It’s Time for a Baseball Senior League

Who wouldn't like to see Jim Thome hit some more dingers in a senior baseball league? (via Keith Allison)

Who wouldn’t like to see Jim Thome hit some more dingers in a senior baseball league? (via Keith Allison)

This article ended up much different than it started. I began by researching player aging, with the hypothesis that advances in training, nutrition and medical technology were shifting the distribution of major leaguers older over time. I looked at the data from several angles. My hypothesis was simply wrong. Baseball players are, by and large, between the ages of 20 and 35 – a fact that does not seem to be changing anytime soon.

As I came to that conclusion, it sparked an idea, “I’d watch a senior league.” The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. Now, there is no talking me out if it—baseball needs an actual senior circuit.

The idea of a senior league has precedent. In 1989, the Senior Professional Baseball Association was created, playing less than two seasons before folding. The league had some impressive names, most notably Rollie Fingers and Ferguson Jenkins, both future Hall of Famers. There is a book about the league, The Forever Boys which, full disclosure, I haven’t read. For that reason, I do not plan on spending much time on why that league failed, other than to say the opportunity for a senior league is much better today than it was then.

The Player Pool Is Big Enough Now and Growing

The age window to be a professional baseball player has hardly changed since World War II. There are slight dips and bumps over the years, but there is no evidence that the window is trending in either direction.

Investigating this is a little more complicated than it may seem. Just taking the average or median age of players year over year is problematic because modern teams use many more players. Instead, I ranked players top to bottom in WAR (hitters only, for simplicity) each season and looked at the age of the player at each rank. Doing this allows us to ignore the “cup of coffee” players.

To get a visualization of the results, below is a graph showing the age of the players ranked first, 50th and 100th in WAR, respectively, by season. Put another way, how old was the best player in baseball in 1946, 1947, 1948, etc.? How old was the 100th best player?

jesse 1

For a point of reference, the dip in the “Rank 1” line in the past few years is Mike Trout.

If you squint hard enough, you can try to see trends here, but realistically, none of substance exist. The trend lines on these three and all other ranks are flat. Productive players in modern baseball are basically the same ages they always were. A recent 538 article looked all the way back to the 1880s and found a similar result.

The reason I find this conclusion surprising is the average life expectancy has risen significantly over this time frame. A male born in 2014 will live, on average, to 76 years old, more than a decade longer than a child born in 1946 (life expectancy of 64). Those 12 years are not simply tacked on to the end of someone’s life; we are healthier at every age along the way. So, if a 40-year-old is healthier today than in 1946, why are we not seeing more 40-year-olds in baseball? The stream of incoming young players doesn’t stop.

The number of major league roster spots is roughly fixed, with the exception of a slight expansion every few years. Therefore, while today’s older players may be healthier than yesteryear’s older players, there is still a new crop of rookies coming in every season—younger, healthier and cheaper alternatives for a team to employ. Until medical advances reach the point where there is little difference in the physical abilities between a 35-year-old and a 25-year-old, the window to be a major league player will remain about the same.

There is a new window, however, which has opened and will get wider every year. Just using round numbers, let’s assume that the window to be a productive major league player is between 20 and 35. Again, using an assumption, let’s say the upper bound of this window is 30 years less than the average life span. For example, a player born in 1985 would be 30 years old today (think Troy Tulowitzki, Matt Kemp or Melky Cabrera). He has the life expectancy of 71 years. Using these assumptions, he would play in the majors for five more years and retire at 35, but could physically play competitive baseball until the age of 41.

The below graph has the same three lines from the first graph, overlaid with the black line representing the trend in life expectancy for males in the U.S. The green area in the graph below shows the approximate size of this “senior league window” each year.

jesse 2

As life expectancy has slowly risen, the window for a post-majors baseball career has gone from a few years in the 1950s and ’60s to over a decade today. This methodology, while admittedly simplistic, is just meant to show the growing gap between a player’s playing career and his lifespan. No matter if you adjust the assumptions by a few years one way or the other, the results will show the pool of potential players would be about twice as big today as it was in 1989, the last time a senior league was attempted.

It Would Give Baseball a Year-Round Presence

January and February would be the perfect time of year for the senior league. Football is drawing to a close and spring training hasn’t started. While die-hards love the “Hot Stove League,” casual fans check out of baseball during the offseason. Just look at the Google Trend for the term “baseball.” A six-week season played in domes and warm-weather cities in the middle of winter could lessen the depth of those valleys of interest.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Looking at the MLB network’s programming from the previous offseason, wouldn’t you say it could benefit from having baseball games to air and talk about in, say, the middle of January?

