Monday, October 28, 2013

Jewish Baseball Changes Lives, Builds Families, Creates Community

In the early 1940’s Simon Lakritz moved from the gritty streets of Detroit to the wild west of Tucson, Arizona. His parents were divorced so he traveled to the Southwest with his mom and siblings. Life was pretty tough during those years. He had no friends, didn’t do well in school, and he had no sense of what his future would hold.

Si Lakritz is far left in the back row.
“In November 1945” Si wrote in his memoir, “my life took a decided turn for the best.” At age 15, Si had joined Tucson AZA Chapter 457.

This is when Si met his life long friends Larry Fishman, Harry Nadler, Jordan Zipren, and Buddy Jens. AZA Chapter 457 was to help him get through the awkward days of high school and ultimately into the University of Arizona.

“There were several areas of interest in AZA” Si wrote, “including athletics, community service, and above all social events. It was a chance to be part of something.”
AZA Chapter 457 Baseball team circa 1951.   

Jeff and Brad Lakritz
According to Si, the 1951 AZA Chapter 457 baseball team had a “murderer’s row” of hitters.

On one particular day they swept a double header against the Al Jolson AZA Chapter taking the night cap 17 - 5. The Alephs were on their way to defending the Mountain Region championship they captured the year before.

20 years later Si was my Little League coach during those same critical years of my youth. They were important times for me and my older brother Jeff who played on the same team.
Coach Si Lakritz of the Hanford Little League Lions

Father and sons together on the diamond brought many exciting moments including one season when we went: “From Last to First . . . Almost.” We tied for first with CVC but lost the league championship on a tiebreaker.

I am still friends with most of the people from both those teams more than forty years later.

DTLLL 2008 Major All Star Team
I began my own official coaching career in 2004 with my son Noah. I coached his teams for six years from Little League to Babe Ruth including five all star and travel teams. What a wonderful experience we had together as father and son. The whole family had fun with those teams, the many exciting moments on the field, and all the trips to tournaments throughout Northern California. We met many of our good friends from all those games and tournaments and even the little league parade. Some of Noah’s best friends are from those experiences.

Brad takes a cut in a recent game
During that time I also joined and even became the manager of an adult softball team for six years. Interestingly, about half of the players on that team were Jewish. This provided a great outlet for exercise and fun but it was also a way to meet and hang out with new friends each week.

Eventually that team was too difficult to keep going as schedules made it impossible for everyone to commit to play even just one game a week during a 10 week season.

Matt Elkins throws a curve for the Rebels
So, I took a few years off from the regular softball schedule until one day I read in The J Weekly that Matt Elkins had started up a team at Congregation Rodef Sholom.

They had a maiden voyage in August 2011 with a game against a team from Congregation Kol Shofar. Matt’s dream was to put together a Jewish softball league of teams throughout the Bay Area. “Wow,” I thought, “just like my Dad’s AZA league in Arizona we could have our own Jewish league right here in Northern California.” I signed up as soon as I could.

We’ve played about 15 games in the last two years with games against Congregation Kol Shofar and Congregation Emanu-El from San Francisco. Matt brought over an East Bay team for a mini-tournament in May 2012 (the “Kiddush Cup”) and there seems to be a great interest in having more teams join the fun.

It turns out there are several East Bay congregations who also have teams. I joined the Kol Shofar team in an away game against an East Bay All Star team last summer. They were glad to host us and even provided bagels!

While everyone likes to win, it isn’t about the wins and losses. Although we do have umpires and keep track of the score, the emphasis is on being outdoors, getting exercise, and having a Jewish communal experience around a game of softball.

The fun is in the moments of the game when exciting things happen. Someone gets a hit or makes a great catch and there are high fives all around. There have been comebacks, disappointments, and lots of smiles along the way. We play as Team Rodef Sholom and the community comes together and supports each player in their moment at the plate or when the ball comes their way on the field.

We don’t have a “Murderer’s Row” of hitters and there are no Hank Greenbergs or Sandy Kofax’s on our team. In fact the line up is different just about every game. And that’s the point of it all. To give everyone a chance to join in on the fun.

One player is in his 60s, one player had a baby last year, new players join the team every game, and in one game we had three father-son combos on the field including Cantor David Margules and his son Benny.

I remember the days when Cantor David would cheer on his son during Little League games with a rousing “Let’s go Benny baby!”

When the game is over both teams line up for high fives and we pose for a photo to commemorate the moment.

Team Rodef Sholom and Kol Shofar in August 2013

After our last game players from both teams went out for a drink to salute one player whose wife was home struggling in her life with cancer. For him, going out for a couple of hours and playing ball was a welcome distraction from the trying times at home.

I hope that many years from now other members of the Rodef Sholom community, perhaps even the grandchildren of members of our team this year, will look back at all this and say that they were glad we started this tradition of Jewish baseball fun.

For now, I am simply pleased and proud to be a part of it all and I know my Dad would be too.

To find out more about Si Lakritz visit the Lakritz Family Scholarship page.

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