Spring Training is Passion for Seattle Centenarians

March 22, 2012
The Arizona Republic
Diana Martinez

Spring training holds sunshine, expectations for things to come — and maybe even the secret to a long life.

At least that’s what one Seattle couple say.

Joe and Marion Epler both turned 101 last month. Soon after, they boarded a plane and headed south for spring training.

Joe has been watching the Seattle Mariners train since the Peoria Sports Complex opened almost 20 years ago, and Marion has been coming for nearly that long.

The couple, who get a kick out of being the oldest residents in their Seattle retirement home, are avid Mariners fans, taking in about five games each spring-training season.

“We enjoy the people, weather, and the baseball is always in high gear,” Joe said.

Arizona’s Cactus League features 15 professional baseball teams training in eight Valley cities every March. Joe said Arizona may have something to do with their longevity. “You can’t say that it hasn’t helped.”

He first came to Arizona to watch the Mariners as Peoria was just opening the West Valley’s first ballpark in 1994.

Joe proudly recounts how he became the first guest of La Quinta Inn and Suites, not far from the ballpark.

He’d bought an apparently bogus spring-training package that included a room at the hotel, which he arrived to find nearing completion but not yet opened. Fortunately, the city granted the hotel its license, and the hotel opened later that day.

Soon after, Marion began traveling with him. The couple married when both were 86.

They grew fond of the “contrast to Seattle” and purchased a vacation home in Sun City when they were 91.

Spring training is a tradition for many folks in other parts of the country, a way to escape colder weather. But Peoria spokesman Bo Larsen was particularly impressed by the Eplers.

“It’s an inspiration to see this couple use spring training and baseball as their way to stay young and agile,” he said.

The couple get to the games a few hours early to watch the players practice. They like to size up unfamiliar faces and get a sense of how they’re doing.

“Once in awhile, we can find our new favorite players,” Joe said.

Seeing the Mariners hit home runs isn’t too shabby, either, he said.

Baseball is more than a sport; it’s a pastime that becomes an important part of people’s lives, said Mariners spokeswoman Rebecca Hale, who noted the team appreciates such loyal fans.

Baseball isn’t the only activity for the spry centenarians.

They took a cruise around the world at 90, and at age 96, Joe traveled to the Dominican Republic, where he’d served in the Peace Corps in the 1960s.

“If you keep moving and keep your mind and body active, it helps a lot,” he said.

As for whether they will return next spring, Joe said it is a good possibility.

“We’ll plan on it and see what happens,” he said.