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By Tom Hines
As the Smithfield Men’s Softball League puts a close on its 37th season, I sat down with Richard “Z” Zelano, the venerable Red team coach and longtime “commissioner” of the league. I sought out Z in order for him to address the rumor that this season would be his last after playing in all thirty-seven seasons. “Retire? Well, I’ve had a few good weeks so, no!” he emphatically stated with a laugh. “Seriously, I’m still having fun. I don’t think I hurt the team and my team has a great group of guys. They make it worth getting out on the field every Sunday morning.”
I guessed that Z was the oldest to ever play in the league at 72. He confirmed my assumption adding that Donnie Brown
was 68 or 70 when he last played. When asked how he can physically cope after all these years, he yelled – “ICE!” Apparently lots of it, as he went on to explain that he puts ice packs on both knees and his elbow everyday during his ride to and from work. This healing ritual is not just during softball season, but done six to eight months of the year. He also throws softballs into a net in his yard several times a week to keep his arm loose. “Even though I’m old, they don’t have much mercy on me. They still go at me,” referring to his position at the hot corner.
Z began his softball career at the age of 19 with a group of neighborhood friends in Mt. Pleasant. He remembers that the name of the self-sponsored team was “The Saint Eguaska Athletic Club.” Holy softballs! His cousin had created an imaginary saint to help the team find lost balls at the old Triggs practice fields. Hence, a team name was born. “I played a lot in the old days. For a few years, I played in three leagues, mostly at Gano, for a team called the Mt. Pleasant Merchants.” When family responsibilities came calling, he took a six or seven year break from playing. That is when, at age 35, Z became one of the original members of The Smithfield Men’s Softball league in 1981. He recalls that teams were created by an informal draft guided by Leo Barter, Ken Weber, Larry Sasso, and Dave Balcolm. He also proudly stated that his team, Red, won the first championship and later nine more, which is the most by any team in league history.
Over the years, this league has featured the likes of many Smithfield athletic stars: the Connell brothers, Noel and Tommy Bennett, Bobby Salois, Paul Passano, Earl Porter, and Tony Torregrossa, just to name a few. Also, dozens of highly talented and experienced players from around the state and nearby Massachusetts added to the quality of the league. Originally the league consisted of only four teams and players had to be Smithfield residents. That requirement was lifted many years ago in order to keep enough players to fill six teams. The age requirement has also evolved over the years. For many years, 35 years of age was the official minimum requirement. Presently, after several years of shaving a year here and there, 32 is now the minimum required age to play. These changes have contributed to the longevity of the league and its highly talented and competitive nature.
Z’s dedicated leadership as “commissioner” for the last 17 years has guided most of these changes. As he humbly stated, “another reason that I hang around is to keep the league alive. If someone is interested in taking over, come see me.” So many ball players “of that certain age” have had a fun place to hang onto some glory days or create some new ones due to Z’s commitment to the game. For those of us who have played in the league or have been spectators know Z’s longtime verbal trademark – “NICE PITCH!” Several weeks ago, I noticed that he never said it during the course of the doubleheader. He explained, when asked about it, “I’m too tired to say it anymore! I’ve got to do any little thing to conserve my energy!” Well, here’s to you, Richard Zelano, for your love of the game and the spirit you helped create – NICE PITCH!