning are of little consequence here. (The team's inaugural record last season: 2-11.)

Having fun is.

For these guys, playing for the Boston Senators is a way to strike out past disappointments and hit home runs in the game they love, surrounded by friends.

Friendships are born, or reborn.

It is to be young again as they were in the Hub - or in Havana, for example, where Ponce trained on the Cuban national team and was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies organization.

"There is a beauty in baseball," says Ponce, whose bravado and youthful vigor mask his true age, 64. "At this age and stage in my life, this is my life. I love my baseball. When I play, I feel like I am 15 years old again. It's like reliving my youth."

A talented outfielder, Ponce still carries his Cuban national team baseball card, emblazoned with his baby-faced photo, in his wallet. Although baseball was in his heart, the rise of Fidel Castro pressured Ponce, like thousands of other Cubans, to put baseball in the backseat while forging a new life in the United States. He came to Boston in 1962, where he worked service jobs in hotels and restaurants, until he saved up enough money to open up his own Chevron station and car repair shop in Allston.

But he couldn't outrun baseball.

When he wasn't running his repair shop, he would play in Boston's adult leagues. "At my age, I can still run, steal bases, and play outfield," says Ponce, who is also the athletic director at the Jackson Mann Community Center in Brighton, where he passes on his baseball know-how to neighborhood children. "Beisbol is what I know."

Beisbol always been big in much of Latin America, praised and followed in fervor of almost religious status . Ask many Latinos about baseball and chances are they will wax rhapsodic about the time they picked up their first bat, hit a home run or watched their first professional game. They are missionaries of the sport that is number one in their countries.

In Cuba, for example, baseball has survived revolutions, coups, and communism, and the island has been a bonanza for an ever growing pool of talent. It is the jewel of the island's sports machine. To the Boston Senators, who call the Boston Red Sox las medias rojas, baseball is beisbol.

Why the Senators? Ponce chose the name as a homage to the Washington Senators, the since-departed Major League Baseball team which signed a trove of Cuban stars pre-Castro.

"Cubans love baseball. It's the sport of our country," says Saturnini, 65, who played baseball in his Havana hometown as a teenager and continued playing when he moved to Boston in 1962. Although he and Ponce played in Cuba, they didn't know each other until they met in Boston during one of the adult leagues about 40 years ago. Saturnini, who has a beaming smile despite some missing front teeth, has a lively fastball and nasty curveball, one that he fiercely wields during practice. "The beautiful part about baseball is that it brings people together. It doesn't matter if you are Cuban or Puerto Rican or black or white, when you play baseball, you are on the same team. That is the spirt of the game - everyone just having a good time and playing good baseball."

When the team needed a catcher last month during a preseason exhibition game, the competing team, the Watertown Cardinals, loaned the Senators their back-up catcher, Mark Leccese. The part-time journalism professor and Globe contributor says he learned a thing or two, beginning with some Spanish catch phrases, such as "vaca vieja," which loosely translates as old slow-moving cow. In between plays came streams of tobacco juice.

"These guys can play," says Leccese, who was known as Marco The Catcher for that exhibition. "I had no idea what they were saying, but they seem to have more fun than any other team in the league. American boys might play baseball until they are 15 or 16, and then not play for years until they get back into it. I don't think these guys ever stopped playing baseball. This is the only team in the league that the majority of the players are Latino, and they are the oldest team in the league, and that is remarkable."

At 40, Rogelio Benitez, known as Choco to the team, is one of the youngsters.

His father and Ponce introduced him to the sport as a youngster growing up in Jamaica Plain. He competed with the Park League teams at Jefferson and Murphy fields. After college, he put aside his glove to pursue a career in information technology.

"When Ponce called me up the other day, he said, `Do you still have your fastball?' " recalled Benitez, of West Roxbury. "I thought it would be fun to play with Ponce, Leon and the other older guys. It's like playing with family."

As the practice on this Saturday afternoon begins to wind down, Ponce is still in motion. Padded in his red umpire gear, resembling a cinematic Robocop, he stalks the diamond.

"Otra vez!" he shouts.


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