Above: After the fall 2016 season’s All-Star Game, retiring pitcher Jody Blanke (left) poses with longtime friends and pitchers Gene Benator (center) and Bruce Beck. Benator is still pitching after nearly five decades on the mound and shows no signs of slowing down.
By Eli Gray
Twice a year, in the fall and spring, the Marcus Jewish Community Center hosts a men’s modified fast-pitch softball league that has existed for more than 50 years. But when the league holds its spring season in 2017, one of its best pitchers won’t take the mound.
Jody Blanke has decided to hang up his cleats after 30 years.
The league is losing one of its most dominant and experienced pitchers. Blanke kept careful stats over the years and finished his JCC career with a record of 602 wins, 247 losses and four ties. His teams won 17 regular-season and 12 tournament championships from 1986 to 2016.
Blanke, a professor of computer information systems and law at Mercer University, has played softball as long as he can remember. “Growing up in Hollis, Queens, I played pickup softball around the corner at the school yard on cement and gravel,” he said. “If we were pitching fast, I was probably pitching.”
In his first season in the JCC league in 1986, he played first base on captain and pitcher Carl Oster’s team. When the squad made it to the regular-season championship game, Oster decided to start Blanke against pitcher Jack Arogeti. Blanke gave up three runs in the first inning and no more the rest of the game, but Arogeti outdueled him in Blanke’s 3-2 loss.
“It was the first of many great games I played against Jack,” Blanke said.
In 1989 he became a manager. “That fall I captained the first of my 47 teams,” he said. “Throughout the years, I often drafted ‘my guys,’ or at least they became my guys after I drafted them over and over.”
Blanke’s teams played for the regular-season championship 25 times and reached the tournament championship game 20 times.
Not only did he set the bar for pitching, but he also played an active role in shaping the league’s format.
As league commissioner from 1998 to 2002, Blanke focused on making the process of selecting replacement players fairer. In 1998 he changed the player ratings to a relative system that ranked players from 1 to 10, enabling the draft system to be consistent from season to season.
When the fall regular season wrapped up in November, the league held a retirement ceremony for Blanke.
Scott Moscow, a teammate of Blanke’s for 16 seasons, spoke of the pleasure of playing with and for him. Moscow said that in all the time they played together, he never once saw Blanke get upset at a teammate or even lose his cool.
League Commissioner Josh Tolchin presented Blanke a pitching rubber embossed with a plaque that reads “1986-2016, 602 Wins-247 Losses-4 Ties, 30 years of pitching dominance.” It was signed by everyone in the league.
Though his team didn’t make either of the championship games in his final season, Blanke struck out the last batter he faced and pinch-ran for longtime catcher Sandy Hartman in the last inning. His last act on a softball field was scoring a run.
About retiring after 30 years in the league, Blanke said: “The hardest part of hanging up my cleats will be the end of all the camaraderie and competition involved in going out there every week and playing a game that I have played since I was a little boy. I am going to miss the guys and the game and competition very much. There is nothing like it. I have had a good, long run, and it’s just time to hang them up.”