Larry Downes is the rarest of softball players. He is a 50-year-old center fielder with tremendous speed.

“I can still run. I can run faster than the 25-year-olds,” he said.

Playing center and batting second for Players Inc. at the upcoming 49th Annual “No Glove National” Softball Tournament, look for Downers as one of the more entertaining players in the draw.

“This is our best chance to win, since 2011, when I was on the 45’s,” Downes said.

Speed has defined Downes’ game from the beginning.

“I was always the fastest guy playing,” Downes said. “I got a lot of leg hits and could get a double out of any ball to the outfield.”

His success at the No Glove National speaks for itself. Playing on historic teams like Lettuce and Licorice, Downes has played on eight championship times at the prestigious tourney.

Downes’ remarkable career in the No Glove National began in 1988.

“It’s a great tournament but not as deep as it used to be.” Downes said. “I like the No Gloves because everybody plays their butt off.  It’s gotten bigger than anything in softball because the league games don’t have the same intensity.

“It has good food and good fields. I can’t get around the park without shaking 50 hands.”

For all his success at the No Glove National and other leagues/tournaments as well, his softball career didn’t start on a winning note.

When he was 15, Downes played in a league at Normandy Park.

“I played on some really bad teams but it was still fun,” he said. “Six of us were friends from the same block.” 

Regardless of results, however, softball has always been a huge part of Downes’ life.

He cites his father as his biggest influence on and off the field.

“My dad, Larry Downes, Sr., played softball in the 60’s and 70’s for Continental Bank,” Downes said. “He played in the Industrial league and his team won the Grant Park Tournament 25 times.”

His fondest memories were playing in the same outfield with his dad and brother.

“My brother, Chris, my dad and me played in the park leagues,” Downes said. “My dad played softball till the day he died.”

The family’s approach to softball is clear: Work hard and play hard. Hustle and play every game with maximum effort. Your team will love you for it.

Although Downes began his career in the park leagues, 1988 marked his entry in elite level softball. He played for high profile teams like Jynx and Prime Time.

In addition to his aforementioned haul of No Glove National titles, Downes won eight ASA National Championships and 10 Mount Prospect League titles.

“I bat left-handed and throw righty,” Downes said. “I’ve batted first or second (in the lineup) all my career. I’m not a cutter; I drive it through infield holes.”

His one concession to age is occasionally being the designated hitter. “I let the 30-year-olds get beat up playing the outfield.”

Downes has had his share of injuries, primarily tracking down fly balls. He fractured his patella in the 1992 Nationals playing for Lettuce and renowned team owner Rich Melman. He also underwent back surgery.

“Rich was the best owner,” Downes said. “He was always good to his players.”

After Rich Melman folded Lettuce in 1999, the same players played for celebrity/sports radio host Mike North on Licorice.”

Aside from occasional injuries, Downers established himself as an ironman of sorts on the softball field. He played typically six games a week and even played six games in one day at the ASA Nationals.

“We played 180 games a year,” Downes said. “I figure I’ve played in 3,000 games. I got to know the top players.

Amid all the experience he’s had playing softball, Downes’ favorite memories always come home to the No Glove National.

“It’s a privilege to play there,” Downes said. “It always feels good to walk out on the field. The [Park District of Forest Park staff and volunteers] people are awesome. The fields are manicured and we’re treated like professionals.”

Downes added that players feel like royalty if they have won the tournament a few times.

“This year will be my 30th consecutive year.” Downes said. “My friends and family have been out there for every single one.”

Special guests will be supporting Downes at the No Glove National this summer.

 “I coach a girls 12″ team and they’re coming to see Coach Larry play,” Downes said with a smile. “My daughter, Kate, plays second base and bats leadoff. She’s fast as hell, too!”

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.