EDITOR'S ADVISORY: The following feature contains language typically used on or within earshot of mid-valley softball fields.
Sunset, Season 43
Thursday, Aug. 2: It’s a beautiful night for a ballgame.
The temperature’s dropped to a cool 72, offering brief relief from weeks in a perpetual sweathouse. The sun’s arrived after a long day undercover, splashing belated light across Corvallis’ Sunset Park, a recreational area carved on wetland between residential neighborhoods and considerably wilder inhabitants. That softball players occupy its center seems natural.
Ten minutes to game time at the East Sunset diamond. The Friday Team takes practice in left field to the familiar symphony of titanium on rubber. The nucleus of Aimee’s All Stars, tonight’s appointed home team, waits in the dugout, watching, stretching, lacing cleats, trading cracks. There’s Tom Fillmore and Jeff Hauck. Rich Simons chats with his boys, Josh and Brandon — two generations ready to roll (and they're not the only ones). Rusty Root sits at the end of the bench. Nate Southern introduces himself as Walter Sobchak, though his resemblance to John Goodman’s “Big Lebowski” character ends somewhere around the beard. More players show up, dumping gear and squinting toward their opponents in the distance.
It’s the last game of the season for the Corvallis Parks & Recreation Men’s C2 league, a division to which Aimee’s was promoted this year for reasons that elude them. With a 1-9 record, they’ve nothing on the line. The atmosphere’s convivial, more so than usual. They’re here for love of the sport. They’re here for the friendship. They’re here ’cause Aimee’s is family, as it's been since the wood-bat era, a legacy that predates some of its current roster.
Manager Matt Fillmore, Tom’s dad, was there at the beginning, in 1976, a year only a handful of his charges witnessed. But tonight, he’s not alone. He’s joined by Dave Wilson, who still makes the drive from Salem to play in an Aimee’s uniform. He has plenty of those, all with numbers corresponding to his previous ages, and he picks one depending on his mood (35 tonight). Teammate Jeff Senders, who retired in the early 2000s after a fresh injury exacerbated an old one, is on hand, too. He wasn’t about to miss the last game.
Standing behind a fence along the first-base line, Senders dishes on the woolly old days. He marvels at how times change and technology advances, but softball, like baseball, fundamentally stays the same. It’s an uncluttered take on Terence Mann in W.P. Kinsella’s “Shoeless Joe”: “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. … It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.”
And they’re both right. Softball’s seven-inning structure has always seemed perfect. Games usually end within an hour and a half, and if they don’t, they’re thrilling as hell. Improve bats all you want — they’ll produce the same music when the softball hits the sweet spot and sails out of sight. You can hear it in the impact or feel it to your grip. And no matter how evenly you distribute the infield dirt, a grounder will defy all known physics and leapfrog past an infielder at the worst possible time. Rhythms fail under the right circumstances. Advantages can change hands suddenly.
The Friday Team holds a comfortable lead. It’s 25-9 near the end. Then the Aimee’s batters wake up. Hits begin landing in unclaimed territory. Another takes flight toward right, its descent aimed squarely between two outfielders, neither of whom can reach it without degrees in acrobatics. Two new runs hit the scoreboard with only one out.
Aimee’s boisterous cheering section — a legendary tribunal of wives and kids boasting veterans of its own, all versed in heckling (“Get it together, goddammit!”) and support (“Come on; you’re halfway there now!”) — grows louder. Another run comes in. It’s reminiscent of an Aimee’s tradition: Bottom of the seventh, down by a country mile, they can still come back and kick your ass.
Unfortunately, a double play from second to first ends the game at 25-12. But it’s a livelier team that leaves the field. No one seems bothered by the loss. In fact, the fans erupt in a belated wave, the last of Aimee’s 43rd season.
Other matters are more pressing, like where to hold the traditional post-game party. The venue (Woodstock's Pizza Parlor) travels, telephone-style, from the dugout to a patch of grass near the Sunset Park playground, where players and their families gather for a team picture. First, it’s just the team. Then it’s the team in its past and present forms. Finally, it’s everyone, crowding into a shot rivaling Connie Corleone’s wedding portrait in “The Godfather”: mothers, fathers, children, friends, evidence of a long adventure.
