Pitcher, 83, Still Zips Balls Past Younger Batters
As the game before him finished up, he did his stretching exercises — as he does religiously before every outing — on a nearby bench.
Then, when it was time, he stepped into the wire-mesh dugout at Schoolhouse Park and rooted through his black Louisville Slugger equipment bag until he found the jar of "magic cream" he said he got from "the Indians in Nevada."
It's actually called Wintercrest All-Natural Healing Balm — a product of the Sacred Ground Healing Ministries in Pahrump, Nevada — and Dick Pavlak rubbed some of it on his right shoulder and right elbow before heading out onto the field with his Miami Valley 48s teammates.
As he stepped up onto the pitcher's mound and began to toe the dirt to his liking, a few of the players in the dugout of the opposition — the Trolley Dodgers — were buzzing with curiosity as they watched.
In the small section of bleachers on the 48s' side of the field, Dick's daughter, Sandee Dilley, a University of Dayton cheerleader in the 1980s who had come in for Father's Day from her Orlando home, quietly admitted she was anxious:
"I get nervous when he pitches now, just like I used to when my son pitched."
That trepidation quickly evaporated as Dick — throwing nothing but sliders — got two quick strikes on the leadoff batter and then got him to ground out to the shortstop.
"Atta boy, Pops!" urged the second baseman, who is also Dick's 55-year-old son, Randy, and the Sugarcreek Twp. fire chief.
Later in the inning, when one of the Dodgers reached second after a hit, he asked Randy the question several of his teammates had debated:
"Is that pitcher really 83 years old?"
"Sure is," Randy said with a laugh.
Back in the dugout, if you read the label on that magic cream, you saw it claims to be "Every athlete's best friend. Every mom's first aid kit. Mother Nature's miracle in a jar."
But on this Father's Day, the real miracle was on the mound.
For this game — part of the Masters Division of the Miami Valley Roy Hobbs Baseball League — all of the players had to be at least 45 years old. Dick, though, was well on his way to twice that and he had 29 years on the oldest Dodger, who was 54, and 21 years on Loy Mast, the second oldest guy on his team.
Although he would have a rough outing that Sunday — the Dodgers crowded the front of the batter's box to get his pitches before they broke — he ended up simply switching positions with his son and soon was scooping up grounders with ease.
"Anybody who stayed back in the box against him had trouble," said the Dodgers' 46-year-old catcher, Scott Tulloch. "He threw breaking balls all the time and everybody was lost when they broke on them."
Chris Wallace, the 48s' first baseman, who recently batted against Dick in a scrimmage game, agreed: "Just because he doesn't throw hard doesn't mean he isn't effective. That breaking ball looks like it's going to come straight into the plate and be nice to hit. But by the time you get your bat around, it's gone. It slid somewhere off the plate."
That's what happened weeks earlier when Pavlak ignored the day's heat and threw a complete nine-inning game in Cincinnati, beating the Colt 55s, 9-6.
"That day he came to me after the sixth and said he was getting a little tired," said 48s manager Terrey Fair. "So I started to warm up, but then he comes up and says, 'I think I can go one more.' Then he had like a four-pitch inning, so he said he'd try one more. And before you knew it, it's the ninth inning and he sets 'em down one, two, three, and we go home winners."
That was 47-year-old Tim Azbill's first game with the 48s: "I'd say only three of their six runs were earned, but he just kept battling. He had to have thrown 150 pitches that day. He was incredible.
"Since then, I've told almost every person I've seen — my wife, my daughters, my friends, my own father who's 78 — 'You got to see this guy play baseball.'"
When Dodgers pitcher Joe Schubert — a 51-year-old Clearcreek Twp. firefighter — heard about Dick's yeoman task, he just shook his head: "I know how sore I am after (Sunday's) game. I can't imagine how he felt."
Dick shrugged off the challenge: "I played third base the next morning in my regular softball league."
He played in another softball league that Monday night and then in different leagues on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
This summer he's playing in five different softball leagues across the Miami Valley each week, and come winter he'll switch to basketball, both at the Kettering Rec Center and in Fort Myers Beach, when he relocates part time to Florida.
His most surprising efforts, though, now come in baseball, where he not only plays in the Roy Hobbs league, but with Randy in all-comers tournaments across the nation.
"The spirit of baseball is a young man's game and I think that is what keeps him young," Randy said.
And it was that transformation that struck a chord with Tulloch, the opposing catcher, following that Sunday's game:
"How about that — an 83-year-old pitcher! How awesome was that?"
"That was amazing," said Dodgers manager Greg Hammond. "Simply amazing."
While his half brother is Ron Nischwitz — the Ohio State Hall of Famer, left-handed relief pitcher with the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians in 1960s and later the famed baseball coach at Wright State — Dick had to kick start his own path to baseball glory.
He said he was cut from his Fairview High team each season until his senior year, when — after a tournament game where he failed as a hitter to bring in the tying run — he went home and dedicated himself to becoming better at the plate:
"I tied a rope to a tree, fixed the baseball to it, put up a backstop so the ball would (carom) back toward me and then I just stood there and swung at it, day after day after day. From then on I was a No. 3 or No 4 hitter on the (amateur) teams I played for."