The Internet Makes It Possible

One of the downfalls of the 1989 SPBL is that it happened in 1989. There was no Internet, no MLB Network, no MLB.tv, no Twitter, no fantasy sports, and only one ESPN network. The media landscape today is completely different and far more fertile for sports leagues. In 1989, not all of a major league team’s games were televised. These days, a Korean Royals fan can not only follow his team from the other side of the world, but become the team’s unofficial good luck charm thanks to the Internet and social media.

I don’t think anyone would be under the delusion that a winter senior league would be more popular than the college and pro sports that are happening at that same time, but it would keep baseball in the conversation. When Pedro Martinez strikes out the side, Jim Thome hits a monster dinger, Ozzie Smith flashes some leather, or Manny Ramirez has a “Manny being Manny” moment, it would catch a share of the national spotlight. Also, in the social media era, the league is not dependent on the national media for promotion. The videos, links and GIFs would spread organically.

Also, building the league from the ground up would mean no existing local broadcast contracts, and therefore none of the hated streaming blackouts that plague MLB.tv.

Nostalgia Is In

No sport trades on nostalgia more than baseball. As I was writing this article, Deadspin published a perfect example, a post titled “Let’s Remember Some Guys.” It’s just a list of good-but-not-great former baseball players from recent history. Not only is the very existence of such an article a proof of concept for the appetite for a senior league, Deadspin Editor Barry Petchesky tweeted, “This is the only post in site history where every reader gets it and no one is yelling at us for something.” People are ready for this.

SB Nation’s Jon Bois is making long-form videos about Koo Dae-Sung and Lonnie Smith. Of the players immortalized with a bobblehead giveaway this season, about a third are retired. It is not all Hall of Famers, either: Rob Deer, Javy Lopez, David Justice, Jamie Moyer, Lance Berkman and Michael Young, for example.

Baseball fans are still interested in the players of the not-too-distant past. This has always been the case, but today these players actually have something left in the tank.

For an idea of what the lineups of a senior league might actually look like, let’s look at three annual games that feature retired MLB players – Diamondbacks Alumni Day, Yankees Old-Timers’ Day and the Hall of Fame Classic. Arizona’s fourth annual alumni game, which will be played this weekend, will feature the likes of Luis Gonzalez, Jay Bell, Mark Grace and Brandon Webb.

Played in late June, this year’s Yankees Old-Timers’ Day rosters included Rickey Henderson, Paul O’Neill, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, David Wells and David Cone.

The most recent Hall of Fame Classic — played back in April — had Alfonso Soriano, Brady Anderson, Bobby Abreu, Rick Ankiel, Steve Avery, Vinny Castilla, Ivan Rodriguez and Roy Oswalt. The Hall of Fame was nice enough to provide box scores of the last several Classics in a PDF, which I have linked to here. There you will find Jim Thome, Pedro Martinez, Eddie Guardado, Will Clark, Ozzie Smith, Andre Dawson, Goose Gossage and Jeff Kent.

Of course, getting a retired player to play in one exhibition game is different than getting him to play in a league. The quality of players would be directly related to the quality of the league—facilities, sponsorship, media coverage, game attendance and player pay. Contracts would obviously be on a different scale than what active players make, but a five-or-six digit paycheck for a few weeks of work would be plenty to net marquee talent. No matter what, you will probably never get Derek Jeter to play in a senior league, but most former players are not multi-millionaires who can still land sponsorship deals. I would wager that most recently retired players would love to squeeze a few more years of income out of their most marketable job skill—playing baseball. Given the timing of the league, it would likely not interfere with any coaching or broadcasting jobs that are common with former players. And if it’s kept to warm locales, there will be plenty of time for golf.

There are wild cards who could really make things interesting. I won’t go into detail, I’ll just list the names: Bonds and Clemens.

There Is Money To Be Made

I am a marketer by trade, so I can’t help think about the advertising implications of a potential senior league. The outlook is very good.

Sports are unique in modern television – it’s the rare type of content that’s best to watch in real time. No DVR and no streaming means commercial breaks that are not skipped. Commercials that are not skipped means higher return-on-investment for advertisers. Higher advertiser ROI means higher prices the network can charge for ad space. This is the primary reason television contracts for sports leagues have been skyrocketing in recent years. A new sports league that can deliver real-time viewers would have no problem selling ad space. Also, presuming the games would be streamed online, television ads could stream there too, or be sold as a separate ad space.