Toward the back left stands a woman with her 10-year-old daughter. Although much younger than the original crew, she’s been on this trip since the beginning too — her beginning, practically. She was posing with grownups in matching jerseys since before she could even stand. She’s supported them all since before she could talk. Her dad was a founding member. It’s her name they wear on their uniforms.
Aimee herself is here.
Back, back, back, back
The core of Aimee’s All Stars met pre-Aimee. In the spring of 1975, guys like Bob Holk, Matt Fillmore, Dave Wilson, Kurt Mueller, Mike McVey, Tom Hatley and Jeff Farm were Oregon State University students comprising an intramural softball team. Bob, forever considered the heart of the bunch, and his wife, Linda, were expecting — the first child born to this growing circle.
The Holks lived in a small, two-story house on 11th Street near campus. Friends were everywhere; many of the team’s players were barely a stroll away. Interestingly, their immediate neighbors, Dennis and Nadine Gelfand, had also been their neighbors in Southern California. When the Holks moved to Oregon, the Gelfands followed.
This proximity proved fortuitous on Monday, January 5, 1976, when, not long after Bob left the house for the first day of winter term, Linda went into labor. The Gelfands came to the rescue. Nadine drove Linda to the recently completed Good Samaritan Hospital while Dennis combed OSU for the father-to-be, then sitting, unsuspecting, in a classroom.
Bob made it to the hospital in the nick of time. When he grabbed his wife’s hand, she squeezed back hard enough to alter his bone structure. And at 11:54 a.m., she came: a 5-pound, 15-ounce baby girl. From a pool of names that include Brooke and Jesse (Jed Daniel — J.D. for short — should the fates have flipped), the Holks selected Aimee, French for “beloved.”
Little did she know how much her name would come to mean.
Five months later, the team prepared for its first Corvallis Parks & Recreation softball season. In the meantime, they’d picked up a few more souls.
Jeff Senders was a slightly older ballplayer (the State of Oregon Slugs) who had supervised a few of his future teammates in the Oregon State Employment Service manpower training program. He’d often perform a similar function within the All Stars, corralling a perennially unruly bunch. One of his greatest achievements, however, may have been luring Sandy Gordon from the Panama Red Sox, a recruitment that yielded a 30-year ride.
Duane Mason brought his rocket arm and lethal bat. “He’d take people out from wherever,” Tom Hatley says of Mason. “When I played first base, I had to be on first base and ready, ’cause it was coming. He was a home-run hitter too.” (Hatley missed the first Aimee's season but returned for the second.) Charlie Clingenpeel signed up. Many of these recruits stayed for decades.
“We didn’t know each individual,” Fillmore recalls of that year, “but we did know somebody who knew somebody else on the team. There was a whole interconnectivity that way. And that’s how we built it: ‘I’ve got this friend’ or ‘I know somebody else who can come.’”
“You have to,” Senders says. “Because we’d start out with 15 guys at the beginning of the season, then by the sixth game, only nine would show up. We’d have to have 14 to get 10. It never changed. You lose ’em through the season. I think we played some games with eight players. I don’t think we won any of ’em, but we played ’em. You know, the shortstop’s the second baseman; you’d have two of three outfielders. We’d get murdered.”
Practices took place in an empty field behind the Holks’ home. The players used the property in exchange for maintenance. They’d run lawnmowers across the grass, then get down to business, honing their defense, perfecting slides. Balls were lost by the dozens, never to be recovered until years later, when the land was cleared for the Park West Apartments.
But before they could heed the call to play ball, the team needed a name. They didn’t have a sponsor, and quite frankly, didn't want one. They’ve had two in four decades: Dumont Distributing Company, where Fillmore finagled deals on Filipino beer, and Marketplace Pizza. Sponsors were headaches. By and large, this team would be its own entity. After debating possibilities, they went with a handle suggested by Dennis Gelfand’s brother, Jan (the Gelfands come through again). Whether intentional or not, it’s perfect in retrospect: new team, new life, new family.
Aimee’s All Stars were ready.
“We were the noisiest team you ever wanted to play.”
