Companionship and championships: Adult baseball league provides outlet to live out childhood

(Video by Lindsey Selzer/Cronkite News)

GOODYEAR – Mitch Gross has been a proud member of the National Adult Baseball Association (NABA) for 10 years. However, his entry into the league was curated by slight chance.

After the Pennsylvania native graduated from the University of Maryland, Gross moved to Denver, Colorado, the city he still resides in, and spent time working as a bartender.

“I was actually bartending at the time I heard about the league,” Gross said. “Someone threw a flyer out about a men’s baseball league, and it seemed like a natural fit for me. I’ve been playing ever since.”

For Gross, the rest is history.

The NABA is one of America’s fastest-growing adult baseball leagues, and anyone over 18 can participate. The league started its rise on the national stage in 1991 and has been growing since, welcoming teams not only from across the country but also from around the world.

“I would describe this as a league of guys that just love to play the game,” Chris Cumrine, a teammate of Gross, said. “Most of us have been playing this game since we were little kids, some went to go play college, and then even pro.”

Throughout their year-long seasons, the NABA hosts tournaments across the country but holds its commemorative World Series in the Phoenix area every year and is considered the longest and largest tournament of them all.

The World Series is played across eight MLB spring training stadiums across the Valley and hosts tournaments that can last up to an entire week for teams, usually from the last week of September to the first week of October.

The Award for the Champions is a NABA commemorative World Series team trophy. Each player on the winning team can choose either a World Series championship ring or World Series embroidered jacket. Most players take the ring.

Rick Fisher, a teammate of Gross, has been going to the World Series every year since 1991.

“This is my 31st year coming down to Arizona,” Fisher, 71, said. “Back then I was in a semi-pro league in Denver, and I was asked to play in this league. So I started a team.”

Another teammate of Gross’s, Eric Alexander describes playing in the NABA as being in the “Field of Dreams” movie and expressed that he’s living in his childhood again.

Alexander, Fisher, Cumrine and Gross play for the same Denver Bears team, started by Fisher years ago in the 50-and-over league, and they’ve seen success in Phoenix before. It took 26 years for Fischer to win his first ring, finally earning the league’s crown in 2017. Gross won it for the first time in 2019, with Fischer and Alexander in the dugout as well.

“We’re just thankful that we can come out and play,” Gross said. “Each and every year I consider it a bonus. If you told me 10 years ago I would still be playing I would’ve called you crazy.”

What makes the NABA different from anyone’s local men’s baseball or softball league is the complexity of the league itself, along with its national recognition. The league contains nine separate divisions, all grouped by age brackets. There’s even a father-and-son division for some tournaments, including the Phoenix World Series.

The youngest and also the largest division is the “Open division,” which is designated for anyone 18 and older. On the other hand, the oldest division is for people 60 years old and older. All ages are welcome to 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 60- to 70-year-old men.”

Participants don’t have to qualify as former professional or college baseball players to join the NABA. The league encourages anyone that wants to play baseball to play.

The divisions are classified by three experience levels. The highest level (AAA) is for players who have 3-4 years of college or professional experience. The intermediate level (AA) is for players with high school or some college experience. The recreational level (A) requires no experience and simply a love for the game.

Teams from Guam, Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico, and other Caribbean countries participate, according to Gross. There are also separate NABA branch leagues in over 40 states across the United States, including leagues in Hawaii and Alaska.

The Association has also established its own hall of fame, which inducted members since 1999. However, most members of the league never even think about the accolades, only the friends and companionship that come along with it.

“This team we got here has been together year after year,” Alexander said. “It’s the teamwork, loyalty, and friendship that just can’t be beaten.”

The Bears’ World Series run came to an unfortunate end with no trophy, ring, or jacket to show for themselves this year, but they’ll be back next year with the same mindset as before: Just have some fun.

The NABA will only grow from here, identical to the past three decades. The game of baseball is just too much fun for players to ever give it up.

“I’ll keep playing until I can’t no more,” Fischer said. “When the grass on the baseball field stops smelling like a baseball field, I’ll stop playing.”

Vincent Deangelis VIN-sint dee-ANN-jeh-lis
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Vincent Deangelis expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Deangelis reports for The State Press.

Lindsey Selzer lin-zee sell-zer (she/her)
Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Lindsey Selzer expects to graduate in December 2022 with a graduate degree in sports journalism. Selzer has interned with the University of Houston basketball team, Varsity Sports Show and KVIT radio.