|May 28, 2008|
|Bob Chapp -Qualifying tournament for the Senior Softball World Championships|
Macomb Township man's life of play on the softball field hit a home run
BY DESIREE COOPER • FREE PRESS COLUMNIST • May 28, 2008
Bob Chapp spent the third Saturday in May the way he spent most weekends -- playing softball. At 61, the Macomb Township resident still had a zeal for the game he'd come to love as a child.
That weekend, his senior league team, the Michigan Express, had already won its first game of the day. During the second game, the Express took the field in the third inning with Chapp at shortstop. Dennis Ladd, the team's 60-year-old co-manager, was on second base.
Ladd vaguely remembers that Chapp caught a line drive and threw the ball back to the pitcher.
"And then I heard this sound ...a dull thud like something falling to the ground," said Ladd. "I turned and there was Bob laying face down. I thought a ball from the other diamond must have hit him."
A retired firefighter, Ladd rushed to Chapp's side. He and other teammates took turns administering CPR until help arrived.
"I've done that many times for strangers," said Ladd. "This was the only time I've had to do that for a friend. All I was thinking about was trying to bring him back."
But it was no use. Chapp died of cardiac arrest.
The team was wracked with grief. But Chapp's widow, Nancy, wouldn't let them wallow.
"If Bob had been in a hospital bed, he would have told them to get back out there and play ball," she said. "I told the team to continue. They played the next day and ended up winning the tournament. Bob would have been happy."
A lifelong player
If summer is about anything, it's about reclaiming childhood. The sun-soaked outdoors calls upon us to savor life's simplest joy -- playing outside. That's something most of us adults leave behind when we start punching clocks and rocking cradles. But Chapp, a phone company retiree and father of four, never lost touch with the wonder of play.
"I'm going to miss his joking," said Ladd. "None of us were perfect, but if you made a mistake on the field, Bob was relentless."
Chapp was more than relentless about softball. He was a fanatic. softball games consumed much of his 35-year marriage to Nancy . The couple traveled to his games all over the United States ; sometimes he played four games a night. Even after he turned 50, he'd still play several nights a week. At the time of his death, Chapp was participating in a qualifying tournament for the Senior Softball World Championships.
Senior Softball USA , based in Sacramento , Calif. , is the world's largest organization of softball players 50 years old and older. They compete on 1,500 teams in every state and Canada . As baby boomers continue to age and remain healthy, SSUSA reports that it's growing by an average of 500 players a quarter.
Nancy remembers how Chapp attended a tournament just three days after his mother died.
"I saw that's just the way he grieved," she said. "He always said to me, 'If I ever drop dead of a heart attack on the ball field, I'll be happy to die doing what I love.' My biggest fear was that he would get injured and not be able to play anymore. I couldn't imagine what he'd do."
Chapp came by his love for the game honestly. His father, Norbert Chapp, had dreams of playing professional baseball. But because she feared that her only son could be injured, Norbert's mother wouldn't let him -- even when he had a chance to play for the Detroit Tigers.
"I think Bob wanted to live the life that his father couldn't," said Nancy .
It was not to be. A grade school sports physical revealed that Chapp had a congenital heart problem. He wasn't allowed to play hardball.
"So he switched to softball as a teenager," his widow said. "We got married when I was 19. Right then, he said, 'If you can't live with me playing ball, then we can't get married.' It was our prenuptial agreement."
It worked out for Nancy as well. "There was a lot of camaraderie among the wives and the kids of the players," she said. "They all became my friends. Later, when the kids grew up, I started staying at the hotel while Bob played. They became my relaxing weekends."
In March, Chapp found out that he was to be inducted in the Michigan United States Specialty Sports Association Hall of Fame in 2009.
"He was pleased," said Nancy , "but he was disappointed because his father wasn't alive to see it."
A game, then grief
On Sunday May 18, the day after Chapp died, the Michigan Express took the field once again. For the first play, Ladd folded his fallen teammate's uniform and placed it at shortstop, along with his hat and glove. After they walked the first batter, Ladd took his friend's position -- shortstop. "On that day, I cried enough for a year," he said.
Chapp's memorial service was two days later, but the team had a tournament game.
"Bob had a habit of showing up five minutes before the games," said Ladd. "Right before we started, I looked around and said, 'Anybody seen Bob yet?' "
The Michigan Express won, and, still in uniform, the team made it to the final minutes of Chapp's memorial. Nancy was honored that the team had pressed on to victory despite their loss.
"I learned from Bob not to sweat the small stuff," said Nancy . "You've got to let some hurt roll off your back. And no matter the circumstances, you've got to find the time to do what you enjoy."
For me, Bob Chapp's commitment to lifelong fun is an inspiration. I think he'd agree that it's not whether you win or lose that matters.
What matters is that you remember to play.