“It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”— Yogi Berra
George Gage is 81. He’s been a fixture in Telluride Town Park where, every summer, his love of the game has inexorably drawn him there since 1989. On Sunday, when the retirement game he is staging pits “back in the day” Billy Ball players — some who are covering great distances to be here — against today’s mostly-20-somethings, George Gage will declare it over. Let’s repeat that first sentence. George Gage is 81. His remarkable run as a team leader, provocative pitcher, fiercely competitive player and the Telluride men’s league pater familias will officially come to an end at the conclusion of Sunday’s “celebrity” match. The first pitch is at noon on Bear Creek field. There will be a keg tapped and a potluck to follow. The public is welcome.
“Beer” league softball — both the men’s and the women’s divisions — is a Very Big Deal in Telluride. It taps into the players’ youthful fantasies of baseball greatness, and is a welcome relief from irrigating, banging nails, desk jockeying and whatever else one does when one isn’t swinging a bat or donning a glove. The child in the man remains alive. Fans in the stands, clutching cans of cold something, root, root, root for their team, almost as if it matters. For the stretch of a handful of innings, it does, indeed, matter very much. And for the ageless Gage, it mattered more than anything.
Gage arrived in Telluride from California in 1989. He didn’t know a soul, save for his realtor, Steve Hilbert, but Gage and his wife, Beth, wanted something new, something less hectic than the frenzied Hollywood world of advertising and film in which they were living.
“We wanted to reinvent ourselves somehow,” he said.
One summer evening, from their rented Victorian on Galena Avenue, he heard the sounds of people yelling and the crack of the bat. Already a veteran of softball teams in Malibu and in his native New York, Gage was powerless to resist. He collected his bat and glove and made his way to Town Park where a women’s team was practicing. He offered to help and was welcomed with open arms.
Before long he was playing for Angel Chakeres’ Senate team with Mike Turrin, Luigi Chiarani, Bunzy Bunworth, Jimmy Lynam and others. He started at third but it was soon evident that Turrin was a far better third baseman, so Gage took to the mound.
“I sort of liked it,” Gage said. “I felt I was good at it.”
Before long, Gage’s fierce competiveness called for a team huddle.
“A couple guys on the team said, ‘Ya know, you’re a little too competitive. We got clients on your teams and you’re always in everybody’s face. Can you tone it down?’” Gage recalled laughing. “Tone it down? Tone it down? I’ve been playing this way since I was five years old! I’m not toning it down for anybody!”
Following a family discussion, his son Andrew suggested Gage form his own team. He named it after Billy Martin, the scrappy 1950s-era Yankee player who became a manager for the Yanks, the Oakland A’s and others. The aggressive style of play he coached was known as Billyball. And so the Billy Ball legend began in 1997.
“I named my team after Billy Martin, because if they think I’m not competitive, I’m gonna name my team after the most competitive son of a bitch in baseball.”
In its first five years, Billy Ball captured four straight men’s A League championships. Teddy Errico played on the original Billy Ball team. Though he can’t play Sunday as he’s recovering from surgery, Errico will be in the dugout for the OGs.
“I’ll be there,” Errico said. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Gage, Errico said, is a singular personality on the diamond.
“George is George. He’s got a heart of gold,” Errico said. “He’s got a passion for the game and is a delight to be around.”
Errico, a Massachusetts native, chafed about being on a team associated with the Yankees.
“I hate the Yankees and I don’t like Billy Martin,” Errico laughed.
Although Errico allows the Gage’s competitive focus “sometimes got the best of him,” as a team leader, “he took care of everything,” when it came to team management, from equipment to uniforms and submitting rosters to the town’s recreation officials. “We had a pretty good time.”
Errico, who pre-surgery got some field time this year to ensure he officially hit his 25th year playing softball in Telluride, said Gage’s run on the diamond was remarkable given the screaming line drives that can missile in on the pitcher.
“The biggest challenge is, as a pitcher, he never got hurt in the last 10 years. Even the most agile pitcher can get hurt,” Errico said.
Will you be playing at 81, Errico is asked. “Hell no! I’ll be dead by then!”
Players come and go from teams with some regularity in the men’s league. Gage was always proud to impart Billy Ball history to young recruits.
“The main thing about Billy Ball, and why I'm so proud of it is that if we lose a good player or a nice guy, another one comes out. Because there's certain rules on Billy Ball,” Gage said. “One is you never criticize another player, you get nothing but positive energy. And that's just the way it is. And when any new player comes on the team, we let them know right from the beginning, our history, that we've won tons of championships. And we also tell them that it's about having fun, and whatever you do, don't criticize another player. Positive reinforcement.”
Another former Billy Ball player, Toby Brown, wrapped a 21-year career on the diamond in 2011. He’ll be rummaging through his closet for his glove and cleats for Sunday’s game. Brown was recruited by Gage — “I’ve known him forever.” — in the late 90s for Billy Ball. It was a team that wanted nothing short of the championship trophy. In fact, Gage headhunted the best players from other teams.
“Obviously it was to build a dynasty and he did,” Brown said. “He’s a force of nature. He really is remarkably coordinated and competent. I’ve never seen a guy more singularly fixated on a sport like George Gage is on softball.”
Gage is a very self-aware person. He admits that, despite having “retired” in the past, this time it’s for good. Anymore, it takes almost two days to recover after a game. And he’s quick to say that, beyond the antics, the ferocity of his competitive spirit, the glove-throwing, the ball-licking, the pointed jibes, it is the community fostered in Town Park that means the most to him. He was still buzzing from the scene at the park Wednesday night.
“So many people come (to Town Park) to hang out. It’s a melting pot of exchanges of news and ideas. It brings people together,” Gage observed. “The camaraderie on the field extends to the people watching. They get energized. In my experience, it’s nothing like anywhere else I’ve ever played. The community is engaged. It’s really cool.”
George Gage’s retirement game is at noon, sponsored by Wine Mine and Delilah. There will be a keg and the public is invited to attend the festivities. A potluck will follow. Play ball!