Further, the senior league could sell its naming rights, similar to the Sprint Cup in NASCAR or the Barclays Premier League in soccer. The major American sports leagues have not gone down this road yet, but there is huge money at stake. Nextel/Sprint reportedly paid $750 million for a 10-year contract with NASCAR, and NASCAR wants a cool billion in their next contract. The senior league would not be nearly at that level, but even a fraction would be enough to get the league off the ground and allow it to afford marquee names.

The senior league would also have a built-in sponsor with daily fantasy sports sites. Draft Kings already has a deal with MLB, so it would be a natural fit. At this point, you may be asking, “Would people play fantasy on a senior league?” Well, people play fantasy bass fishing, so, yeah, I think senior league baseball far surpasses the bar for relevance in the fantasy sports world.

There is a mutually beneficial relationship to be had with the video game MLB The Show as well. These games often have historical players available anyway, so adding a senior league mode would not be a big undertaking. Inclusion in the video game would help promote the league, so both sides win.

The Pitch

To this point, all the arguments I’ve made are backed by some level of evidence. Now, it is time to speculate about the specifics for the league itself. This is completely spit-balling.

The league could be played in domed or warm weather stadiums between November and February, or maybe just a couple of those months. Teams would play one series per week, on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, to minimize overlap with football and let the players spend most of their week at home. Players fly out to the park on Wednesday morning, play a game that night, play one Thursday, play one Friday night, and then head home.

A pared-down version of the league could happen over the course of a few weekends with more of a barnstorming feel. All teams meet for a weekend of games in Florida, then the next weekend in Arizona, the next in Texas, culminating in a playoff weekend in Las Vegas.

The games themselves would be played with standard rules, with a few tweaks for the older players, such as innings limits on pitchers and tie games ending after 10 innings.

The first and most important decision would be who owns the league. It could have franchise owners, as the SPBL did, or it could be owned centrally, perhaps by a sports network such as ESPN or Fox. The league could be successful on its own or owned by either of those networks, but no entity would benefit more from owning the senior league than MLB itself.

Major League Baseball has its own network, which makes for a built-in television coverage and provides vital offseason content for the network. It also has MLB.tv, which could make an easy transition to the senior league. MLB already has relationships with the key parks, clubs, umpires and players. Most importantly, MLB has aligned incentives with the senior league. Anything that increases interest in baseball benefits baseball in the long run.

Further, I think the senior league would have maximum impact if MLB viewed it as a marketing initiative instead of maximizing short-term profit. Sell game tickets at cost. Stream the games through MLB.tv for free. Don’t price a single interested fan out of following the league. Keep everything in the black through advertising, and make the goal of the league reaching as many people as possible to keep baseball in the national conversation over the winter.

Having central, MLB ownership would also mean the league could get creative with who runs, coaches and plays for the teams. Perhaps each team is run by a player-coach (imagine Team Manny Ramirez or Team Rickey Henderson). Maybe one team is run by the fans, who vote on lineups and starting rotations. Maybe the teams are based on former players from a geographic area, such as Team Missouri, made up of former Royals and Cardinals. Another team could be made up of mostly members from a specific historical team, the mid-’90s Braves, for example. These ideas could co-exist during the same season and/or change year to year. That would not be possible if each team was owned independently.

My final thought is that I just want to see it. I want to see Mariano Rivera face Tino Martinez. I want to see Greg Maddux freeze Adam Dunn with a perfectly-placed two-seamer. I want to see Pudge gun down Juan Pierre. I want to see Jeff Bagwell yank a double down the line. I want to see if Kerry Wood has anything left in the tank. I want to see Nolan Ryan for one inning in relief. I want to get one last glimpse of Junior Griffey’s swing. I just want to see this league exist, and the time is right to give it another shot.

References & Resources

  • Special thanks to MLB Official Historian John Thorn and the National Baseball Hall of Fame for their assistance with this article.


Jesse has been writing for FanGraphs since 2010. He is the director of Consumer Insights at GroupM Next, the innovation unit of GroupM, the world’s largest global media investment management operation. Follow him on Twitter @jesseberger.
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tz
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tz

What would you use for the minimum age cutoff?

Fred S.
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Fred S.

>= 8 years MLB experience. Guys that have career ending surgery but got healthy again would be fun to watch.

ben
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ben

FWIW, the old SPBL had a minimum age of 35 (or 32 for catchers.)

Mike Arnold
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Mike Arnold

Is this league banking on past-stars going bankrupt? Seems that guy who make 20-30MM+ over a career will be hard pressed to train seriously for a senior league bracket.

Maybe you could do something where senior-ish professionals team up with collegiate players for a summer league, but those college guys are going to probably destroy the vets.

