Much like Major League Baseball, the two big Jewish softball leagues in the Philadelphia area struggled to play a 2020 season.
Due to the pandemic, the Main Line Synagogue Softball League finished a six-game regular season with no playoffs, according to Commissioner Scott Waterman. The Delaware Valley Synagogue League didn’t even have a season, per Commissioner Ken Sherman.
But in 2021, much like MLB, the middle-aged man pastime is back in full.
The Main Line League has 11 teams, three more than last year, playing a nine-game season plus playoffs. The Delaware Valley League had 18-21 teams in a typical season before 2020. This year, 18 teams and more than 400 players agreed to come back for a 12-game regular season and playoff tournament.
Most of the players in both leagues are vaccinated, according to the commissioners. That’s why they agreed to come back.
But that wasn’t the only reason. For middle-aged men with careers, families and lives filled with responsibilities, playing softball on summer nights as the weather cools off might just be heaven.
Todd Leon, 47, is the captain of Del Val’s Shir Ami team out of Newtown. The insurance lawyer can’t even remember how long he’s been playing in the league.
As he described the experience, he gets to keep playing the game he’s been playing since he was 4. He gets to compete, high five, sweat and make fun of guys who make bad plays. Plus, since the Shir Ami team is 10-2 going into the playoffs, Leon gets to win, too.
“Then we go out to eat, have a couple drinks and we go home,” he said. “Then we do it all again the next week.”
The Main Line League has teams from Montgomery, Delaware and Philadelphia counties. The Del Val League stretches across similar territory, just with Bucks County replacing Delco.
Last year, both leagues faced the same issue into late-June: Suburban townships wouldn’t open their fields. As the lockdown ended, with no vaccine yet available, the men could either risk COVID and play with heavy restrictions, like masks and social distancing in the bench area, or just not play.
Enough Main Line players decided to play in a smaller eight-team league; while Del Val guys just scrapped the season.
“If we could have a season last year, we were going to have a season,” Waterman said.
Sherman said that, even by mid-summer, he didn’t have enough open fields to organize a full schedule.
On the Main Line, nobody got sick in 2020, according to Waterman. In the Delaware Valley, most of the players did get sick…with boredom.
By the winter, Del Val players were blowing up Sherman’s phone about the 2021 campaign.
“What are we going to do?” he recalled. “They were chomping at the bit.”
“I was getting texts weekly,” Leon added. “When are we going to start batting practice?”
Both leagues started between April and early May to allow more guys to get vaccinated, according to the commissioners. But once they opened the season, it felt like 2019 again.
They were just a bunch of middle-aged guys going out and playing ball. Township rules didn’t even require them to wear masks or maintain physical distances anymore.
“The world changed quickly once the vaccinations happened,” Sherman said. “The idea that we’re able to provide this activity is a blessing.”
With the playoffs coming up in both leagues, it feels like 2019 in the standings, too.
Leon’s Shir Ami nucleus is in its sixth or seventh year together. Some of those guys use bats with their names engraved on them.
In other words, they are serious. And in their 10-2 regular season, the Newtown boys outscored opponents by more than 100 runs. They enter the eight-team playoff field as the favorite to win the title.
On the Main Line, Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne is going for its 15th championship in 16 years. Led by ace pitcher Rob Pearlstein, the Beth David team is undefeated going into the postseason.
“His ball spins,” Waterman said of Pearlstein.
More importantly, both leagues are on solid footing again. Waterman expects even more players and teams to sign up for 2022.
This middle-aged man pastime dates back decades, and now it looks likely to go on for decades more.
Sherman, 61, a member at Congregation Beth Or in Ambler, went to the bar and bat mitzvah celebrations of his teammates’ children back in the day. Now, Leon is doing the same thing with his Shir Ami teammates.
“Not only are the guys on my team some of my best friends, their wives have become some of my wife’s closest friends, too,” Leon said.