For the last 43 years, baseball has never drifted too far from Joe Bender's thoughts.
"My dad taught me to play baseball and bowl when I was a kid," Bender said. "I've always loved to play the game."
Bender said his love for the game has shadowed him his entire life. It explains why he can't seem to hide the smile on his face each spring when the Yampa Valley Adult Baseball League holds the first practice of the season. This year, that practice will take place at 6 p.m. May 1 on Vanatta Field.
Bender is one of those guys who never needs to pull the glove out of storage in the spring, because he never really puts it away.
"I have a concrete wall in my garage and I like to throw the ball up against it all winter to keep my arm loose," he said.
While most of the 10 bags of equipment Bender owns is stowed away during the cold months, his glove, a couple of balls and a few weighted bats constantly remind him that spring -- and baseball -- are just around the corner.
For the past eight years, the adult baseball league and a traveling fast-pitch softball team have given Bender an avenue to pursue his love for the fast-paced games on the diamond.
Bender said he has never liked slow-pitch, because it doesn't offer the same challenges that he finds in baseball and fast-pitch.
"You just lob the ball up there and let 'em hit it," he said.
Bender feels baseball and the faster softball game tend to be more intriguing because of the strategy that goes into those games.
Thanks to the work of Tommy Larson, who took the helm of the local adult league a few years ago, Bender and players like him can continue to play competitively without traveling to other places in the summer.
Steamboat had an adult team before Larson that regularly played teams from Northwest Colorado, but inconsistent schedules and cancelled games left local players disappointed. When that regional league began to lose momentum, it became clear that Steamboat needed to make a change.
Larson brought a new approach with a local focus.
"We had 27 guys showing up to play every game," Larson said. "Finally, we decided that we could just do it ourselves here in Steamboat."
So the Yampa Valley Adult Baseball League was formed with two teams.
It eventually grew to three adult teams, plus one from the high school.
The athletes, who range in age from 18 to 60, pay $100 to play in the league, which covers all game-related expenses, uniforms and equipment.
The games take place at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. every Sunday from June through August at Vanatta Field.
Larson said interested players should show up to one of the first practices if they want to play this season. The players will have a chance to toss the ball, take some batting practice and infield. Practices will continue for the first three weeks of the league on both Tuesdays and Thursdays.
In late May, there will be a draft, Larson said. Games should begin by June.
"Most of the guys who come out are a bit tentative at first," Bender said, "But after hanging out with us for a few days they find themselves at ease -- even those guys who haven't played in a while."
Larson said he has had 12 calls this season, already. Once again he is hoping to field four strong teams, and is encouraging anyone interest in playing to give him a call at 871- 4776.