Softball Leagues Hit for the Fences

When JCM caught up with Pete Fitzpatrick, it was the off season, and “Mr. Softball” was waxing nostalgic about his favorite pastime. “I started playing in softball leagues in 1966 and kept playing until I retired in 1998,” he says. “I knew what it was like to play in big-time softball tournaments.”

Fitzpatrick, a Jersey City native and retired custodian for the Jersey City Board of Education, oversees a 22-team night league as well as a 14-team league that plays doubleheaders on Sundays. He runs his leagues through the Independent Softball Association, the national governing body of amateur softball, with the help of his wife, Carol. “We’re a husband and wife team now,” he says.

For years, Fitzpatrick played on one of Jersey City’s premier slow pitch teams, Ming’s Pub, along with softball legends like Allan Pagano, Bob Knowles and the late Joe Free. “Joe, our shortstop, was the best softball player in Jersey City,” Fitzpatrick says. “I played second base. We had all the greats playing back then. We have some good players now, but not like the old days.”

Maybe so, but today’s roster of softball fanatics might disagree.

TAKE RAFAEL RODRIGUEZ, who has been involved with the Jacob’s Old-Timers League for the past seven years and has grown into the role of organizer, helping to keep one of the city’s oldest leagues alive. Rodriguez is also the manager of the Jersey City Pirates, a modified fast pitch team that takes on teams from all over New Jersey. “It’s a very competitive league,” Rodriguez says. “But we enjoy this. We start thinking about our league once the previous season ends. It definitely keeps us young. We have tryouts and spring training, just like the baseball teams. We take it very seriously.”

So does the Circulo Deportivo Amistad League, which boasts 11 teams that also play modified fast pitch. League member Martin Peralta is a security guard at Hoboken High School, but when he’s not manning the doors, he’s playing softball. “We’re big-time competitive,” says Peralta, who has been playing in the league since 1981 and has served as president since 1983. “The guys take a lot of pride in how they play, but they have a lot of fun as well. They bring their families to the park and make a day of it. Our players all respect one another and everything usually goes well. It’s a big-time organization. It’s a lot of work, getting the insurance money together, but we love it.”

“People in our league range in age from 20 to 55,” says Peralta, “We have Spanish, blacks, whites. We have everyone.”

IN THE CITY’S SOFTBALL scene, “everyone” includes women. Pershing Securities, a Downtown firm, runs a league with both men and women. “We’ve had the league for about 20 years and I’ve been involved for about 11 years,” says Pershing’s Mike Gargano, “We have about 150 employees in our league, people from all levels. It’s a good way to meet people you wouldn’t normally see during the course of the day.”

“Sometimes, we get families that come down,” he says. “When the games are over, we all go and hang out together. The different departments talk trash around the water cooler the next day.”

Men and women also play together in a league run by the Liberty Science Center (LSC), which has been going strong for 14 years. Alison Conti is LSC’s director of special events. “During the summer, I’m director of special events/softball commissioner,” says Conti. “Everyone here looks forward to the softball league. The full-timers, the part-timers, the administration, they all want to play. And we bring out people who haven’t necessarily played before, so that makes things interesting. You get the people who hit home runs every time up and then people like me, who just play second base. We are an interactive museum, so we have to have interactive people working here. Softball helps that,” Conti says. … “It’s absolutely a lot of fun.”

Which is a theme echoed by Mr. Softball himself.

“To me, there’s no greater sport,” Pete Fitzpatrick sums up. “You just love to be a part of it. It’s really a great thrill for me to run it. It is a lot of work, but I love it.”

Beyond the Diamond

There was no wind. The sun struggled mightily against a bank of clouds. It was 35 degrees. A perfect day for softball. Or so the Abra Latas team seemed to think as it gathered on a Saturday afternoon in late January for a photo shoot.

Their summer home is Mary Benson field, tucked away behind a firehouse on Fifth and Newark, the huge stanchions of the New Jersey Turnpike extension looming overhead.

Manager Juan Torres, a retired police officer, is originally from Puerto Rico. His quiet, Joe Torre authority helped him persuade about a dozen team members to come out for an hour of winter softball. A Mets fan, Torres may not appreciate the comparison.

There are about 40 members, all Latino-from Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Puerto Rico. “It’s a diverse team,” Torres says. Intrepid photographer, Roxana Marroquin, is a native of El Salvador, so Spanish was the lingua franca for the afternoon.

Torres cautions the batters not to hit Roxana as she wanders around the infield. Big Luis Martinez obliges by hitting the first pitch out of the park. Cigar-smoking outfielders watch it sail over the fence.

Last season, Abra Latas was 15 and 5, a great record, but Torres says that winning isn’t everything. “We’re an organization that helps the community,” he says. “Last week we raised money for a burial in Santo Domingo.”

Indeed, the Abre Latas and Social Club, which was founded in 1992, has a mission statement: “A non-profit organization softball team formed for the sole purpose of aiding its community.” It helps fight violence and drugs and to find “safe haven” for Jersey City’s homeless population. “Most of our guys are truck drivers and mechanics,” Torres says. “They all live, vote and play in Jersey City.”-KATE ROUNDS

Softball Anyone?

From late March through October, fields are hopping with softball action. Whether high-arch slow pitch or modified fast pitch, the level of play ranges from cut throat to cut rate. To find a team, call (201) 923-5058.

Abre Latas plays at Mary Benson Field (Fifth and Newark) Saturdays from 1 p.m. until dark, May-September.

Circulo Deportivo Amistad plays on Sundays, mid-April-September, mostly in Lincoln Park, which has installed FieldTurf on two of its softball fields (369 Duncan Ave.)

The Jacob’s Old-Timers League plays on weeknights in Lincoln Park and Mary Benson Park.

The LSC league plays at either Lincoln Park or Caven Point (192 Caven Point Rd.), Wednesdays, 6-8 p.m., May-September. Pershing Securities plays from 6 to 8 p.m. in Lincoln Park, March-July.

PHOTO: ROXANA MARROQUIN
PHOTO: JIM HAGUE
PHOTO: KATE ROUNDS
PHOTO: KATE ROUNDS