For about the past two decades, one thing has remained constant for the Yavapai Cantina senior softball traveling team of Prescott — a heartfelt camaraderie.
Father Time continues to chase Cantina, which first started playing in the 50s age division in the mid-1990s before moving on to the 60s, 65s and 70s divisions.
On opening day of the 70s division’s round-robin play in the 26th annual Tobin-Glick Memorial Slow-Pitch Tournament Thursday at Pioneer Park, Cantina tried to hold its own.
Cantina tied RokZoo of Cottonwood and Prescott, 17-17, in extra innings in the early afternoon. The hometown squad then turned around and fell to the Kokopelli Eye Care Scorpions, a 75s Majors power whose lineup consists of Prescott- and Phoenix-area players.
Prior to this week, Cantina had not played in a tournament since last November. This spring, Cantina chose not to field a team at an annual spring tournament in Las Vegas, partly because of some players’ health concerns.
Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe President Ernie Jones, 73, established Cantina some 20 years ago. He has pitched for and sponsored the squad ever since. A former fast-pitch player, Jones, who started working for the Tribe in 1972, has played for Cantina since 1996.
“We got an influx of some new 70s [players] in our age group [for 2017],” said Jones, who was raised in Prescott and Cottonwood. “Once they hit 75, they move up to the 75 group, and we lost a few of them.”
A pitcher, infielder and catcher, Jones has been a rock for Cantina. In 2016, Jones helped pitch Cantina to a regional title.
Then suddenly, last fall, Jones was diagnosed with bile-duct cancer, for which he’s undergone chemotherapy. On Thursday, he started at pitcher for Cantina – a day after a round of chemo. Nevertheless, he still competes in the Monday/Thursday Prescott Senior Softball League.
“I was out for 30 days in the hospital in Phoenix, and then I came back,” said Jones, who thinks he’ll be cancer-free soon. “I’m trying to get my strength back and my balance back.”
Jones represents one of Cantina’s original roster players.
Another veteran is Cantina second baseman Stan Preston, a 72-year-old retired math and science teacher from Prescott who’s lived here for the last 44 years. He’s spent 22 of those 44 years in senior ball.
Over the past 20 years with Cantina, Preston’s traveled the Southwest, making several trips to Las Vegas, as well as southern California.
In the early spring, Cantina competes in the Cactus League for seniors. But once April hits, Prescott Senior Softball summer league play starts. It lasts about six months.
Steve Smith, he of the long, gray beard who manages Cantina, has played senior ball as long as Preston.
“He and I started in this tournament [Tobin-Glick] in 1994,” Smith said, noting that he and Preston were not with Cantina then. “It’s just great to be out here, and it’s for a good cause [Tobin-Glick memorial fund for players’ widows and orphans] and it’s local.”
Like Jones, Denny Williams, 73, is a Cantina long-timer who’s played the senior game for the past 23 years since age 50. He can suit up at several different positions, including outfielder, first baseman and catcher. On Thursday, Smith put Williams in right field.
Preston, Smith and Williams have played together on Cantina for at least 15 years and are among the roster’s oldest guys. Their loyalty has paid dividends through the years.
A few years ago, Cantina won a Winter World seniors tournament in Phoenix. Cantina’s also captured titles in several smaller tourneys, such as in Pinetop and at Tobin-Glick.
“I never played ball until I started playing senior softball,” said Williams, who retired in 1988. “Most all of us are retired now.”
Williams not only competes for Cantina. He, too, is a regular on Monday and Thursday nights in the Prescott Senior Softball League. A retired Phoenix firefighter, Williams recalls a number of Cantina’s great tournament victories despite the team’s recent rough patches.
Jones has battled cancer. Smith has had an eye problem, which forced him from the lineup for a while, although he can play now. And Williams has had health issues, too.
Father Time may not give many more years to Cantina’s older players on a softball diamond. But those men certainly are content to live in the moment, traveling three or four times a year.
“We’re probably going to continue playing,” Williams added, “until we can’t.”
The Tobin-Glick Tournament continues today through Sunday at the Pioneer Park 4-Plex in Prescott.
Today, the 70s and 75s Gold tournament ends with seven games on field Nos. 1 and 2. As for the local teams in the 70s and 75s, Cantina plays at 8 a.m. (field No. 1) and 9:20 a.m. (No. 2). RokZoo faces the Scorpions at 9:20 a.m. Bracket play begins at 10:40 a.m. and ends with the age division’s championship game at 1:20 p.m. (No. 1).
The 65s and 70s Platinum tournament also concludes today. As for local squads in that age division, Bucky’s of Prescott will play at 9:20 a.m. (field No. 3) and 10:40 a.m. (field No. 4).
On Saturday and Sunday, the 50s, 55s and 60s age-division tournaments will be played at Pioneer.
Follow Doug Cook on Twitter @dougout_dc. Reach him at 928-445-3333 ext. 2039, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.