Tuesday, July 19, 2011

SOFTBALL: A Reflection, in Seven Innings


Baseball and softball have always been important parts of my life. I grew up playing catch with my dad and my mom, and all summer long my older brother John (a good hitting lefty and an above-average fielder) and I would ride our bikes to a nearby field where anywhere from four to twenty kids would play baseball until it was too dark to see the ball. In high school my temple’s NFTY group had no softball team, so I also joined the local BBYO to play softball with the AZA team. I played intramural softball with John during the one semester we were at college together, and I have been playing softball – and occasionally helping coach little league – ever since.


A few years ago, Jon Cohan pitched the idea of starting a TBS Brotherhood softball team. He gathered a group of interested players, found a league for us to play in, and undertook the thankless task of organizing us into a softball team. Not very easy, given the unruly, opinionated, and vocal group of players – myself included - who joined the team. The diversity in age, athletic ability, softball experience, and temperament was extraordinary, but that first season we managed to practice once or twice without suffering too many injuries, field a team each week without forfeiting, and have a lot of fun while getting to know each other. Within a couple of years, the roster grew to more than 25 players, and when it became apparent that those of us hitting 22nd or 23rd in the order risked going an entire season with only one at-bat per game, the team was divided into two.


Softball is played with 10 fielders, and between 12 and 14 players usually show up for our games. It’s not so few that we lack variety of skills and personalities, but not so many that we lose our close connections with each teammate: it is a good size. It takes 10 to form a minyan – wasn't there something about Abraham trying to field a 10-man team of innocents so Sodom could be saved (Genesis 18:32) - and Moses sent 12 tribal leaders to scout the home team when the Israelites first approached the Promised Land (Numbers 13:2). Groups of this size are common: most juries have 12 members, and the basic fighting unit of many armies is the squad, usually consisting of 10 to 12 soldiers. It has been suggested that 12 “was a natural size for a hunting party of the Stone Age, and that men were predisposed to feel comfortable in a group of about that size” (Neal Stephenson, Anathem, Harper (2009), p. 346). Literary examples include Tolkien’s 9-member Fellowship, and the 11 courageous pioneers, led by the heroic rabbit Hazel, who went forth from their native land to establish a new home on Watership Down.


How many connections with classmates, friends and Temple members have I made over my decades of playing softball? Too many to count. When someone asks if I know a lawyer with a particular area of expertise, the first people I think of are my law school softball teammates. Most of the men I know best at Temple are guys I first got to know playing softball. Softball buddies Morris Porter and Richard Atkind were instrumental in setting up our employment assistance program; I have shared terrific music with some teammates; I’ve worked on Temple boards and committees with others; and I have led shiva services at the homes of some of my softball friends after the death of a parent.


Every summer Sunday morning after I graduated from law school, I played in a long-standing pick-up game in Brookline. (A few of the other regulars were Orthodox, and I enjoyed watching their fringes fly as they ran the bases). I stopped playing in that game in the mid-1980s after moving to Needham, but one Sunday morning about 3 or 4 years ago, I decided to see whether the Brookline game was still going. When I arrived at the field, I recognized three or four of the players, and a couple of them saw me and yelled, “Hey, Kenny – we need a second baseman.” Two decades absent, and they welcomed me as if it had been two weeks. Clearly, there is some intangible bond that forms on the softball field. (Or maybe they just really, really needed someone to play second base).


Reflecting on Brotherhood softball compels me to point out a serious problem with the Mens Shul Softball League: women are not allowed to play. I believe that this ban is in deference to Orthodox players’ concerns about forbidden physical contact with a woman not one’s wife or close relative. For its adherents this may be a matter of religious observance, but its effect is discriminatory. Women cannot play on our TBS team, solely on the basis of their gender. When I first heard of this rule, it bothered me, but I rationalized my concerns away somehow, and it did not bother me enough to protest - or to quit the team. Our 2011 season is now over. Writing this has made me think more seriously about this problem, and I do not know whether I will choose to play again next year.


Softball brings back great memories and allows me to meet and get to know other Temple members. It can even be an occasion for hearing good things about our Temple. Last summer, before a game with Mishkan Tefillah’s team, one of their players came over to me and said, “I was at a B’nai Mitzvah service at Temple Beth Shalom recently, and I want to tell you what a great place it is.” I started talking about the sanctuary renovation, and how the space is now so much more open and light, and he interrupted me: “I wasn’t talking about the physical structure – I was talking about how warm and welcoming the people are at your Temple.” I thanked him, and walked away feeling proud of TBS and the impression we had made on this visitor. And I felt even better after we won the game by a dozen runs.


  1. Nice post, Ken. Softball (and baseball) is defined by the procession of innings, and your use of the innings as the framework for your reflections works really nicely.

  2. I agree; nice post, Ken. BUT, two hopefully worthy comments:

    1. The history of Brotherhood Softball at TBS goes way back. There were many years of participation by Brotherhood members well before and during the current era. However, it did somehow die out for a while. Kudos to Jon Cohan for getting it going again!

    2. I, for one, favor the gender separation in many sports -- and particularly in softball. Frankly, Womens softball -- particuarly fast pitch -- is a fantastic spectator sport, superior to Mens, and one in which women have excelled to such a degree the International Olympic Committee has eliminated the category, solely 'cause the U.S. is too good at it!

    So, don't despair: not all things need to be egalitarian in order to be fair; after all, life ain't so equal anyway, nor should it be. If gender separation provides for varied enjoyment, entertainment, and valued but separate sisterhood and brotherhood (should we be attending each other's retreats?), then Amen Brother!

    Yours In Slow Pitch,

    Jeremy Serwer

  3. Rabbi Michele LenkeJuly 21, 2011 at 12:48 PM

    Let me first say that Ken's post is really beautiful. Not at all surprised that he connected baseball to Torah and Jewish teachings after all that is how the Torah opens... in the BIG INNING. (sorry, couldn't resist)
    Seriously though, I'm glad I was sitting down as I just read the Cowboy's post. Because I agree with him! That being said, perhaps at some point, we could have a FRIENDLY game of softball just for our TBS family where men and women, girls and boys could experience the camaraderie, the team building and the fun.