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Old ball game: Softball diamonds are forever for team with 84-year-old leader

By Jimmie Tramel

On this softball team, the word “triple” might apply to heart bypasses or internal organs.

One player on the team has three kidneys.

Another has none.

Just about everyone on the roster is dealing with some kind of age- or health-related obstacle, but the boys of summer continue to swing away twice a week at Carl Smith Sports Complex, even though their boyhood days are decades past.

The subject of this story is a 60-and-over senior softball team. Chelsea-based author John Wooley is a 70-year-old “rookie” who doesn’t look his age. He’s 14 years younger than player-coach Butch Webb.

“He’s just a kid compared to the rest of us,” Webb said.

About the new kid: “People have to have something to look forward to,” Wooley said. “I always said when I was 70 I was going to join a softball team. I loved playing softball when I was younger. You would have to ask the other guys (why they play), but, for me, it was something I said I was going to do, and I turned 70 in April and I found this team.”

What he found was a team of characters that, because of an assortment of physical issues, is not unlike the Island of Misfit Toys in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” That’s not an insult. Toys, even the misfit kind, are fun. So is this squad.

Webb called C.J. Hardesty the “ham” of the team. Teammates call him an inspiration. He has no kidneys.

“He does five hours of dialysis before he comes out,” Webb said. “When he first wanted to play, we thought he was going to die because he just barely could walk a few steps. But he would sit down and he would come watch a ball game and finally one day he said, ‘I want to play ball,’ and I said, ‘All right.’ But he couldn’t run or nothing. He just kind of shuffled. He has improved a whole bunch.”

Hardesty’s cancerous kidneys were removed. He said the only health risk is a dialysis port that must be protected.

“There’s a plastic tube in there and they said if it shatters, you could bleed to death before they do anything about it, so just don’t get hit in that arm,” he said.

Does Hardesty worry about that? He said people die every day as a result of different things. He wants to keep doing what he loves.

“I played baseball when I was a kid,” he said. “I just didn’t stay with it. Now I guess this is reliving my childhood.”

‘The Bad News Geezers’

More than anything else, here’s what you should know about this team: If you have a desire to play, whether you have a handicapped sticker on your vehicle or not, Webb has a spot for you. It’s not whether you win or lose — or how you play the game. It’s play ball, period. And the roster is in constant need of fresh blood because age exacts a toll. If interested, phone him at his office number — 918-836-6767.

If you call, Webb answers to “Super Coach.” The nickname was given to him by players. He said it came about as a response to him kidding players that they were the “Super Team.”

“We went two years and never won a game,” he said. “That’s how bad our team was — and we haven’t improved much. We don’t win many. Every now and then we will luck out.”

Team member John Harris, speaking to a reporter who attended a game, said, “Did you come out to find out about the Bad News Bears of senior softball?”

Wooley suggested “The Bad News Geezers” might be more appropriate. You’re allowed to poke fun if you’re in the geezers’ inner circle. It comes with the territory.

Dugout chatter at a game included a mention of an item from the 1800s. “Are we that old?” Hardesty said.

Jim Droll was playfully called the Bionic Man after getting some “repair work” done, according to Webb. Need any joints greased?

Webb said games used to be played on Mondays and Wednesdays. “But these guys got older and they thought they needed more religion, so we postponed it from Wednesdays to Thursdays.”

‘Next thing you know they pull a hamstring’

Webb’s team, which features two octogenarians and about a dozen players in their 70s, is named 80+. He changes the name every few years to reflect a new age milestone. The team will be renamed 85+ next year.

“When I turn 85, everybody turns 85,” he said.

There are five other teams in the 60-over division of Tulsa Senior Softball. Players come from a wide range of educational and socio-economic backgrounds, but they play like brothers, according to Harris.

Jerry Miller drives round-trip from Enid. “I enjoy the game,” Miller said. “You’ve got to have some kind of exercise.”