— Dave Wilson
Wilson, Fillmore and Senders reflect over a few cold ones, as God intended in the summertime. The 2018 team takes up an entire row of Woodstock's booths and tables. Players pass to eat and leave, tapping Fillmore on the shoulder, thanking him for the season. Will the All Stars be back? It’s a question they used to ask after every last game — the original crew, especially, as it crossed the 20- and 30-year thresholds. At one time no one was certain. Now the answer is yes. And they’ll keep coming back, too.
They’re attempting to characterize the men they’d been in 1976. “A bunch of hippies,” Wilson jokes. Generationally, sure: they’re children of the ’60s and rock ’n’ roll. Aesthetically, yes: early team shots are smorgasbords of long hair, mustaches and beards, except, of course, for Aimee.
But softball players aren’t wilting lilies. The All Stars scrapped when necessary. A few had fought in Vietnam. “Blood makes the grass grow” was a constant refrain. And only fools tangled with Sandy Gordon, a college graduate, timber man and biker from Los Angeles who made it clear that you didn’t mess with his friends and you sure as hell didn’t mess with him.
“This was back in the day when most of us had played some kind of organized ball,” Fillmore says. “We were pretty decent individually, and as a team we all had the same kind of mentality.”
“Which was a lack of mentality,” Senders cracks.
“We were playing in the top leagues,” Wilson says.
Finally, Fillmore nails the description.
“We,” he says, “were arrogant bastards.”
They were also good.
Aimee’s All Stars scored their first ink in the June 17, 1976, edition of the Corvallis Gazette-Times. They’d beaten Benton Tractor 12-4 the evening before. Charlie Clingenpeel led the team with a home run and three RBIs with a swing his colleagues dubbed the “Tomahawk,” a chopping swat that nevertheless sent softballs flying. No one remembers if this was the first Aimee’s game, but it constituted an undefeated streak (4-0) that carried them into July and a three-way tie for first place in the National East with Inn Harm’s Way and Griffo Brothers.
On July 13, they finally lost, 14-3 to Water Lab. The name elicits groans from the trio. “We don’t talk about Water Lab,” Fillmore says.
They suffered their second loss 17 days later, this time a 7-6 heartbreaker to eventual league leader Griffo Brothers. Aimee’s made the playoffs, but didn’t get far. Griffo fell in the division title game to dark horse contender Les & Bob’s Sporting Goods, riding high on a late-season tear.
Aimee’s was more successful the following year. They were bumped up a league and slugged their way back to the playoffs, which they lost. But when the victors couldn’t make it to the state tournament, Aimee’s went to Molalla in their stead and took second.
Tom Hatley was back that year. Dennis Clingenpeel had arrived from Caldwell, Idaho, to visit his older brother, Charlie. He ended up moving to Oregon and becoming the team’s catcher, a perfect position for an ex-University of Idaho football player.
He stood his ground in one of Aimee’s most infamous collisions, when a Squirrel’s Tavern runner rounded third base and into a human physics experiment. When the two men fused, both ate dirt and went to the hospital. (Senders recalls remarking that the hit "probably set off the campus seismometer.") Dennis took a piece of his rival with him: a tooth, which had to be removed from his head. No hard feelings, though. That’s just the way the game was played.
Of all their opponents, the All Stars’ dynamic with Squirrel’s was equal parts adversarial and fraternal. Owner Greg Little was notorious for his fungo bats and speed. They’ve parlayed since the early days, when the diamond at Crescent Valley High School’s most inexplicable feature was a downhill outfield. When struck just so, a ground ball could pass a fielder toward the horizon, leaving teammates, who couldn’t see over the crest (“I looked like a surfer out there,” Senders says), to wonder if either would ever return. They’d congregate at Little’s joint afterward, where stories spilled in amber waves.
“They (Aimee's) were guys we all related to and got along with at the same time,” Greg Little says. “We might take one of their guys to a tournament; they might take one of ours. It was one of those things where you watched teams grow up and have families. It was always family with them. It was also a lot of fun. We had good energy with each other.”
Over time, Aimee's has taken second in their Corvallis league (1980), appeared in more playoff games than they can count, and claimed a slew of tournaments, including a Lebanon Kelstar event in 1984, where the entire team took individual trophies home.
