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He’s back to school and facing fastballs

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                                Jim Fullan, 56, a member of the Montgomery County Community College baseball team, takes a practice swing during a game in Blue Bell, Pa.


    Jim Fullan, 56, a member of the Montgomery County Community College baseball team, takes a practice swing during a game in Blue Bell, Pa.

BLUE BELL, Pa. >> When the ballplayers first saw Jim Fullan swinging a bat in 2020, they figured he was just someone’s dad, hanging around practice.

Fullan, 56, is a dad. He has nine grandkids, too.

On a rainy, wind-swept afternoon in February, the Montgomery County Community College Mustangs were practicing inside, fielding grounders in the gymnasium and taking pitches in the batting cage before a busy week of games. The pitching machine was set to 85 mph, and no one dialed it down when Fullan stepped in. He uses a shorter bat, to get around on Gen Z fastballs. He’s got a longer glove, too, because he can’t jump as high. Any trick in the book to keep the dream alive, he said, including yearly medical checkups.

“I’m gonna have to miss on Friday,” he told his coach afterward. “I have an appointment with my cardiologist.”

Recently retired from the U.S. Postal Service and rounding third on middle age, Fullan, by most standards, could have eased into a life of beer-league softball or weekend fantasy camps. Fullan was itching to play fast-pitch hardball, though, and yearned to represent a school. Montgomery County Community College gave him a shot. He takes a full course load of college classes and swallows a lot more aspirin.

“You know, the more I talked about this, the more people laughed at me,” Fullan said. “That made me want to do it more. It seemed like a joke at first, but I will see it through.”

Fullan, who is divorced, said his arm went south after 40. The bases seem miles apart these days, and he can’t sprint 100% unless a game’s on the line.

“I’m sore every day,” he said, “but I’m in decent shape and I can still hit.”

Baseball began with Little League in Long Island, but after he moved to Pennsylvania, Fullan was cut from his team at Bishop Egan High School in the 1980s. He joined the Army after high school, then spent 36 years working for the Postal Service. He was 39 when he last played in a hardball league with his oldest son. Fullan admits he’s no Roy Hobbs. He’ll spend more time on the bench than in the batter’s box.

Fullan’s father, Art, 88, thinks his son was a late bloomer in baseball, better at 56, maybe, than 16.

“I guess I had two feelings when I first heard about it,” he said. “I was surprised at first, but after a short period of time, I thought, ‘This sounds like Jim.’ It’s a very ‘Jim’ thing to do.”

Most junior colleges in Pennsylvania dismissed Fullan’s dream, gently. Some didn’t respond. Montgomery County coach Mike Fitzgerald, just five years older then Fullan, laid it out plainly.

“If you’re good enough, you can play,” Fitzgerald told him.

Fitzgerald sized Fullan up quickly. He wasn’t as spry as the younger players, of course. He leaned on his front foot too much when batting but would also “catch anything hit to him.”

“And if I have a runner on third to tie the game and I have batter on deck that struck out three times, I feel confident I can put Jim in to hit,” Fitzgerald said. “I know he’s going to make contact.”

Fitzgerald knows enough about young men to know Fullan brings more to the team than a possible RBI.

“I mean, he’s a mature presence, obviously,” he said. “When these kids see how hard he’s working, that he’s doing everything they’re doing at his age, I hope it motivates them.”

The players don’t really overthink it.

“We’re all ballplayers and so is Jim,” said Connor Eng­lish, one of the team’s power hitters. “He’s always happy. He loves to be here ’cause he loves baseball.”

A few days later Fullan was in his crisp, white uniform before Montgomery County’s game against Central Penn College out of the Harrisburg area. Montgomery County outscored opponents, 31-6, in its first two games.

“We’ve got a pretty good team,” he said. “So I’m pretty low on the depth chart.”

Central Penn families mostly figured Fullan was a coach.

“For real, 56?” one woman said.

Bob Stern, Central Penn’s skipper, already knew about Fullan.

“I do my scouting,” Stern said as he filled out his lineup. “He used to work for the post office. I think it’s great he’s out there. God bless him.”

Central Penn got on base early, threatening to score, but Montgomery County settled down, building up a 4-0 lead by the bottom of the fourth. That’s when Fullan got up and started stretching out.

“I’m just cold,” he said.

In the bottom of sixth, the score still 4-0, Fitzgerald motioned to the home plate umpire.

“Thirty-eight for 30,” he said, announcing a pinch hitter.

Fullan tightened his gloves and walked to home plate. The Montgomery County bench came alive with terms of endearment about his advanced age.

“Let’s go, pop.”

“Come on now, unc.”

Fullan swung on a 3-1 count and connected. The ball buzzed down the line, past the third baseman, into the outfield. It might have been a double if Fullan’s hamstrings could handle it. His teammates erupted, for a second, until the ump called it foul.

Fullan fouled again, then struck out. Still, he was happy to be playing college baseball on a blustery Sunday in March.

“Damn, I thought that was in,” he said. “That was awesome.”

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