If squad members come from all walks of life, it’s because “all runs of life” doesn’t necessarily apply. Do players run the bases? Sure — or they can get a sub to run for them. But Webb’s players do not run onto the field or run off the field between innings. Instead, they saunter.

Wooley, who arrives early to stretch, said, “The first time I played, I thought I was 50 or something. I dove for a ground ball and I couldn’t play for, like, four weeks.”

Martin Sheiman, who plays for a rival team, said newcomers sometimes try so hard they hurt themselves. He told a story about six players no-showing for a game because they were injured in debuts.

“That happens all the time,” Webb said. “Every man on my team says, ‘Don’t run hard, just break in easy.’ Well, they get to going from second to third and they’ve got to show you how fast they are and the next thing you know they pull a hamstring and they are out for two months. There are a lot of injuries just because we are old — a lot of aches and pains.”

Field of creams

Webb said he doesn’t get sore because he’s in good shape. He jogs and does the weight room thing. Maybe being physically fit will allow Webb to, 10 seasons from now, break a record for being the oldest player in team history. He said he once had a catcher who was 93 and, when you have a teammate that old, a fringe benefit is the old war stories really are old war stories. The catcher, Newell West, was a former World War II counterintelligence agent who regaled teammates with tales about hustling up Dachau war criminals.

West said Webb “hit the ball harder than I could” but lung issues forced him to stop playing. West accepted an invitation to remain with the team as a third base coach. He once got plunked in the forehead while coaching. It was a scary moment, but West held an icepack to his noggin and returned to duty when the next inning began. West died in 2015 at the age of 96.

The team also lost a player recently. Gene Reeves, 73, played well in rare victories early this season, according to Webb, but died June 29 after a sudden bout with leukemia. Goodbyes were said at Reeves’ home.

“The whole team was there,” Webb said. “We sat there and talked and hugged everybody.”

‘Dodge a lot of bullets’

Webb, asked if he might threaten the age record, said it depends on the good Lord.

“When we get our age, we’ve got to dodge a lot of bullets,” he said. “Some of them, I don’t even know what the name of them are. I can’t even pronounce it.”

In Marc Radin’s case, the difficult-to-pronounce obstacle was histoplasmosis, which interrupted his playing career. It’s a fungal infection and it temporarily cost him use of his legs. He said he couldn’t even turn over in his hospital bed.

Radin left the hospital with a wheelchair and a walker.

“I used to come out and watch these guys with a cane,” he said. “I said, if at all possible, I’ll be back. I may not be good. But I’ll be back.”

Radin embraced physical therapy and now he’s playing ball again, though he’s mostly stationary while positioned at second base. He said he has been playing softball and/or baseball for 40 years and loves it enough that he isn’t ready to stop.

During a July 15 at-bat, Radin swung and made nice contact. He headed toward first base, but was thrown out.

“In the old days, I would have beat that out,” Radin said.

“I think you would,” someone in the dugout responded.

“I know I would,” Radin said with conviction.

Harris said it’s a miracle Radin is able to play. Radin is the player mentioned earlier who has three kidneys. His original kidneys weren’t performing well, so he gained a third kidney by way of a transplant. Radin said he came through the surgery fine because he was in relatively good shape. Give a measure of credit to the softball hobby.

League rules are modified because senior players tend to break easily and heal slowly. The changes minimize the risk of collisions that don’t involve bats and balls.

Speaking of bats and balls, it’s rare when someone in the 60-over division can clout a ball over the fence. According to urban legend, a “kid” (he’s 68) on another team parked a couple of balls. Inside-the-park homers are far more frequent.

‘Like playing on a sandlot’

The ultimate destination is not so much home base, but a fish fry Webb hosts for players at the end of the year. The fish fry allows the camaraderie to spill over into extra innings.

Laurie Ribitzki, the wife of an opposing player, was among spectators at a recent game and sought out a reporter to point out 89-year-old coach Roy Harper and to make sure folks knew about Hardesty’s no-kidneys status. “He is so inspiring,” she said.

