A senior on the mound
Second chance comes 40 years after the first
SPRINGFIELD — With a final windmill of his pitching arm, Larry Hasenfus trotted in from the bullpen. His stirrups pulled high over pinstripe pants, vintage handlebar mustache waxed for the occasion, he took the mound like a figure out of baseball lore.
At 58, Hasenfus had almost four decades on his Springfield College teammates. He was their age when his promising baseball career came to a demoralizing end, cut short by an undiagnosed learning disability that left him barely able to read.
That loss had never left him, and he assumed it never would. But now he was back in college, diagnosed late in life with a severe form of dyslexia. And, somehow, he was back on the baseball diamond, driven to make good on a second chance.
“Not being able to play in college killed me,’’ he said. “I never played one inning, because I just couldn’t do the work. That always stuck with me.’’
Hasenfus flunked out of college as a teenager after three semesters and never guessed he would return. But after he lost his job managing a textile plant, Hasenfus decided to give it a second try, and last year enrolled in an adult bachelor’s degree program in human services at Springfield College.
Hasenfus has received a wealth of messages from well-wishers who have cheered him on from afar. Some were dyslexics, inspired by his determi nation to resume his studies. Some were former athletes, impressed by his defiance of age. Some just wrote to say they admired what he was doing and were behind him in spirit.
“It’s taken on a life of its own,’’ Hasenfus said during an interview in the student union, where he was often greeted by back-slapping teammates.
Hasenfus grew up in Newton, where he excelled at sports and struggled mightily in the classroom. He scraped by on a strong memory and listening skills. But in the end, he could not disguise a hard fact: He could hardly read.
“I don’t think I ever completed an assignment,’’ he said. He would try, but would lose his place or get stuck on certain words. He saw letters backward or upside down.
He went to summer school and specialized reading centers, and underwent test after test in hopes of pinpointing the problem. Nothing worked. He graduated from Newton High School in 1969, but at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire he failed as many courses as he passed.
“I figured that was that,’’ he said.
Hasenfus went to work for a local social services agency, where he stayed for a dozen years and met his wife, Karen. They moved to North Brookfield, where they live today, and raised three children. Hasenfus continued his career as a social worker and administrator, served on the Board of Selectmen, and in 2004 ran for state representative on a platform of fiscal responsibility.
“I got killed,’’ he said with a chuckle.
Amid his various accomplishments lingered a nagging sense of regret from his college years. Then, a few years ago, he attended a lecture by a Harvard professor who specialized in dyslexia. He realized the professor was talking about him, and he started to wonder if he could return to school with the help of the right technologies. Later, after getting laid off, Hasenfus learned he was eligible for a government retraining program that would pay for him to go back to school. He found out that Springfield College offered weekend classes for adults and decided it was worth a try.
At first he didn’t buy a college T-shirt or hat, worried he would fail like before. But using voice-recognition software, and with the help of his wife, he realized he could do the work. Last fall, he made the dean’s list.
“I realized that for the first time in my life, I was academically eligible to play.’’
He met with the coach, who said he’d give him every opportunity to make the team. He went to the first team meeting, dressed in a sweater-vest and bow-tie. Players assumed he must be a new coach.
When workouts began, he toiled intensely with everyone else. He woke up each day before dawn, exhausted and sore, and collapsed into bed at night even more so.
“Driving home, it hurt to push the gas, push the brake, push the clutch, even grab the steering wheel,’’ he recalled. “Other than that, I felt great.’’
Hasenfus and his wife would talk about whether being on the team was worth the punishment. But he kept at it.
“All of us thought it was very brave to even show up,’’ said his coach, Kyle Philson, 34. “He’s definitely an inspiration.’’
Teammates, initially skeptical he could handle the physical demands, soon came around and adopted Hasenfus into the fold. After two teammates decided to grow handlebar mustaches, he gave them each grooming kits.
“One came to me later and said his girlfriend wanted him to get rid of it,’’ Hasenfus recalled. “I told him: ‘Don’t worry about it. There’ll be other mustaches.’ There’ll be other girlfriends, too, but I didn’t say that.’’
Hasenfus doesn’t throw as hard as he once did, and his pitches don’t have quite the same break. Before Friday, he had appeared in only three games. But in the ninth inning of Friday’s 8-1 game, he got the call.
“Throw strikes, kid,’’ one player chattered.
He walked the first batter, then the second. Then Hasenfus found a groove, spinning a couple of strikes over the corners. He got one out, then another, as the small crowd cheered him on.
A lazy fly ball to left, and Hasenfus was out of the inning. Bolting from the dugout, his teammates mobbed him in the middle of the field.