GOODYEAR – Mitch Gross has been a proud member of the National Senior Baseball Association (NABA) for 10 years. However, his entry into the league was a bit of a coincidence.
After the Pennsylvania native graduated from the University of Maryland, Gross moved to Denver, Colorado, where he still lives, and spent time working as a bartender.
“I was actually bartending when I heard about the league,” Gross said. “Someone threw up a flyer about a men’s baseball league, and it just seemed natural to me. I’ve been playing ever since.”
For Gross, the rest is history.
The NABA is one of the fastest growing adult baseball leagues in America and anyone 18 years of age and older can participate. The league began its rise to the national stage in 1991 and has been growing ever since, welcoming teams not only from across the country but from around the world.
“I would describe this as a league of guys who just love to play the game,” said Chris Cumrin, Gross’s teammate. “Many of us have been playing this game since we were little, some went on to play in college and then even professionally.”
NABA holds tournaments throughout the country throughout the year, but holds its annual Memorial Tournament in the Phoenix area and is considered the longest running and largest tournament of all.
The World Series is held at eight MLB spring training stadiums in the Valley and hosts tournaments that can last up to a week for teams, usually from the last week of September to the first week of October.
The Champions Award is the NABA World Series Team Trophy. Each player on the winning team can choose either a World Series championship ring or a World Series embroidered jacket. Many players take the ring.
Rick Fisher, Gross’s teammate, has been to the World Series every year since 1991.
“This is my 31st year coming to Arizona,” Fisher, 71, said. “I was in the semi-pro league in Denver at the time and they asked me to play in this league. So I made a team.”
Eric Alexander, another of Gross’s teammates, describes playing in the NABA as playing in the movie “Field of Dreams” and said he is reliving his childhood.
Alexander, Fisher, Camryn and Gross play on the same Denver Bears team that Fisher started years ago in the 50-and-over league, and they’ve seen success in Phoenix before. It took Fisher 26 years to win his first ring, finally capturing the league crown in 2017. Gross won it for the first time in 2019, with Fisher and Alexander also in the dugout.
“We’re just thankful to be able to come out and play,” Gross said. “Every year I consider it a bonus. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would still be playing, I would have called you crazy.”
What sets NABA apart from any local men’s baseball or softball league is the complexity of the league itself, as well as its national recognition. The league contains nine separate divisions, all of which are grouped by age brackets. There is even a father-son division for some tournaments, including the Phoenix World Series.
The youngest and also the largest division is the Open Division, which is open to anyone 18 and older. On the other hand, the oldest division is for people aged 60 and above. All ages can play baseball in the NABA.
“NABA is taking over as the number one men’s league,” Gross said. “There are hundreds of guys involved in the league, from college-age kids to men in their 60s and 70s.”
Entrants do not have to qualify as former professional or collegiate baseball players to join NABA. The league encourages anyone who wants to play baseball to play.
Sections are categorized into three experience levels: The highest level (AAA) is for players with 3-4 years of college or professional experience. Intermediate (AA) is for players with some high school or college experience. Recreational level (A) requires no experience and just a love of the game.
According to Gross, teams from Guam, Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico and other Caribbean countries are participating. There are also individual NABA affiliate leagues in more than 40 states across the United States, including leagues in Hawaii and Alaska.
The association also established its own hall of fame, with membership since 1999. However, most league members never even think about the rewards, only the friends and camaraderie that come with it.
“This team that we’ve gotten here has been together year after year,” Alexander said. “It’s teamwork, loyalty and friendship that just can’t be beat.”
The Bears’ World Series run came to an unfortunate end without a trophy, ring or jacket to show for it this year, but they’ll be back next year with the same mindset as before; Just have some fun.
NABA will only grow from here, just like it has for the past three decades. The game of baseball is simply too much fun for players to ever give it up.
“I’m going to keep playing until I can’t anymore,” Fisher said. “When the grass on the baseball field stops smelling like a baseball field, I will stop playing.”