About the senior softballers, she said this: “When it’s boiling hot and when it’s just freezing cold, they are still out there and they just love it to pieces.”

Softball diamonds are forever

Maybe the secret to eternal youth is to play games for as long as your body will cooperate.

“When Major Leaguers hold out, people will say, ‘They are just playing a kids’ game,’ and that’s really true,” Wooley said. “This is like playing on a sandlot.”

Sands of time be damned.

'Success is when we're all working together': Tulsa deputy police chief talks community policing and perception of its practices

Tulsa Police Deputy Chief Jonathan Brooks sat for five hours during a meeting on police use of force ignited by the city’s Equality Indicators report.

He explained — as best he could — how the department has attempted to implement effective policing strategies through its Community Policing Program.

Brooks, who leads the program, listened to questions and comments about implicit bias and ways TPD as a whole could repair relationships within communities that had expressed skepticism over police tactics, which left some residents deeply embittered.

In that special City Council meeting last Wednesday night, Brooks acknowledged that the police need to rebuild credibility with residents. He also said the department had been in the process of adjusting its training and policies to prevent crime while not victimizing citizens.

Brooks still feels the same way he did that night, telling the Tulsa World recently that “the only way you could have community policing is through trust.”

The Tulsa World conducted an interview with Brooks and raised some of the concerns expressed by community members. He shared his thoughts about community policing, biases and how the Tulsa Police Department is perceived.

On how TPD has worked with city and community leaders through recommendations made by the Tulsa Commission on Community Policing

Not a lot of other police departments are doing all those 77 recommendations on the level that we are. So there was a lot of talk about community policing and the fact we were not doing those 77 recommendations, which in fact we are, but we never said that was our finish line. When President Obama set forth that commission (Task Force on 21st Century Policing), there was no standardized template for departments to follow that were best practices in everything that we do. And that’s why we went with that. And if you remember when Mayor G.T. Bynum took office, he established that community policing commission (The Tulsa Commission on Community Policing) and there was a very diverse group that was there to represent that, the city councilors, just various community leaders and to have their input on that.

On police attempts to build trust within communities

One of the crucial things that you hear repeatedly in these Equality Indicators meetings is trust and building trust. And the only way you could have community policing is through trust and that trust is working together (with the community) as a two-way street. Community policing is just not the police doing the work.

On the Town Square Apartments situation

As a police officer, I observed specialized officers working an area that leadership has determined to be a priority. By that I mean, the data shows a high call volume for that complex and in addition, a high violence rate including shootings. In an effort to thwart more violence and victimization, I see officers dedicated to providing public safety to the residents that ask for it and deserve it. The officers conducted themselves in a professional manner, conducted investigations while respectfully interacting with those that they came into contact with.

Furthermore, I have taken the opportunity to walk Town Square myself. In my travels there, I spoke with many residents. Only 1 out the 27 did not want to talk. All the others, including those that were present during the incident you are referring to, were more than willing to talk about that night. The overwhelming majority want a police presence in their neighborhood. They understand the need for police and safety while maintaining a balance for them to live without fear and interruption.

On other areas in Tulsa where the department uses policing strategies similar to Town Square

There are many other areas that the Tulsa Police Department takes an organized approach and focused efforts to reduce crime. There are several to list, but if you see an area that is repeatedly victimized, has increased violence or shootings, you can guarantee that the Tulsa Police Department will be there to provide public safety.

On the conflict in policing tactics between law enforcement and community leaders

The conflict is the manner in which it’s done. And that’s where we have to have our alignment because we have way more (in) common than not, right? We want the same things. So it’s coming together to provide those safe neighborhoods. You know, I’ve invited everybody that’s part of that to come on a ride-along and see it from the perspective of the officer, as well. We’ve walked the streets from the other side. We’ve worked with kids, you know, and we explain the (legal) rights and everything like that. That’s where I’m talking about when we start working together.