The next generation
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Few crews were as tight as the All Stars. Barbecues and potlucks ruled their calendars. There were fishing trips and group outings. The boys got together for a regular poker game; some — let's not mention names — required supervision near the pot. Fillmore threw parties. Aimee’s also branched out into city-sanctioned soccer and basketball, though neither lasted too long.
The family grew and deepened over the decades, as Aimee’s moved from Corvallis into Albany in the early 1980s, then back again in the ’90s. Tom Hatley brought Community Services Consortium coworker Mark Bemetz, a fine pitcher, to the fold. In return, Bemetz launched the team’s second-generation wave with his teenage son, Randy, who was only a few years older than Aimee and revived the team with his youth, speed, stamina and ability. He was known to play a single game in one town, then drive 15 or more miles for a doubleheader in another the same night.
Dennis Clingenpeel’s son, Dustin, would also play, as would Wilson’s son, Nick, and Fillmore’s son, Tom. The Simons represent their own budding dynasty now, as do Andy Van Laere and his son, Bryson. But Randy was the first, and he stayed for 20 years.
“Randy could run those bases like nobody,” Hatley says.
“The best play I remember involves Randy in the outfield somewhere,” Fillmore adds. “I was playing third. He threw an absolute laser and we nailed somebody. All I had to do was stand and catch the ball.”
“We enjoyed watching him grow,” Wilson says. “He was this stumbling, lanky kid, but over the years, he got fast. He really developed. Man, he could throw that damn thing.”
Randy, for his part, recalls his time fondly.
“That’s one of the greatest groups of guys I ever played with,” he says. “I’ve played in many leagues, but the most fun I ever had was with Aimee’s. When I started, I was talented, but raw as well. They all liked a lot of the plays I’d make, but I probably made a few mistakes. I was young, eager to throw people out and make the catch. They thought I was pretty darn good, being a kid. I know I was out there, getting a little over my head, doing too much.”
The team that had once stewed over losses by then had mellowed; communion and fun had trumped obsessing over mistakes. Yet they were still determined to win, deficits be damned.
“They were the only team I ever played on, where no matter how far behind we were, we never thought about giving up,” Randy says. “We’re going to come back and win this game, and we did a lot of times. Twenty runs in softball is nothing. That’s a good inning or two at most. I learned that from playing with those guys. There was no defeated mentality.
"I’ve seen it so much at higher levels. I once played on a tournament team. We were third in state for a couple of years, and finally I quit. The coach thought we needed to be beating this or that team by a certain margin. We had to be out there winning every game. Well, it ain’t much fun rolling over everybody you play.
“I look right now, and I’m 45. I think all those guys were older than I was when I started. I don’t know how they’ve done it.”
With that, he says goodbye. Albany’s summer league has ended — his team, FUGAWI, took the championship — but his buddy Brad Rinkin talked him into fall ball with the Dirtbags. There’s a doubleheader tonight at Timber-Linn.
“He gave me a shirt and said, ‘I’m gonna call you more often than you’d like,’” Randy says. “He called this afternoon. So I’m getting my two games in this week.”
She’s the perfect embodiment of the ’80s softball kid. She’ll match you memory for memory. The impromptu games of hotbox, random items — a mitt, a jacket, a Styrofoam cooler — as bases to get trapped between. The stripes of dirt that collected around your ankles. Evenings of Red Ropes (not Twizzlers) and sno-cones, stuffing your cheeks with Big League Chew, and spitting sunflower seeds like the big dogs. Hordes of boys, clamping their hats to their heads with ungloved hands, sprinting down a foul line to chase home runs. The out-of-town tournaments. Never-ending pizza nights. Soda-and-dirt mustaches burning 'neath a summer sun.
She was an only child but seldom alone. She had a family in her father’s team, and mid-valley ballparks offered plenty of opportunities to bond with other children, even if only for a single game.
Her parents were also a loving adventure. Bob Holk was a big kid himself. When she was little, he’d rush home from school to wake her up and hold her. When she acted up, he’d whistle “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” to change her attitude.
Although the face of Aimee’s All Stars, Aimee Neilly, now 42, describes herself as a shy child. “I never liked being the center of attention or giving speeches in class,” she says. In fact, she was often absent from team portraits once she was old enough to wander off.
