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Old ball game? Very

If the Melrose Pondfeilders and the Essex Base Ball Club were going to play this game of base ball like teams played it in the 1860s, they'd have to do it right.

So everyone has to have a nickname, explains Jeff Peart, Essex's part-time player, part-time mascot and part-time curator.

The young kid in center field with the mop of hair curling out the side of his cap? That's Rob Michaud. It's his first year playing, and already he's a crowd favorite. The guys call him "Stumbles."

He has great speed, Peart explains, but sometimes he's too fast for his own good.

The guy in left field with the salt-and-pepper goatee? That's Aaron Horowtiz. He actually just picked up his nickname, "Crash," for obvious reasons. He's a wrecking ball of a man.

The guy at first with the soldier-boy smile? That's Brian Sheehy. They call him "Cappy." He runs things for the Essex Base Ball Club, the vintage baseball team that started up five years ago, taking its name from a team that played in Danvers in 1959.

As for Peart himself?

"They call me Graybeard," he said. "For obvious reasons."

Coke-bottle glasses and a long gray beard down to his shirt, he looks like Santa Claus on summer vacation.

They've all got on the same baggy pants and jerseys, looking like they just hop p ed out of a black-and-white highlight reel.

The Essex Ball Club was founded in 2002 by the Danvers Historical Society, and played its first game that July against the Pondfeilders, one of the original teams in the New England Vintage Base Ball League, founded in 2001.

The two teams have played every year since. On Monday night, the players threw three sacks down on the grass field at Glen Magna Farms in Danvers and went nine innings in front of dozens of kids lined up along the first-base line and more families in the outfield as a part of the Historical Society's "Harmony, Hits and Hot Dogs" event. Essex won, 8-2.

Playing the vintage game, Sheehy said, gives players an appreciation for the game played today.

"I think it's fascinating," he said. "When I first started playing this, I thought I was a baseball fan and I knew a lot about the history of it. Then I started reading more and more about it, and you see how the rules changed and how the evolution of the game changed and it's kind of interesting to see some of the quirks of it. You can see why things changed and that's kind of the beauty of it."

An admitted Civil War buff, Peart lives for this: vintage base ball (yes, two words), the game the way it was played more than 140 years ago.

No frills. No hot dogging. No gloves, even. It was a gentlemen's game. And teams like the Essex Base Ball Club and the Melrose Pondfeilders try to re-create the vintage game.

Everything's accurate down to the drawstring jerseys uniforms and stripe -topped caps. There are only two modern-day allowances: cleats and protective cups.

"We're not reenactors like the Civil War guys because when they do a battle they already know who's won," Peart said. "No matter how many times you do Gettysburg, the North's going to win. We are playing by the 1861 rules, but we're playing a real baseball game. So we don't know what's going to happen.

"A lot of people are like 'Oh, you're playing old games.' I say, 'No, we're playing by the old rules.' " They play twice per week from May through August.

Those rules, dating to the 1860s, are quirky.

Underhand pitches. No called strikes. No walks, just warnings. If you catch a fly ball in the air, it's an out. If you catch it on one bounce, it's an out. Don't overrun first base unless you plan on running back to the bag. Foul territory isn't a safe haven. Other teams in the area play 1880s rules (a harder ball, overhand pitches, something resembling a glove).

"A lot of our players do historical research and contact historians to find out the rules," said Paul Cunningham, the third baseman for the Pondfeilders. They call him "Tator."

For the most part, these men are part players, part history buffs. "Stumbles" is a history teacher. "Tator" was a history major in college.

They were fans from the start, but taking up vintage base ball suddenly made them practicing historians.

"I've always been a huge baseball fan," Cunningham said. "I was always interested in 20th century baseball and just like a lot of people I didn't know anything about the 19th-century game. Now that I know about it, since I've played in it and everything, it's by far my favorite period. To see how the game, the roots of how it came out of nothing and became this huge, gigantic national pastime it's just fascinating."

History is only half the draw for a lot of the players, though. There are a handful of older guys who come out for the camaraderie and the exercise, and end up swinging the lumber and playing the field just as effectively as the younger players.

At 48, Brian Besse is the slick-fielding second baseman who gobbles up grounders for Essex.

They call him "the Wiz." "Nobody beats the Wiz," he says, with the smile of a big-band singer.

He found out about the team through a newspaper article, then decided to come by to help coach and assist. One day Essex was shorthanded, and he stepped in. The rest, pun intended, is history.

A mound menace, Rob Harlow has a gap-toothed smile that is unmistakable when you're staring him down from the batters box. They call him "Gaps."

He learned of the Pondfeilders through a friend in 2001, and decided to catch a game.

"I wasn't there 15 minutes," he said, "and I said this was the most fun I've had in 15 minutes than I've had in 26 years."

He traveled all over the place with the team, from Rhode Island to Rochester, enjoying the game and the guys. He even dragged his son, Pat, along with him.

Pat Harlow is now the Pondfeilders shortstop. They call him "Sinbad," like the pirate.

"I thank the good Lord I can still participate and play with my son," said Rob Harlow, who turned 55 in February.

A lefty, he's still very much a threat at the plate, pulling balls down the first-base line so much that Essex put on a David Ortiz-like defensive shift in each of his plate appearances.

His son Pat isn't too shabby at short. At one point he made a leaping one-handed, bare-handed snag of a line drive that otherwise seemed destined to drop in left field.

His father dragged him out to the games a few years ago, but Pat Harlow admits that in his five years on the team, he's hooked, traveling all over the place -- just like Dad.

"It's a great family atmosphere between teams no matter what state you go to," he said. "It's the whole spirit of the game."

Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: Vintage baseball in Danvers
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