On whether officers understand why some citizens may feel community policing isn’t working

We must understand that everybody has a perspective. And everybody’s entitled to that perspective. What we’re trying to do is prevent that next victim from having to call. Either a life has to be saved or attempt to be saved and somebody has to be brought to justice. We do understand. I think I said it in that (Equality Indicators) meeting, we’re not going to have solutions in this meeting. The solution is going to happen when we’re out there doing the work on the street.

On what successful community policing looks like

The one thing is that nobody can agree on is really what community policing is. You know, we’ve been working on it for a long time, and it involves a lot of facets of, you know, community engagement, community education, community partnerships and crime prevention, all these components. So if we were successful, the main measure that I would go by is our citizen response. We’re here to serve and protect. Sometimes there may be disagreement because there is a job to do, but we have to be cognizant of that for everybody that we’re trying to serve. I see success is when we’re all working together, preventing crime before it even happens.

On policing mistakes that impact public perception

It’s difficult sometimes. Everybody that was in that (Equality Indicators) meeting ... we sit with them outside of those meetings and talk about these things. And when we talk about it, it’s like there’s not that opportunity to explain everything. Every policeman is human. Are we going to make mistakes? Yeah. Because we’re human, right? So they’re going to. We have to have those relationships where we can sit down and talk about those before they even happen. Start building that trust is the first thing we have to have. Because if you don’t feel like you can come to your police department or vice versa, the police department doesn’t feel like it can get help from you, then that means one thing. We don’t have a relationship. And so that has to be done first. And once we had that relationship, we build the trust and then we start working on those goals.

On how TPD handles criticism from those not involved in policing

I mean, I’m not going to say it’s very difficult, but it’s always kind of been there in policing. I think Chief (Egunwale Fagbenro) Amusan (president of the Tulsa African Ancestral Society) brought up consent decree. And right now there’s the immigration stuff in the Hispanic community, and they look at the police as enforcing President Trump’s “build the wall” campaign. It’s difficult. But the interesting thing about it is that’s what we like about the challenge of it is being able to build those bridges and making sure that we can get through it.

I’ll say (it’s) frustrating because I look out and I see the good work that the men and women out there are doing and there’s no credit for that. But we get compared to the national police. There are mistakes, but I think if we communicated better about the things going on in Tulsa, they would see how much better the police department is in Tulsa than anywhere else.

On whether officers understand why minority communities might not be comfortable with the police

If you’re a student of history, you can understand the comfort level because it’s something that a lot of police today don’t have knowledge of — the things that happened back in policing’s past. So that’s one level and we have to understand that. We have to understand that after the police come in and resolve a crime, we have to leave. We can’t stay there 24/7. So that attributes to some will say, “Well, you can’t protect me, so I’m not saying anything and I’m not working with the police.” And that further attributes to that because you can’t be seen helping the police right now. And so that attributes to that, as well.

On how TPD can execute proactive policing without alienating citizens

I mean, that’s the tough one is because we have to sit down and start having those conversations with the community about what’s transpiring and coming up with those common goals. One of the things that we are trying to get better at is communicating. Policing has changed in just the last 20 years. You have to know the history of that. And then you also have to know the history of the community and everything that’s happened. What we need to do specifically is communicate better about the policing methods. If you want to boil it down to one thing that we can do better, what the police department can do better is communicate. We have not done the greatest job of communicating.

On whether biases can be removed from police work

So now you’re talking more about unconscious or implicit bias as opposed to explicit, which leads to police bias and profiling, right? So you’re talking about the implicit part. Everybody has it. We all have biases that we don’t know about. They’re implicit. And I guarantee if we test everybody somewhere along the way, somebody’s going to have an unconscious bias, whether it’s racial, ethnic, gender, sociology, whatever it can be. And so what you’re saying is to completely get rid of that, the police department then (in) effect you have robots. And those robots then become impersonal, which attributes to the problems that we’re having today. So what we want is everybody to understand that officers are human and we can communicate and we can work together as humans. It’s not this robotic state. One thing that we can address through policy training and supervision and all this other stuff, is addressing the bias when it affects the performance in the job.

