- Associated Press - Friday, September 12, 2014

DECATUR, Ill. (AP) - Approaching tournament time, Russell “Rusty” Heitz’s Cardinals slow-pitch softball team was winless. Heitz, the manager, wasn’t fretting.

“It’s still fun,” he insists. Win or lose, he’s satisfied.

Then he said he pitched like he did when he was 35 years old, and the Cardinals won the first game of a doubleheader 12-11, giving Rusty something to smile about.

The Decatur man is 77, perhaps the oldest player in the 113-team recreation league system. Dakota Getz, the Decatur Park District supervisor, doesn’t know for sure, but he suspects it might be true.

Heitz is his team’s tall, lean left-handed pitcher.

“I’ve had a sore arm most of the season,” he said. “Too much grass to mow. It’s a ‘down’ year. I’m just glad to be playing.”

He has played on slow-pitch championship teams at A.E. Staley Mfg. Co./Tate & Lyle where he worked for 29 years, starting in 1963, delivering mail on a bicycle and finishing as a food lab purchasing supervisor after studying at Millikin University.

The slow-pitch pitcher, who is usually right-handed, throws the ball underhand in a high arch. The batter times the descent and hammers it. The allowable height of the arch was 15 feet when he joined the slow-pitch brigade.

“Then they reduced it to 12 feet, and now it’s 10 feet,” Heitz said. “That reduces my effectiveness somewhat. I learned to compensate by putting more back spin on the pitch and varying the speed. “The other night when we won, the spin ball was really working,” Heitz grinned.

In fast-pitch softball, the pitcher has the edge. Slow-pitch is the batter’s delight. The pitcher is in danger of being hit by a line drive.

“The ball comes at you like a shot,” Heitz explains. “I wear a homemade chest protector under my shirt.”

A no-hitter is almost impossible. Heitz once came close. “I had it in the works, needing one more out,” Heitz remembers. “We had a sub in the outfield, and he missed a routine fly ball.”

He reckons he has been playing ball forever and pitching for 45 years, after starting as a kid in a one-room schoolhouse. He transferred to Cerro Gordo as a fourth-grader and completed grade school and high school there. He played the outfield then, was on state tournament grade school teams and was a pole vaulter in track and field.

Born with a twisted arm, he was deferred for military service.

He is still in demand: A team in Indianapolis has been in touch with him, and he has been invited to play in an old-timers league in Venice, Florida.

He’s not going anywhere, though. The members of Oak Grove Church of the Nazarene would miss their Sunday School superintendent.

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Source: (Decatur) Herald-Review, http://bit.ly/1vTibWQ

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Information from: Herald & Review, http://www.herald-review.com

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