A sport for the ages
21 May 2015
Although baseball people quite properly promote and applaud excellence at all levels – while nurturing participation and engagement by younger persons - there is one area of our sport that has grown quite dramatically and quite surprisingly to some over the past two decades.
Masters baseball has become a phenomenon over that time, as more and more people seize upon the opportunity to stay actively involved and to thereby access the personal and social benefits of a continuing engagement in the game – regardless of age.
While there is a broad community awareness of the benefits of an active sporting lifestyle, baseball has been at the vanguard of the trend to offer opportunities for persons of all ages to stay involved.
Thirty or forty years ago, it was unusual for any professional baseballer to play on into his late thirties, forties or even fifties. At grassroots club level it was even less common, with most players having hung up the cleats by the early thirties.
There were exceptions, of course. The likes of Victorians Jack Wadsworth and Eddie Illingworth (below) were among the minority who seemed to be ageless and who were prepared to go on, season after season, summer and winter alike. But they were certainly in the minority, and those of their ilk were usually regarded as oddities or persons of exceptional capacity in being willing and able to play on.
From the mid-eighties, there was a gradual though perceptible attitudinal change among those more seriously involved in baseball – and in other team sports. Whether it was related to increased longevity, generally more healthy lifestyles, greater access to leisure time or to spending capacity, that change was recognised by some - including organisers of the very early Alice Springs Masters Games, an event that is still going strong nearly thirty years after being established in 1986.
The Australian Masters Games – first played in Tasmania - was established in 1987, there was an early Western Australia State Masters and even a Norfolk Island Veterans Games as governments and businesses began to tune in to the potential of mature-aged sporting activity.
The Australian Sports Commission was among the government agencies that recognised the changing Australian demographic and the potential that mature-aged sport offered to an ageing population. Published in 1992, its key report - titled “Play On” – documented the work of acolyte Ron Burns, who made a wealth of recommendations regarding Masters sport and its potential to enhance the quality of our lives into the twenty-first century.
Among a myriad of insights that have demonstrably stood the test of time, Ron Burns summed up the benefits of mature-aged sport thus:
“There are great benefits to the individual from involvement in regular activity at a mature age, benefits which include better health, increased social activity, elevated mood states and greater independence. There are subsidiary benefits for the families of these active people as the period of dependence when they may need to care for aged relatives is reduced. The nation benefits from a fit ageing population, not only because its society is healthier but in the accompanying reduced health care costs. There is strong motivation to encourage those who are not involved to become more active.”
While there was an emerging trend among ageing athletes – including baseballers – to play on past their use-by date, the real awakening for many people across the gamut of sports activity came around 1994, when Brisbane played host to the World Masters Games.
First held in Canada in 1985, the World Masters attracted over 8000 competitors from 60 countries. That was followed – in Denmark in 1989 - by a second event that drew a disappointing 5500 people across 37 sports.
While weather, location and marketing may all have played a role in those modest northern hemisphere events, there was an explosion of interest in and support for the 1994 World Masters Games in Brisbane, which attracted an extraordinary 24,500 people from 74 countries in an active and uplifting demonstration of the Games catchcry - “The Challenge Never Ends”.
Total numbers dropped off for the ensuing World Masters in Portland Oregon in 1998, but the 2002 event – in Victoria, Australia – again drew nearly 25,000 people engaged in dozens of sports spread across Melbourne and provincial centres.
Then in Sydney in 2009, over 28,000 people from 95 countries demonstrated their support for Masters sport, which is based on a simple and all-embracing set of principles.
Masters sport was never intended to imply or require any particular qualification or any special level of achievement for persons to become involved. Age was to be the only qualification for entry.
Consequently it became possible, and indeed common, for former elite performers to be playing with or competing against any others from their age group – often moderate club performers or even persons starting out in a particular sport.
The emphasis was always to be on challenging oneself, on healthy competiveness, on social engagement and enjoyment. For a team sport, inclusiveness and supportiveness are fundamental in a setting where all teammates and opponents will be respected and treated as equals.
Baseball was one of the most popular team events at the 1994 World Masters Games, with several hundred players being drawn from across Australia, from South Africa, from United States and from the Pacific region – for competition offered in 35 Plus and 45 Plus age groupings.
After the 1994 event, mature-aged baseball caught on very quickly, with Western Australia and Victoria the first states to establish Masters competitions within their existing structures. There was huge interest in, and support for the two-yearly Australian Masters Games - while the Alice Springs Masters and World Masters continued to go from strength to strength.
As increasingly more individuals were drawn to Masters as a means of staying engaged or becoming re-engaged in the sport, organisations - and in some cases individuals - responded by seeking to provide playing opportunities that were separate to mainstream club baseball.