Fred S.
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Fred S.

I’d say bankruptcy and competitiveness would drive the league.

Think of guys like Ricky Henderson. He played for very little in independent league ball just because he loved to play. Jose Conseco is still hitting bombs before independent league games because he’s broke.

I’d watch those 2 get together again, regardless of their motivations.

Eli
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Eli

Players go into broadcasting all the time, which is also a “pay cut”. It keeps them active and involved and gives them money as well. Listen to Michael Jordan talk, he still feels he is better than current NBA players – they miss the competition more than anything else.

This is a great idea.

Alex
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Alex

I had the same idea just a few weeks ago. But my idea was to have the games tuesday to thursday during the season, up until the all star break. This means they could play in real baseball cities (fields and weather would be ready), with a minimum of conflict with the MLB clubs. Maybe even just 2 games a week, depending on the number of pitchers interested. It might be hard to convince guys to risk their arms for this.

Jim
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Jim

How about we just pay more attention to the great baseball being played in the Winter down in the Caribbean? Old, decrepit stars can play down there if they can still cut it.

Jon J
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Jon J

The age minimums for the Sr. League in the 80s, was 35 (32 for catchers) the oldest player was 54. I think a few players parlayed performance in the Senior League into a return to the big leagues. If MLB owned the new league, they wouldn’t be as profit driven, it could also be used as a testing ground for coaches and umpires. Also a laboratory for rules changes. It could be centered in Florida or Arizona using Spring Training complexes, maybe play half the season in Florida and the other half in Arizona and if successful, could expand to… Read more »

Andy
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Andy

For guys who never wanted to retire, and thought they could still play, this would be major motivation, maybe more important than the money they could make.

Definitely, yes. If a Sr. League were in existence now, they could have automated calls of balls and strikes.

Andy
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Andy

Whoops, that didn’t work. Try again:

” I think a few players parlayed performance in the Senior League into a return to the big leagues.”

For guys who never wanted to retire, thought they could still play, that would be a major motivating factor, more than the salary they might get for playing in this league.

” Also a laboratory for rules changes. ”

Definitely, yes. A Senior League in existence now could have balls and strikes called automatically.

Scott
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Scott

Presumably a lot of players who still coache/announce/host a studio show/consult for teams enjoy still being around the game in some capacity. With the right less than demanding schedule and window for the season to occur within there could be a large contingent of Eric Byrnes and Tim Wakefield types to potentially fill out a senior circuit. Not super-sexy/flashy names but real MLB vets who would probably still hold down roster spots at AA/AAA if still playing. Also check out box scores from Winter Leagues: Latin-American players who hung up their MLB cleats a while back still play starting roles… Read more »

Mac
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Mac

Hate hitting a knuckleball when you’re 25? You’ll really hate in at 45. Wakefield would dominate! Him and Jamie Moyer for the SeniorBall Cy!

MB
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MB

I think I enjoy the thought of viewing the boxscores with all of these semi-classic names however actually watching? Meh. It is painful enough having to watch Jeter try and field his position at age 40 let alone some of the geriatrics you were referencing. The actual on-field play, even relatively speaking, could look very bad IMO.

Scott j
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Scott j

Quality of play would obviously not be up to anywhere MLB. But if it was in January and February? I think a lot of us are starved for actual baseball at that point, and would welcome watching these guys compete against each other.

JR
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JR

I think a big reason for the longer life expectancy is safer childbirth and treatment for childhood diseases that didn’t exist until recently. I’ve never seen a study that researched this, but I’d guess that once you reach, say, 20 years old, your life expectancy is close to the same as it was back then.

Jetsy Extrano
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Jetsy Extrano

Yeah, you want to be looking at life expectancy from age 40, not from birth. Basic shape of the results probably still holds though. I wonder what this league gives players that playing in other non-major leagues doesn’t today. Because some do play there but not a ton. Could be more money. Could be glamour/respect — how it’s branded and that it’s restricted to former MLBers. Could be a cushier life, that might be huge… I’d love to hear Eno or David Laurila ask some retired players what they think it would take to get them playing this.

Andy
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Andy

“the dip in the “Rank 1” line in the past few years is Mike Trout.”

That’s the trouble with Trout. He ruins all these analyses with his outlying.

