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Synagogue Swingers Swipe at Softballs

August 4, 2005 By:
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Har Zion Temple's Steve Mendelsohn at the plate in the synagogue's face off against Young Israel of the Main Line/Aish of Philadelphia Photo by Jordan Cassway
Clank. The aluminum bat made sharp contact with the leather-covered softball, thrown so slowly that it seemed to momentarily hang in the summer air before being driven toward the dirt.

The hitter's teammates could tell by the high-pitched sound that he didn't get all of it. So 71-year-old Jim Brody tossed the bat aside and made his best effort at a sprint, lifting his knees high above the ground while the shortstop scooped up the ball and hurled it toward first base.

Brody was thrown out by a country mile, but that didn't seem to bother him much.

"I played for Overbook High more than 50 years ago," said Brody, who now lends his bat and glove to the men's club team of Suburban Jewish Center-B'nai Aaron in Havertown. "This is the first time I've held a bat in more than 40 years."

Moments earlier, a teammate whose jersey identified him as "Rebbitzman," thumped a line drive to left field, stretching the base hit into a double. The next time the ball left the infield, Adi Wyner - husband of Rabbi Lisa Malik - charged around third and then crossed home plate, his face noticeably flushed while he struggled to catch his breath.

"Don't put that in the paper," he said self-deprecatingly during last Sunday's game, which was organized by the 4-year-old Main Line Synagogue League. "Rabbi's husband can't run."

After six innings, the B'nai Aaron team was down by just one run to Penn Valley's Congregation Beth Am Israel. But after the seventh - while baseball games stretch into nine innings, softball games only go seven - Beth Am Israel pulled out a 19-14 win, denying B'nai Aaron its first victory of the season, unless you count an April forfeit.

"We still have our perfect record," joked Brad Miller, Men's Club president and B'nai Aaron first baseman. "That was a fun game we had. So far, we haven't been at each other's throats when we lose. Anyone can come out and play. We have two or three people on the team who have never played before."

On the other side of South Ardmore Park, the Har Zion Temple team was locked in a battle with a joint team from Young Israel of the Main Line and Aish of Philadelphia. At one point, the Har Zion shortstop's soft toss to second wound up in the outfield, allowing a runner to advance.

"As you can see, ability is not a criteria," chimed in Steve Chopnic, Har Zion's president. "This is about people participating and having a great time."

This summer, dozens of area teams are competing in three Jewish-run softball leagues. The Main Line Synagogue League, the newest among the bunch, appears to be the most lax competitively. Its slow pitch rules offer anybody who can pick up a bat a reasonable chance of making contact with the large ball.

The league of 13 teams representing a total of 12 synagogues from the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements has a season lasting from April to August. Founder and commissioner Scott Plavner, 48, explained that in deference to the Orthodox players, who are not religiously permitted to compete against women, it's a men-only league.

Plavner, who attends Har Zion and catches for its team, decided to start the league as a way to help finance the Friday-night kiddush and Oneg Shabbat events that the Har Zion men's club runs at the Brith Sholom House, a housing complex for seniors in Philadelphia. Each team is asked to contribute $100.

But the league became more than a fundraiser. Plavner, a lifelong amateur softball player, said the league allows Jews to play in an atmosphere devoid of the intense competition, arguments and occasional fist fights that he's witnessed in other leagues. It also allows Jews of different denominations to participate in an activity together, get to know one another and even playfully make fun of each other.

"There is a jocularity going on between the teams," said Plavner.

The same holds true in the 21-team Delaware Valley Synagogue League, according to Eric Patent, 42, who has run the league for the past nine years. The teams represent 17 synagogues and count two women among their players; more are expected next season.

"For a lot of us, it's one of the few competitive things we get to do in a sports arena," said Patent, who plays for Beth Tikvah-B'nai Jeshurun in Erdenheim. "We have rabbis that play in the league. There is something fun about the fact that you are playing softball with the guy leading High Holiday services."

Like the Delaware Valley league, the games run by the seven-team JCC Kaiserman Branch League feature modified fast pitch, which allows the pitcher to throw as fast as he can without utilizing the windmill technique favored by collegiate and Olympic hurlers.

Lori Hummel, assistant physical education director at Kaiserman, who for the past 18 years has organized the spring/summer softball league there, said these particular games are far from laid back.

"This is competitive, this isn't joke-around time. These guys want to win," said Hummel. "A lot of people that play softball, it stops being recreation and it becomes a fight."

Of course, the lines between friendly game and fierce competition are often blurred. Sometimes, in the heat of things, players try things they might think better of later.

With the Har Zion game still close in the fourth inning, the team's Larry Rosen exuded a sense of competitive fire. With a fly ball rolling into the outfield, the third-base coach waved Rosen home.

Sensing a throw to the plate, the ballplayer feared it would be close. But he couldn't slide because he was wearing shorts. So he ran as hard as he could, crossing the plate safely as the ball bounced in the dirt.

He couldn't slow himself, though, and crashed into the backdrop fence.

Moments later, he rested on a nearby bench while his 10-year-old daughter, Inde, cleaned the dirt from his knee and inspected his scrapes. He lifted his head toward the sky, then let out a sigh, followed by a chuckle. As his daughter administered first aid treatment, Rosen noted: "My trainer says I'm going to live."

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