She did appear in two Albany Democrat-Herald retrospectives, one in 1985 and the other in 1992. In the first, she stands with a hand on yet another trophy, flanked on either side by her father and Dennis Clingenpeel. The rest of the team towers around her. That wasn’t the case seven years later, when the 16-year-old Corvallis High School student (she graduated in 1994) neared her eventual height of 5-foot-10. In that shot, she’s sitting near Rick Crow, who’d joined the team in 1981, wearing the embarrassment of a teenage girl, enlisted once more in a familiar role.
“Oh, God,” she recalls. “Rick was like, ‘Come here, Aimee.’ I was like, ‘Sweet Jesus, no. Someone save me.’ … That’s always how it happened, too. ‘Where’s Aimee? Get in here.’”
She didn’t play softball herself — sports-wise, she was more into swimming. Other interests included music, a trait she’s passed to her 10-year-old daughter, Qwynn Rose, an amalgamation of her father’s middle name (Wynn) and his mother’s name (Rose). As many videos can attest, Qwynn's been singing most of her life and had memorized “Bella Notte” at an early age. She recently finished a run as Junior Buonragozzo in the Majestic Summer Theatre Adventure Camp’s production of “My Son Pinocchio Jr.”
At Sunset Park, however, she’s just another kid exploring the playground. When she’s retrieved and told it’s time to leave, she balks a little. It reminds Aimee of bygone negotiations for a few more minutes. It may have been torture, being dragged to a ballpark against your will, but it was almost always hard to leave.
“Now I’m the mom and annoyed,” Aimee says with a laugh. “There was no park when I was a kid. The ballgame was the park. The dirt was my playground.”
Stealing home (diamonds are forever)
The hardest part of being a team for so long is having to let go. Friends move away or even move on. Relationships fracture. Bodies age, and lifelong athleticism and passion for a sport aren’t enough to stop it. Jeff Senders damaged his back while catching, in a play at the plate that went bad. A few years later, Tom Hatley, on the pitcher’s mound, bent down to pick up a ball and his knee gave out. Neither man has returned.
Kurt Mueller is gone. Dennis Clingenpeel, the life of any party, died in 1996. “He was a great catcher,” says his widow, Janis Kerr, who still sits with the Aimee’s cheering section, proof of an unbreakable bond. “He was very serious about the game. The crazier and wilder they were, so was he.”
According to Hatley, Clingenpeel’s ashes were taken to Fort Hoskins Historic State Park near Philomath. The All Stars were there to see him off. “He was a little shorter and stouter than his brother (Charlie), and he had no fear of anything,” Hatley says. “He was always a family man. He was ready to scrape with anybody, a real down-in-the-dirt-type guy. We all loved Denny.”
The equally fearless Sandy Gordon, a striking figure on his Harley in softball’s most impressive beard, lost a brief battle with cancer in 2007.
No one can discuss Sandy without bringing up the incident that resulted in his nickname, “Spit Shine.” Like most legends, there are at least two versions of the story. One’s more populated than the other, but the end result’s the same: Sandy Gordon and his triumphant smile after climbing inside someone’s head.
It goes like this. Aimee’s is leading someone in the bottom of the seventh. One out, maybe two. Sandy's playing catcher. The genial sort, he decides it's a fine time to strike up a conversation with either the batter standing above him, or the guy taking swings in the on-deck circle. In any case, one or both men demur. Sandy presses nevertheless.
Eventually, the umpire gets involved, and somehow it mutates into an argument with the batter. With everyone preoccupied, Sandy, in one version, expectorates onto the batter’s cleats; in the other, he hawks a bomb for distance, splashing his second target. Someone exclaims, “He spit on my shoe!” to which Sandy suggests, “Maybe you just dribbled down your chin, you dumb son of a bitch.”
In the two-out version, the batter gets tossed, ending the game. In the one-out version, he bloops an easy pop-fly. The third out: that sucker in the on-deck circle, who’s already been ejected.
But the hardest blow came in 2012.