Seriously, Jesse, you have actually discovered a new stat that show’s Trout’s awesomeness: greatest distance between 1 and 50/100 as a function of age.

obsessivegiantscompulsive
Guest

This is a great idea, and I think it’s workable, just a matter of figuring out the details. There are players who would play (like Rickey, who was mentioned) no matter what, and a lot of them would love to continue, but just weren’t good enough anymore. And there are mistakes made by teams, and this league would allow these players to show that they still got it (the question is how we allow these players back into the majors, free agency? Draft? Other?). One thing I would note is that life extension does not necessarily tie into better health… Read more »

obsessivegiantscompulsive
Guest

About the first chart, I have a problem with it, but not really sure what it is. I get that randomness for each should even things out over time. But it just seems too random. I just don’t get that it shows what you are trying to show, which is the age range of the most productive hitters. It would seem to be better to grab, say, every player with at least 2.5 WAR (as the min for above average players) and work out the max age, the min age, and the average age. Or, since you have the Top… Read more »

Jim
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Jim

Oh, those aches and pains. Injuries will be problematic. Warmups will be critical. How many hamstrings will be pulled trying to steal second, or run down that fly ball. Also, catching. Will there be starting catchers and relief catchers (given old age knee aches and back aches) ? Yeah they are fit. Fit for a 35+ age. And, the body isnt quite what it was in terms of fit and healing abilities.

Also, how would you monitor PED’s ? Competitive spirit etc will drive some down that route.

Scott
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Scott

I also worry about the injury aspect. Nobody wants to watch their former idols tear a hamstring.

There would also probably need to be a different drug list as I imagine some retired players must need some sort of doctor-prescribed steroid to address chronic injuries they developed during their careers.

But I DO have an answer for the catching problem: Have the Molinas catch everything!

Despite my expressed concerns, I would love to watch this happen. Who wants to join my Senior League fantasy league?

Corey
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Corey

This isn’t particularly relevant to your article, but you made a comment that made a classic mistake in American demographic research. This comes up constantly in Social Security debates. Life expectancy has increased largely to massive improvements in infant mortality. We don’t have anything close to the same number of people dying as infants as we used to. Life expectancy after age 65 has only improved a tiny bit. This is really relevant to Social Security because the premise of calls to raise the retirement age is “people are living longer,” but so slightly that its not really a burning… Read more »

Mac
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Mac

Life expectancy isn’t longer since what time frame? Not being snarky, am really curious.

Corey
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Corey

lol, I didn’t think you were snarky, but you did make me actually go and research it rather than just shooting off memory! The linked chart is from the CDC, it shows life expectancy by census year since 1950 at birth and at age 65. Overall life expectancy has increased a lot, 10.5 years from 68.2 in 1950 to 78.7 in 2010. Amongst people who reach the age of 65 however, the change in life expectancy has been about half that. 5.2 years from 78.9 in 1950 to 84.1 in 2010. An article I found while looking for this attributed… Read more »

Bpdelia
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Bpdelia

There’s a common fallacy here. We aren’t getting healthier or even living substantially longer. Much of this rise in average age is attributed to the drastic decline in childhood mortality. Infant mortality was greatly reduced in the age of sterile medicine and many of the diseases that have been conquered thru vaccination were child killers (they get more research money). The reality is that kids are safer than ever but one you got past 15 you basically lived as long a life in 1850 as today. Now certainly there have been advances in keeping people live with anti biotics but… Read more »

a eskpert
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a eskpert

“The reality is that kids are safer than ever but one you got past 15 you basically lived as long a life in 1850 as today.”
This isn’t true at all. Modern antibiotics and surgery have lengthened lifespans at all ages (which you can look up at various ages through history at the Census Bureau – I did this a month or two ago).

My favourite anecdote, Allen Pinkerton, the proprietor of the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency died from BITING HIS TONGUE. He got a minor, then major infection and died.

Yehoshua Friedman
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Yehoshua Friedman

How about giving retired players from other sports a chance to play in that league if they could make the team? Think guys who played football or basketball as pros but were in the MLB draft on the strength of HS or college performance. Then you could see them play and wonder what would have happened if such a guy had played baseball. We already saw the Jordan fizzle, but there could be others.

Dick Campbell
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Dick Campbell

I went to senior league baseball games in 1989 at Orlando, The Orlando Juice. These guys could still play and make the plays. The Juice had Jose Cruz for example of the quality of the players, it was great and the players actually talked with you and it was awesome. This is a great idea, someone do it !

Michael Bacon
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Michael Bacon

This is not a good idea. Since it was known while working at the Atlanta Chess Center that I had played baseball over a decade when young people would often discuss the game, knowing I was an avid fan. One young fellow mentioned his dad played Senior baseball, so I asked the father and he talked at length about how much he liked it. He ended the talk by proudly telling me about all of his various injuries, including numerous operations on various parts of his body. His son came down after his chess game ended near the end of… Read more »