On whether the department has addressed incidents of bias among its officers

Every time that we’ve ever had an incident? I’m not even thinking of any incidents or involving that, but every time we have any kind of behavioral issues or policy violations, it’s always consistently addressed.

Sgt. Richard Meulenberg also spoke to the Tulsa World about TPD defending against bias within in its ranks.

“We don’t get people that apply for us that have a swastika tattooed on their forehead and say, ‘Hey, I’m a bigot,’ and we say, ‘Oh, we’re going to hire you anyway.’ When we get them (recruits) in the academy, we have a very diverse group that actually oversees them, our class coordinators, and then they’re watched closely there. They’ve got six months more in the academy and field training,” Meulenberg said.

“If they (police officers) are clearly violating someone’s rights and they’re violating a policy, they (citizens) have to call and complain about that person. Everybody has a phone and has a camera, right? So if someone’s left of center on the department, you need to let us know because the theory is (that) we police our own. Sure, but at the same time though, we have a track record of policing our own successfully. I can’t have someone being corrosive in a squad who’s bad because there are no exceptions. We have to have a higher standard.”

Changing the culture: Tulsa activists are reshaping the conversation around race and social justice

Ron Halford remembers his parents screaming at the television in frustration over news that someone who looked like him had suffered an injustice and nothing would be done to rectify it.

Nearly a half-century later, Halford — with his hair showing signs of gray — admitted that he’s recently conducted himself in the same fashion.

Halford thought he was expressing a similar incredulity as his parents. But his annoyance was that he was still living during a time in which those wrongs existed.

“I found myself yelling at the television daily,” Halford recalled of his reaction to reports of the latest officer-involved shootings that flashed across the screen. “And I was yelling at the television about things my parents yelled at the television about when I was a kid.”

These days, Halford doesn’t shout at the television quite as much after deciding — when Eric Harris was fatally shot by Tulsa County Reserve Deputy Robert Bates in 2015 — to do something about it in the form of activism.

Following Harris’ death, Halford, former Tulsa Public School teacher Laura Bellis and Church of the Restoration Unitarian Universalist Rev. Gerald L. Davis helped form The United League of Social Action.

Among the group’s immediate goals were to attempt to change the policies of law enforcement agencies throughout Oklahoma. Even in its infancy, TULSA called for then-Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz to resign, demanded a system of transparency based on national standards for policing and pressed city leaders to engage in implicit bias training.

“We organized around what can we do now,” Davis said. “What can we do down the road to change the culture?”

‘Getting to the root cause of why these inequities exist’

That mentality has driven several Tulsa-based activist groups in pursuit of advocating for justice and equality for all citizens, particularly those who represent historically marginalized communities.

They’ve rallied on the grounds of City Hall, been a presence in the streets following officer-involved shootings and voiced communal concerns at City Council meetings.

These pairings of millennials and baby boomers made up of teachers, clergy and even therapists have fought to hold public officials accountable for what they perceive are harmful practices and apathetic attitudes towards racial disparities.

An example of that played out recently with Demanding a JUSTulsa being at the forefront of the discussion about community policing related to a Tulsa Police Department Gang Unit operation at the Towne Square Apartments earlier this month.

The coalition, which includes Kristi Williams, Gregory Robinson II, Nate Morris and others, crafted an open letter to Mayor G.T. Bynum saying that a heavy TPD presence at the apartment complex worsened the relationship between African Americans and police.

“Residents reported feeling ‘terrorized’ by task force officers,” the letter stated.