Bob Holk’s been called the glue and the rock, a loving father and husband. He was an easygoing man who loved baseball and softball. A southpaw surfer from Camarillo, California, he was 11 years old when the Dodgers left Brooklyn for L.A. to become his team for life. According to his wife, Linda, he was an avid student of both sports; if he wasn’t playing in a game, he was observing one, sizing up rivals, maybe shopping for future All Stars. His mind was a Rolodex of names and dates.
He summered in Bend as a kid, so he’d always loved Oregon. In 1974, he visited the OSU campus and fell in love again. So he and Linda left California for the mid-Willamette Valley. He was a science education major and even taught biology after graduating, but that didn’t last. He became a journeyman electrician instead. Why? He loved it. The job sent him everywhere, even to his beloved alma mater. He was a Beaver Believer before the term existed. While performing work at the University of Oregon, in fact, he spotted a power panel sadly bereft of personality. So, he produced a pen and wrote “GO BEAVS.”
The year 2007 was a high point: On June 24, he was in Omaha, Nebraska, watching his boys trounce North Carolina 9-3 in the final game of the College World Series. Two months later, he was at the Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center when Aimee gave birth to his granddaughter. This time, Aimee says, he showed up early.
For 35 years, Aimee’s players have embarked on summer treks to visit every ballpark in the nation. They’re on their second go-round now. Sandy and Bob were part of that group, as are, at various times, Tom Hatley, Matt Fillmore, Jeff Senders and others (Senders and McVey have never missed a trip). Sandy’s last trip was to Dodger Stadium, where he thrilled to his boyhood team. In 2009, Senders, Fillmore, Mike McVey and Bob went to San Diego, where they also toured Bob’s favorite old surfing spots. “I loved spending time with him there and seeing that,” Senders says.
Sometimes, Matt and Bob, friends since forever, would discuss the team's future. Could Aimee's exist after the original gang was gone? “As a proud papa, Bob thought it would be neat to carry it on down the line,” Fillmore says. “However, he was also asking, ‘How’s Aimee going to like that?’ And that’s the question: Would it be OK with Aimee? How would she feel about that? It’s her name.”
On his last trip, the crew saw games in Milwaukee and Minnesota. They wanted to stop at the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa, but Bob was too ill. He’d been struggling with bladder cancer. Sadly, on Dec. 9, 2012, his long, eight-year battle ended.
“I can’t say enough good, positive things about Bob Holk,” Fillmore says, his voice catching. “He was the instigator and major force.”
“Bob was one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet,” Randy Bemetz says. “He’d come down to Albany and take the dogs out and watch some games. He’d say hi to me and ask how my team was doing. He was a father figure and kept everybody maintained.”
The team was devastated. According to Wilson, there were plans to play one more season in tribute. But eventually it was decided that Aimee’s would continue. They were, after all, a family.
The guys have stuck around in many ways, too. Kurt Mueller, Dennis Clingenpeel, Sandy Gordon and Bob Holk are never far from anyone’s thoughts. Their antics retold spark renewed laughter — deep from the belly sometimes — and the occasional thoughtful pause. That brotherhood is eternal. Blood makes the grass grow.
Aimee still talks about her father. Moments or phrases remind her of him. Every morning, she drives to work, listening to his favorite station: 99.1 KOOL-FM, with its vast catalog of classic rock. It feels like spending time with him again, hearing his favorite bands. Sometimes a song will start, seemingly just for her. Linda hears it, too. They’re like greetings from beyond, family checking in.
Not long before he died, Bob Holk purchased a plot at the Mt. Union Cemetery. The stars aligned, Jeff Senders says, and gave him the perfect spot. It’s not far from Holk’s house in Philomath, and Corvallis sprawls just beyond.
Bob also found a way to memorialize his love for ball. Stand near his marker and you’re at home plate. From there you can hear crowds at Goss and Reser stadiums. Sunset Park isn’t too far away.
Somewhere in the distance, three men sit in a pizza parlor, reflecting on friendships, a legacy assured by a roomful of people talking softball and plotting weekends, meetups and futures. Fillmore surveys this group and it must still blow his mind: He's an integral part of something beyond softball, and he's here to watch it happen.
Somewhere further in the distance, a woman and her mother watch a little girl sing her heart out.
And somewhere more distant still, a young team of arrogant bastards takes the field for the first time, unaware of the legend they're about to live.