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After 35 summers, the Pits softball team still going strong

Beth Bragg

Alec Kay figures he joined the Pits softball team two decades ago, in the mid-1990s.

"He's a rookie," utility player Linda Wilson said.

"They still call me the new guy," Kay said.

Longevity is a proud tradition in Alaska, where almost every debate comes to a sudden halt once the how-long-have-you-lived-here card is played. When it comes to seniority on the softball field, few teams can beat the Pits, who date back to the very beginning of coed softball in Anchorage -- 1979.

Wilson, 62, played for the Pits that very first season, and has played for them every season since. Barb Malchick, 61, and Barb Brink, 58, joined the team in 1982. Wilson's brother Johnny, 54, joined in 1983. Randy Jacobs, 70, and Mike Siedl, 54, joined in 1984. Tab Ballantine, 59, joined in 1992. Laurie Ford, 60, isn't sure when she joined, "but my son's 23, and it was before then," she said.

The Pits have watched families expand and romance bloom at Delaney Park Strip diamonds and Cartee Fields dugouts.

Malchick, the catcher, and Jacobs, the pitcher, went from battery mates to bride and groom. Teammates for several years before they became romantically linked in 1991, their 1992 wedding featured a cake with a softball on the top and figurines of pitchers and catchers on each tier.

At a game Wednesday at Cartee, 21/2-year-old Coralie D'Atri, a third-generation Pit, roamed the dugout. Her grandmother is Wilson and her mom is Whitney D'Atri, who joined the team about 10 years ago but is taking this summer off because her second child is due in early July.

"I remember being in the dugouts as a 5-year-old and playing in the dirt," said D'Atri, 34. "I've been raised by all of these people.

"The coolest part is they started out as my parents' friends, and now they are my friends."

Whether they are playing ball or bantering, the Pits exude an easy familiarity. There are oft-told stories about the time they got robbed in Kenai (by an umpire, not actual thieves) and the time Wilson's husband got kicked out of a game for excessive whistling (if you ever hear Brad Owens whistle, you'll understand).

There are jokes about how the Pits are so old they provide job security for two team members. Brink notes that Kay is a physical therapist, "and we're all clients," and Debbie Boots is a massage therapist, "and we're all clients."

There are well-respected team rules, most of them dealing with beer. "Leave anything in the dugout after a game, it's a case of beer," Wilson said. "Look at a third strike, it's a case of beer."

And there is the self-deprecation that comes when your pitcher is 70 and your team's average age is 50, a number lowered by the participation of second-generation players Eric Owens, 28, Kellan Ford, 23, and Billy Ballantine, 18.

"Billy and Kellan are the only two guys who can run," Brink said.

Jacobs, a 1963 East High graduate, is the team's oldest player and is hobbled by a knee injury left over from his days in the military. He's money on the mound but a bit of a liability on the basepaths. In the sixth inning Wednesday, Jacobs hit a hard grounder to third base, and the third baseman made the putout with an underhanded lob to first base.

"That's the Pits," 53-year-old Kathy Dawson said as she watched the slow-motion play from the dugout.

Truth be told, the Pits, who have been sponsored by Moose's Tooth for the last 15 seasons, relish their senior-citizen status.

Said Siedl: "It's fun when the other team sees how old we are and says, 'We can't lose to these guys!' ''

"... With a little desperation in their voices," added Brink.

Plenty of teams with younger lineups have fallen victim to the Pits. After years of success in the D League, they were bumped up to the more competitive C League this year.

The Pits, who won all three of their games last week, succeed because they show defensive restraint -- they seldom make the kind of unwise throws that often lead to extra bases -- and they have women who can hit.

In a seven-run second inning Wednesday, four of the five women who batted delivered hits, including 51-year-old Boots, who belted a run-scoring triple. The only woman who didn't get a hit that inning contributed an RBI.

But maybe the most important woman in the history of the Pits is the one who never played a game.

Back when coed softball started in 1979, the Anchorage Sports Association played matchmaker for teams that needed players and players that needed teams. According to Pits legend -- yes, this team is old enough to have legends -- the original roster included a woman named Stella Pits, or maybe Stella Pitts.

As D'Atri tells the story, Larry Cohn -- D'Atri's uncle and Wilson's brother-in-law -- showed up at the sports association office to formalize the team's entry and was asked what its name was. He looked at the roster and saw a name that caught his fancy. "I guess we're the Pits," he said.

"And she never showed up," D'Atri said.

Wilson, the only one left from the original team, was the connection for a number of players in the early years. Brink is on the team because she and Wilson worked together as public defenders back in the early 1980s. Malchick is on the team because she was Brink's roommate back then.

These days, the Pits are a tough lineup to crack. The old guard isn't going anywhere anytime soon, so unless you're a Pit-kid -- a second-generation player -- the 17-person roster doesn't have much room for new players. The last non-relative added to the team was 49-year-old Mike Kubik, who joined in 2008.

This summer marks the team's 35th season, which raises an obvious question: When will the Pits call it quits?

"I guess it depends on how quickly we die off," Brink said.

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.


By BETH BRAGG
bbragg@adn.com
Contact Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or on