Among those, two particular events gained a foothold during the nineties and have carried the flag for Masters baseball ever since.
Although they are quite different in organisational nature and other respects, baseball competition for the Pan Pacific Masters Games and the stand-alone Victorian Masters Baseball Carnival continue – twenty years later – to meet a clear demand in the community by demonstrating that you are indeed never too old to be actively involved in our chosen sport.
Never too old, that is, to access the considerable benefits to which the venerable Ron Burns referred back in the early nineties.
The Victorian Masters Baseball Carnival was established in 1997 by two founding members of Ballarat Golddiggers Baseball Club, an entity that was initially formed to participate in the 1994 World Masters in Brisbane.
Starting out as a four-day event involving four teams, the annual Carnival – now jam packed into three wonderful rollicking days - will celebrate its twentieth anniversary in mid-March 2016.
Apart from several drought years when it was held at Geelong Baseball Centre, the Victorian Masters has been played at its Ballarat home (Prince of Wales Reserve). It attracted 21 teams in 2015 and has been capped at 24 for 2016. Hosted by Ballarat City Baseball Club, the appropriately-named Carnival has become a major event on the City of Ballarat calendar – one that is renowned for its adaptability, its value for money and the fun-filled, welcoming spirit that it offers for players in ages ranging from 35 through to the late sixties.
Sanctioned by Baseball Australia, the Victorian Masters is a strictly not-for profit event that currently receives no funding assistance from government, governing bodies nor the corporate sector. While it is delivered by a small organising group with the assistance of the Ballarat City Brewers Baseball Club volunteer base, it is in every sense owned by the participants.
A two-yearly event, Pan Pacific Masters Games started out in a similar yet somewhat less humble manner.
Following the success of the World Masters Games in Brisbane, the inaugural Queensland Masters Games were held in 1995 in Townsville, before moving to the Gold Coast the following year. The event soon evolved into the Asia Pacific Masters Games and then the Pan Pacific Masters Games in 2002 - with increased interest from Asia, Japan, America, Oceania and New Zealand.
The Pan Pacific Masters Games are held biennially on the Gold Coast, in early November. Consistently among the most popular team sports, baseball attracted forty-five teams for the 2014 series, which offered competition for players ranging in age from 35 to their late sixties.
Fully sanctioned by Baseball Australia, the Pan Pacific Masters baseball competition is organised and delivered by Surfers Paradise Baseball Club, which has been at the forefront of Masters baseball since the mid-nineties and which consistently receives plaudits for its efficient delivery of a sporting component that has fundamentally helped in the expansion of the Games overall.
For the 2012 Pan Pacific Masters Games, there were more than 12,200 participants from over twenty countries - and from every Australian state and territory.
For the 2014 event, upwards of twenty million dollars was injected into Queensland’s economy, with in excess of 30,000 visitors to the Gold Coast providing a serious boost to local tourism, business and employment. Of that number, it is estimated that well over 1000 were baseball players, officials and supporters.
Former Queensland Minister for Tourism, Major Events and Small Business Jann Stuckey said the ninth biennial multi-sport event proved a major economic boost for the region and the state.
“The Jupiters Pan Pacific Masters Games has cemented its position as a world-class international sporting event with record-breaking participation figures for the fourth consecutive time in its history,” Ms Stuckey said after the 2014 Games.
“The event is estimated to have generated $19.06 million for Queensland’s economy, an increase of fourteen per cent on the 2012 edition of the Games, demonstrating the importance of participatory events to the local community.”
Different as the two events may be in their organisational structure, their frequency, their magnitude, their length and economic impact, the Pan Pacific baseball competition and the Victorian Masters Baseball Carnival have many elements in common.
Both provide playing opportunities and active social engagement for participants. Both offer high-standard competition for players still capable at elite level and both cater for more social, less intense competition that is equally satisfying for other participants.
Both events have a positive impact on the local community and both consistently generate income of benefit to grassroots baseball clubs and local business interests.
Both have engaged local councils in improving baseball facilities and both rely heavily for their delivery on the input and work effort of club volunteers. While this is a good thing in helping build clubs – and club spirit – there will inevitably be challenges that need to be met and concerns that need to be addressed.
Above all else, these two enduring Masters baseball events continue to meet a demand and respond to a need in our sporting community. The development of Masters baseball over the past two decades has helped empower all of us who may seek to play on – or at least to stay actively engaged in the sport, in some manner or another - for as long as we are physically and mentally able.
EDITORS NOTE: There are very many other events – at all levels, and of all natures - that provide great service for the Australian baseball community. Shoot us an email if your organisation, or your club has a story that it would like to be told (firstname.lastname@example.org)