It's 20-19 in the seventh, two outs, runners on first and third. The unrelenting Valley sun beats down on four-time league champions Temple Judea, who have allowed Kol Tikvah Black to score three runs in the game's final inning and narrow the margin to one. With a clean crack of the bat, the Kol Tikvah hitter connects with the pitch. Victory, bragging rights and synagogue pride cling to the long fly ball. But an outstretched Judea glove snags the fly, and with it the week's win.
As baseball fever heats up in ballparks across the country, over 400 Los Angeles area sluggers find competition and camaraderie on the Synagogue Softball field. Every Sunday, from February through June, these boys of summer step up to bat looking for a big hit and great time.
"Synagogue Softball is the highlight of my week," said Jerry Marcus, a fourth-year Team Judea player. "I start looking forward to Sunday on Monday," said the Calabasas attorney, whose family cheers him on from the bleachers.
To these weekend warriors, softball is a recess from reality. The games, played at Shoup and Winnetka fields in Woodland Hills, are a break from everyday pressures and a chance to find that long-lost carefree kid who played stickball in the street and Little League in the park. "Everyone shows up to play. No matter what's going on -- with work, family or life -- for two hours every Sunday we get to forget about everything else and just play ball," said Sinai Temple team player and manager Phil Rosenbaum, who flew out from Miami at 4 a.m. to arrive home in time for his 1 p.m. game. "I wasn't going to miss this -- we're in the run for the playoffs," he added, brushing dirt from his black Sinai jersey.
Rosenbaum's dedication to the league is the norm. Synagogue Softball sluggers are die-hard players, literally. "It was April 29, 2001. We lost the game -- although I personally played well," recalled Bob Bertik of Beth Haverim. "Something didn't feel right in the ninth, and right after the game I had a heart attack, right here on the field. They rushed me to the hospital. I took the rest of the season off, but was back here playing on opening day 2002," said Bertik, whose team meets Kol Tikvah in the league's first round of playoffs this Sunday.
The modified slow-pitch league began in 1996, when the Temple Judea men's club recruited Barry Schoenbrun, a former shortstop in the Baltimore Orioles minor league system, for their softball team. Schoenbrun quickly discovered that the team often practiced, but never played. He found five congregation teams in similar situations, scheduled games among them, and reserved a couple baseball fields. "I didn't know what I was getting into," said Schoenbrun, awaiting his turn at bat. "I never imagined this many people would come out. But it's a terrific athletic outlet. And it's a chance for guys to just be guys," he added, nodding to his teammates on the field who brave the morning's sticky hot heat in search of a Judea victory.
The highly competitive league now boasts 23 teams from 16 synagogues, two divisions (upper and middle), an executive committee, a single-elimination playoff tournament and an all-star game.
A far cry from a casual pick-up game, the league holds a season-end banquet, hires official umpires, requires matching uniforms and logs a detailed list of rules and regulations. Among them: a player must be at least 20 (there is no maximum age) and a full dues-paying member of the synagogue for which he plays. No team can carry more than three players under the age of 27, but a team can have unlimited women (although none are currently playing). The league donates any unspent team registration fees and all banquet silent-auction profits to two local youth charities. And most importantly, bagels and cream cheese will be served before every game.
In 2003, the league will jump to at least 30 teams, add West Los Angeles playing fields, and perhaps a third, lower, division.
The striking popularity of L.A. Synagogue Softball mirrors a larger national trend of Jewish softball leagues popping up in urban areas across the nation, from Miami to Boston to Seattle. With over 500 players, four divisions and 34 teams, Stroum Jewish Community Center of Greater Seattle hosts the largest softball league in Washington.
"Softball leagues fill a void in a community," said Matt Grogan, Stroum JCC health and physical education director. "In Seattle, softball is the only program that brings every aspect of the Jewish community together. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, unaffiliated, it brings everyone to the same field, to play the same game, with the same rules. And everyone has a blast," Grogan said.
The Los Angeles league creates that same sense of camaraderie. Players from every team agree that they came looking to hit around a few balls, and found something so much greater. "Before softball, we were just a bunch of guys whose kids happened to go to the same Hebrew school. Now we're a close-knit group, our relationships on the field have become friendships off the field. Even our wives and kids have grown close," said Doug "Locust" Gellerman of the Or Ami Ten Plagues team.
The league transforms fringe temple members into active ones and provides old friends with a weekly excuse to visit, and even older friends with a means to reunite. Schoenbrun and Judea teammate Craig Resnick first played ball together 42 years ago; Team Chutzpah's center fielder and third baseman crawled in the same playpen. And then there are the fraternity brothers, the summer car valets and the Little League teammates who lost touch decades ago, only to rediscover one other on the field 30 years later. "I've never seen guys so happy to see their competition," said Brent Zatulove, Valley Beth Shalom team player and manager. "In Los Angeles, it sometimes feels like there's just a bunch of Jewish people who happen to live in the same city. But with softball, we've created a real community, I feel a part of something bigger," he added.
This camaraderie fuels the intense playing level and raises the value of the league championship title. The Synagogue Softball playoffs, which begin June 2, will be filled with major league attitude and effort. The players are already e-mailing inspirational quotes to teammates, and synagogue smack to competitors. "There are a lot of local leagues a guy can play in, but there's something special about this one," said Schoenbrun, grabbing his glove to head out on the field. "When it's Jew playing against brother Jew, it's highly competitive, but it's magic. That added dimension of kinship, of friendship, raises the game of softball to a whole new level."
Shawn Green's Record Day
A great miracle happened in Milwaukee? In the Dodgers' May 23 match-up against the Milwaukee Brewers, Jewish right-fielder Shawn Green became the 14th player in major league history to score four home runs in a single game.
He went 6-for-6 at the bag, hitting an RBI double in the first, a three-run homer in the second and two more home runs in the fourth and fifth. After singling in the eighth, he connected for a 450-foot home-run shot to right field in the ninth.
Green collected 19 total bases for the game, setting a new major league record. (Joe Adcock of the Milwaukee Braves previously held the record, grabbing 18 bases on July 31, 1954.) Green also became the sixth player since 1900 to score six runs in a single game. Quite a feat for someone who just five days before was benched during a 0-18 hitting slump.
Green's mid-May hitting performance was so troubled, Dodgers' Manager Jim Tracy had him sit out the team's May 18 meeting with the Montreal Expos.
Tracy thought the night off might help. And it did. The 6-foot-4 lefty found his swing, went on to break long-standing records and led his team to a 16-3 victory over the Brewers.
At press time, Green continues to amaze, blasting his 10th home run over seven games, singing a new National League note for most home runs hit during a calendar week (nine) and establishing a new major league record with seven home runs over three consecutive games.
The Jewish Sports Connection, a periodical promoting discussion of sport and Jewish life, is looking for the best essays by Jewish student athletes addressing the theme, "How has Judaism enriched my life in sport? How has sport enriched my life as a Jew?"
Three essays, selected by an elite panel judges, will be awarded Israel bonds in the sum of $500, $360 and $180 respectively.
Contest guidelines and essay submission forms may be obtained by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope to The Jewish Sports Connection, P.O. Box 66461, St. Petersburg, FL 33736, or by making an online request at JewishSports@yahoo.com. Participation is open to Jewish high school and college students with significant involvement in organized team or individual sports. Essays must be postmarked by Aug. 15, 2002.