Early on he also mentored his brother, who is seven years younger. And by the time Nischwicz was starring at Fairview High, Dick was in the stands almost every game: "I'd get so nervous I couldn't sit still."
When Nischwitz was in the big leagues — especially as the Tigers top reliever in 1962 — Dick would go to some of the games: "I can remember him pitching against guys like Berra, Mantle and Maris (New York Yankees). He threw during the good times of baseball."
By then, Dick — who had graduated with an engineering degree from the General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) in Flint, Michigan — was married and he and his late wife, Kitty, soon would have four kids — Rick, Randy, Cindy and Sandee. And through the years, he took on life with that same vigor and determination he once used to make himself a better hitter.
He said he always worked two jobs. He spent 33 years at Trane as a sales engineer and also worked as a contractor, developed and managed properties, taught nights at Sinclair, did consulting engineering jobs and he and Randy still run a local heating and air conditioning company.
About 25 years ago, he said he got serious about softball and soon was with a talent-studded team from Cincinnati that won numerous national titles and five age-bracket World Series crowns. With another team, he won a 2006 Senior World Series in which he relieved former big league pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee on the mound.
He wears one of those golden championship rings on his right hand and said he's given the rest to his grandkids.
On his left hand is the bulky ring he got when he was elected into the National Senior Softball Hall of Fame.
In 1996, Randy — who had pitched at Bellbrook and Centerville high schools and then Draughons Junior College in Tennessee — asked his dad to help fill out the roster of a Roy Hobbs' over-30 team (Dick was 65) that he'd be playing with in a tournament in Florida.
Dick ended up pitching and doing well against the 30-something batters. "After that, I had the bug," he said.
As for his current pitching repertoire, he shrugged: "I just throw a slider. I used to have an in-shoot, but my arm doesn't rotate like it did." As he thought about that, he started to laugh: "One day a new catcher said, 'OK, 1 is a fastball and 2..' I said, 'Hold up, there is no fastball. Don't give me any signals, just give me a target.'"
Cliff Cerbus is his catcher now: "He's really consistent and it's difficult for other teams to adjust to him when they're used to someone faster and he's chucking all those breaking balls up there."
The 54-year-old Cerbus is a physicist at the University of Dayton Research Institute, and in his current work he simulates outer space. About 10 years ago he appeared on the History Channel show "Modern Marvels."
A decade later, he now shares the battery with a modern marvel.
And that's not an exaggeration.
According to Randy, his dad regularly runs sprints in his Centerville backyard and does sit ups and pull-ups every day. Other than that he takes vitamins, watches what he eats and mostly, as Dick puts it, "I just try to keep my mind and body active."
Sandee summed it up best:
"With dad, age is really just mind over matter."
Randy said his dad gave him his first pitching instructions in the front yard of their home which was then on Plantation Trail in Bellbrook:
"The sidewalk going to our house was my pitching rubber, that way I could push off it. My dad caught me and I can always remember him saying, 'Drive forward . Bend your back.'
"The funny thing is, when I was pitching the other day, I heard him say the exact same thing. Only this time he was playing second base. After all these years, the message hasn't changed — just the place from where he says it.
"Getting to play alongside Dad is fantastic. Not many fathers and sons can play baseball like this — and certainly not for 20 years. It's extremely special.
"We lost mom about 15 years ago. She used to sit in the stands for every one of our games. Since she's been gone, Dad and I have ended up sharing more and more of a bond. We've shared tons of life together just sitting on (dugout) benches or traveling to games all over the country."
Sometimes Dick's grandsons join them when they play those all-comers tournaments at places like Cooperstown, New York, Progressive Field, the home of the Cleveland Indians, and recently at Birmingham, Alabama's storied Rickwood Field, the oldest surviving professional ballpark in the United States.
"My brother pitched there in 1959. He went 14-7 with a 2.10 ERA. His name is on the locker room there," Dick said, his voice now hitching on emotion. "It was thrilling for me to go out on that very same mound and throw three or four innings. And it was even more special because Randy and my grandson Sean were playing alongside me."
The Roy Hobbs' games back here might not come with such fabled trappings, but they do tap into some similar chords of inner delight, said the team's 51-year-old shortstop, Tom Hatton.
And the same can now be said of his Sunday baseball.
"The league allows us to be kids again," Hatton said. "You get to lead off. We use wooden bats. There's nothing like the solid hit of a baseball on a wood bat. You can replicate that with an alumni bat . you can just really get into the game again."
That was never more evident than during a visit to Dick's home in Centerville.
"I want to show you something," he said, as he led the way to the backyard, where he has an 80-foot long, mesh-covered batting cage with an ATEC pitching machine — set to high school speed, he said — standing at one end. "I come out here regularly and try to hit at least three rounds of balls at a time."
At the other end of the cage was a pitching target that he regularly throws into.
Propped against the fence behind it was another one that was a bit tattered from overuse.
"My fiancee got me that one," he said matter-of-factly.
He nodded and said Judy Dejarld is from Illinois, but winters as he does at Fort Myers Beach. Her grandkids are accomplished athletes, too.
"So you're getting married?" he was asked.
"Oh I don't know," Dick said as he now threw a verbal slider. "I mean we've been engaged quite a while. There's not a rush."
Of course not.
He's just 83 and still a Modern Marvel.
Information from: Dayton Daily News, http://www.daytondailynews.com