“I’ve seen firsthand the damage that mistrust between citizens and the police department can have,” said Robinson, a lifelong Tulsan who felt the urgency to engage in activist work after being exposed to years of inequity. “That’s why I joined JUSTulsa.”

JUSTulsa first gained notoriety in April when it delivered a letter to City Hall requesting transparency regarding the city’s 2018 Equality Indicators Report.

They wanted city officials to discuss the report’s findings at special meetings and for the public to be present at them.

“That letter is why we have these special Equality Indicators meetings right now,” Robinson said of the open forums. “For us, this is not about having a gotcha moment. It’s not about having an us-vs.-them or getting rid of certain officers. This is about getting to the root cause of why these inequities exist.”

Lindsey Vandeventer identified racism as the overwhelming culprit that contributed to racial disparities which disproportionately affected minorities.

Vandeventer, who is white, came to understand that “putting a dent in racism is the work of white people” since they, in her opinion, had the most influence in dismantling the practice.

‘Have a space to take action’

Vandeventer, and co-founder David Harland, established Aware Tulsa four years ago to seek equality for minorities. The predominantly white group was also created to provide a space for white Tulsans to examine racism’s impact and formulate a plan to combat it through partnerships with other minority-led outfits.

“There are white folks who were well-intended but did not know how to navigate that space to be helpful,” said Vandeventer, who acknowledged that some whites are unable to reconcile also being affected by white privilege. “What motivates me is how I can help white folks have a space in which to heal, to take action and to put a dent in white supremacy.”

Harland, who emphasized the group does not want to center its own whiteness in racial justice efforts, sees the work as educating white people on social issues through a lens they have not been forced to confront.

“That’s systemic and intended by the system,” he said. “It is an important thing for us to break toward the progress of eliminating racism. Everybody knows racism is charged. Nobody wants to be called a racist. To get a group of white folks who don’t have to — where society is not forcing them to — to open themselves up to be vulnerable about how they relate to it (racism) ... that has to be a safe space for them to do that in.”

For Marq Lewis with We the People Oklahoma, the motivation for social involvement — like other local citizen-led groups — has been trying to overhaul the ways in which Tulsa’s black citizens are policed compared to the rest of the city’s population.

Lewis, an East Coast-bred filmmaker with an established activism background, started his work in Tulsa after 19-year-old Jeremey Lake was shot and killed by off-duty Tulsa Police Officer Shannon Kepler in 2014. The case, according to Lewis, displayed an all-too-familiar occurrence of police misconduct.

“How is it that a person who is a police officer, someone who is sworn to protect us, goes to find an individual who is African American — you go gun him down because he’s with your white daughter?” said Lewis. “That is what really sparked our attention in being a voice for the voiceless.”

In the wake of the Lake killing and other shootings, We the People demanded police officers wear body cameras and suggested such cases be reviewed by independent authorities.

Lewis has maintained that the group is not anti-police. But it has not stopped the organization from challenging the Sheriff’s Office, Police Chief Chuck Jordan and Bynum to alter policies that create an environment where African American residents are made vulnerable to law enforcement abuse.

‘Not talking about it means it’s not going to change’

“I don’t see anything changing until the mayor sits back and says, ‘What is it that we need to do to change about these policies? What are the type of policies that we need to look to change that is fair to its citizens?’ ” said Lewis.

While the growing Tulsa activism community desires more than the incremental symbolic gestures, some solace lies in the realization that those who wield true power hear them and understand the movement isn’t going away.

“There is this enforced, unspoken rule that we don’t talk about these things,” Harland said about fostering the conversations. “It’s almost a moral code that good people don’t talk about these things. But not talking about it means it’s not going to change. We can’t fix an issue if we don’t talk about it.”

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Tulsa City Councilors offered a forum recently on the Equality Indicators report, which uses 54 equality measures that compare outcomes of groups likely to experience inequalities.

Read the story: 'We have to realize we're one city': Discussion on Equality Indicators offers chance at dialogue