SPECIAL FOR THE AJT //
If you want to enjoy some quality sports entertainment without shelling out $200 and fighting a mob of traffic to go see the Braves play, then check out the Atlanta Men’s Synagogue Softball League (AMSSL). Every Sunday in the months of June through August, 24 different teams send ten players each out to the softball field for 75 minutes of action on the diamond.
There are three basic requirements to play in the league. 1). You must be male; 2). You must be at least 18 years old (or 16 if your team can’t make minyan without you); and 3). You must be a member in good standing of the synagogue for which you’re playing.
For many, the synagogue league is a family affair. The Ahavath Achim team features two sets of brothers playing together – Brian, Michael, and David Cohen; and Michael and Daniel Bernath. In prior seasons, both groups were joined on the field by their fathers, Walter Cohen and Terry Bernath. The Or Hadash team is also family-centric. Lee Estroff has taken the field on different occasions with two of his sons. With a third son almost old enough to play, Lee could conceivably lead up an all-Estroff outfield.
And while Jonathan, Bennett and Daniel Ginburg all play for the same team, they compete with each other on a weekly basis over who can make the most dazzling plays in the field. Bennett and Daniel have recently gotten their 4-month-old nephew fitted for a glove in anticipation of him one day joining the team.
The league brings families together in other ways. Many players schlep their wives and children along to the games to cheer them on. Quite a few parents also come to the games to kvell over their boys and to schmooze with the other fans.
Sometimes, family rivalries and synagogue loyalties can be put to the test. Steven and Warren Berne, for example, are like the Manning brothers of the AMSSL. While both are great competitors, no love was lost last season when Steven pitched against Warren’s crew in the league championship game. After Warren hit a double off of Steven, the two exchanged a hug and a laugh at second base. And imagine the tzuris that Michael and Sheila Dalmat experience every season when they have to choose between rooting for their Or Hadash shul or for Kol Emeth, which stars their daughter’s boyfriend.
In addition to family ties, professional connections can be made at the games as well. Players are often talking shop in the dugouts between innings. And if you’re ever looking for a nice Jewish dentist, an attorney to write your will, or a kosher caterer for your next bris, look no further than the back of a player’s jersey, which features the logo of the team’s favorite entrepreneur.
The league has been around for over two decades and many players look forward to coming back year after year. Danny Frankel of Beth Tefillah has been playing for 21 years. David Merbaum from Beth Shalom and Seth Litman from Kehillat Chaim remember playing games at the old JCC on Peachtree Street, where two adjacent fields converged. Outfielders on those two fields had to watch their backs to make sure they weren’t colliding with one another. Games were played without any umpires at the time, so teams had to agree on the calls.
From its humble beginnings, the league has grown tremendously. When it first started up, there were only eight teams. Now the league boasts 24 strong, representing 20 different shuls throughout the metro Atlanta area.
A league this size is not without its challenges. For one thing, geography can get in the way. The many games played at Ocee Park in Johns Creek are very convenient for the players from Dor Tamid, Gesher L’Torah, and Chabad of North Fulton. But not so for those from in-town shuls like Bet Haverim, Young Israel, the Temple, and Beth Jacob. To accommodate, this year’s games have been spread out over multiple locations, such as Terrell Mill Park just outside the perimeter and East Roswell Park off of Holcomb Bridge Road.
Another challenge is in keeping a competitive balance between teams whose congregations have very different demographics. The larger, in-town synagogues tend to have a bigger pool of younger, athletic players to choose from, while some of the smaller shuls or those with aging populations sometimes struggle to field a team on a weekly basis. To account for varying competitive levels, the league is sub-divided into three divisions, each made up of eight teams based on their overall strengths, with teams playing only against those within their division.
The last common hurdle for the league is competing with a very busy Jewish community calendar. Games are always played on Sundays, which is an equally popular day for not only synagogue events, but also for simchas such as baby namings and weddings. This often comes in to play in August. Not only is the end of summer the prime time for major synagogue events, but it also coincides with the annual league tournament. It’s not uncommon for an entire team to bolt to their cars as soon as the last fly ball is caught and rush off to their synagogue’s prospective member barbecue or annual meeting.
Speaking of the league tournament, the regular season concluded (weather permitting, as this was written prior to the final scheduled week of the regular season) on July 28, with the tournament set to begin on August 4. Each of the three divisions will feature an eight-team, double-elimination tournament. The tournament lasts four weeks, after which three distinct champions will be crowned.
Want to know more? To follow the tournament or to find out where and when your synagogue will be playing next, visit the league website at http://www.atlsynagoguesoftball.org