Only two things can keep the senior baseball players away from Acalanes baseball fields on Thursday nights -- Daylight Saving Time and a custodial fee.
As they wrapped up their last practice of the fall, the ballplayers weren't sure if they could return next spring as they have since 1988. The problem is that the Acalanes Union High School District is trying to cut down on use of its fields by groups not directly tied to the schools. And the baseball players aren't seniors at Acalanes High School, but seniors by virtue of their age.
"Our community is loving the fields to death and we're not able to keep up with it," said Chris Learned, associate superintendent of business services with the Acalanes district. "We have to enforce our policy on the fields."
Learned said it is a long-standing policy that community members should pay a fee, fill out a community use form and show proof of insurance. He said new tracking software is allowing him to more closely monitor who should be on the fields at any given hour.
On Nov. 4 at around 6 p.m., the Acalanes fields were crowded, even as the sun sank behind the hills. Almost every bit of grass around the fields behind the tennis courts was in use by adult soccer players, Pop Warner football players and dog walkers. Every tennis court was in use.
A padlock attached to the gates leading into the fields was unused -- but wouldn't be for long. Last week, the school began locking the gates, and a custodian will now open the gate for approved community groups.
The baseball players, a group of about seven men who belong to Tri-Valley Men's Senior Baseball League but live in the Lamorinda area, say this is the only place for them to practice. The district said they will allow the players to use the fields for $20 an hour, and the players were unsure whether they would have to pay the $40 an hour custodial fee.
"We can afford the $20 an hour to use the fields. But if they charge us the custodial fee that's just too much for us. That would make it $120 just for the hour and a half we are out here."
Learned said the custodial fee will only be charged if the school is required to keep a custodian longer than normal hours. He said the baseball players may be exempt from the custodial fee, something the players said this week they hadn't been told.
"If there's an outhouse then that's fine," said Learned. "I just don't need men out there doing their business in public."
Ching said the other fields in the area are too small for them to use, and the Acalanes baseball field has batting cages. He said they try not to damage the fields in any way, but he said they could be blamed if some other member of the public used it on another night and left the field in bad shape.
"We have always had a good relationship with the coaches. We always ask their permission and tell them we'll do anything to help with the fields. We even offered to donate money to the team but the school district said we'd have to give it to them and they would decide what to do with the money."
Catcher Sandy Wishnev, 71, said he and the other senior baseball players would maintain the fields well because they have been around baseball for so long.
"They said that we don't have the right tools and they can't leave the tools out or give us a key to the shed," said Wishnev.
The district's Learned doubted such as that could be worked out.
"The coach does a lot of that already. They've never asked me if they could drag the field. If they are going to drag the field by hand, that might be OK. I can't have them be doing work our groundskeepers would be doing, especially after we've had layoffs."
Wishnev said a Men's Senior Baseball League team in Santa Rosa takes care of two fields for the parks district in return for using the fields. He says he hears of many teams that have special relationships with their local school and parks districts, and is a bit jealous.
Learned said that there have been misconceptions on both sides, and Wishnev said communicating with the district has gotten much easier lately.
"I am happy that they agreed to rent it out to us, but we'll see where it goes from here. Things are much better now than they were."
The players have a wide variety of jobs -- wine broker, television producer, dentist -- but come Thursday night, they are ballplayers getting ready for the Sunday games or tournaments in other states.
"This is very high competition," said Ching. "Most of these guys played in college and many even have minor league experience. Some are ex-major leaguers."
Ching, a second baseman who will turn 60 in February, has managed to keep his body chiseled. Ching said some pitchers on his team still throw around 80 mph. How is Wishnev able to still crouch behind home plate as a catcher for nine innings?
"That's why I need to practice, to keep my legs tuned up," Wishnev said. "I brush my teeth in a crouch."
Wishnev said he "hung up his spikes" due to injuries in 1966 after playing college baseball and semipro. It wasn't until 1988 when someone saw him playing catch with his son and recommended he play in MSBL.
In MSBL, the rules are mostly the same as for regular baseball, except for rules such as "giving yourself up" in a rundown on the basepaths in order to promote safety. Managers also can play nine players on offense and nine other players on defense. This allows managers to play people unable to perform both aspects of the game due to injury or mobility issues. There are age groups of 25 and up, 35 and up, 45 and up and 55 and up.
"Forty-five and up used to be the last age group. But what happened is people kept playing as they got older so they started a new age group," Ching said.
For more information on TVMSBL, go to http://www.tvmsbl.com/main.htm.