International Jewish softball tourney to be held in St. Louis

BY MIA LEVINE, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

As the St. Louis summer heat creeps to a subtle sizzle and Labor Day approaches, many celebrate this symbolic end-of-the-summer holiday with barbecues, parties, or a final splash into the cool, blue wetness of pools or lakes before summer’s end.

However, for over two hundred Jewish men in North America, Labor Day weekend signifies ball, beer, and brotherhood for the annual International Jewish Slo-Pitch Tournament. Celebrating its 30th year, the IJMST Tournament will take place in St. Louis, Aug. 29 through Sept. 1 at the Bridgeton Municipal Athletic Complex (BMAC). Participating teams will hail from Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, St. Louis, Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, Winnipeg, and Vancouver.

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This is the first time St. Louis has served as the host city in only its fifth year as a participant.

The tournament originally began in 1978 when the Toronto B’nai B’rith region established a mid-summer slo-pitch tournament, inviting teams from other Canadian cities. By 1984, interest had grown to such proportions that invitations were extended to teams from American cities to compete against the Canadian teams.

After the Montreal games in 2004, players realized that they needed a more formal framework and a set group of standards so to help grow the tournament. An Executive Committee was formed and a blueprint drafted to help guide the tournament into the future.

Mark Michelson, Chairman of the Executive Committee and an Olivette resident, helped author the blueprint. “It’s our Torah, if you will, of all the policies for a host city,” he said.

Three years ago Michelson bid on bringing the event to St. Louis for the first time. The bid was accepted and now he is chairing the event.

“It is my vision to create the absolute premium event,” said Michelson. “It will be like a three-day wedding. We are doing everything so radically different than anything we’ve experienced in other cities. We are raising the bar so high this year that I can’t imagine anyone being able to do any better.”

Michelson said that St. Louis is blessed with resources other cities just don’t have.

“We have Westport Plaza, for example,” he explained. “I was able to negotiate an incredible relationship with the Sheraton Westport. They are not the typical airport Sheraton that we stay in every year. Breakfasts are included for all the players and their guests. We arranged to have the hot tub and pool open later, until midnight, and open early in the morning because there are a lot of guys our age that cannot play unless they get those services,” he laughed.

An upscale dinner buffet is planned as well as a national comedy act from Los Angeles.

“Usually the host committees do pizza for their dinner,” said Michelson. “Well, we’re doing Mediterranean. The dinner will include hummus, pita bread, Israeli salad, and gyros. And Friday night we’re doing something that no one would expect. We’re serving belly bombers and toasted ravioli so people can see what St. Louis food is all about,” he said.

Michelson also partnered with other businesses in Westport Plaza like Ozzie’s for their cocktail hour and Enterprise Rental. Each team is allotted two vans for the duration of the tournament.

Perhaps the most exciting piece for this St. Louis host team is the acquisition of BMAC for the games, which boasts eleven state-of-the-art fields on 88 acres.

“They have a phenomenal facility,” said Ben Sandmel, a co-chair for the event. “It is truly one of the best complexes in North America. From the fields, to their drainage system, to the air-conditioned concession stand, it’s an absolutely ideal set-up for us. The guys can gather between the five fields we’ll be using and socialize in between games. It’s incredible,” he said.

Sixteen teams are expected to play with ages ranging from 18 to men in their 50s and 60s. The majority of St. Louis men participating have been playing ball on teams at the JCC and around the area for years.

Even more thrilling for players is the accumulation of intergenerational families who will participate. This year, nine sets of brothers will play, eight sets of fathers and sons, and three sets of uncles and nephews. Some of the men have been playing with the tournament 25 years or more. “This is something these guys really fall in love with,” Sandmel said. “They really stick with it because of the friendships created all around the U.S. and Canada. It’s a wonderful, positive weekend,” he said.

While playing softball and winning is important to the players, it’s developing those lasting friendships that keep them coming back year after year.

“I have made some good friends in Phoenix, Minneapolis, Vancouver, Toronto, and Detroit,” explained Wayne Nemy, Executive Committee member in Winnipeg. “We talk every week. It’s not just a softball thing, it’s about friendship.”

“It’s an interesting tournament in that when you’re on the field and you’re playing against guys that you don’t even know, it can be pretty dog-eat-dog as far the competitive spirit, said St. Louis player, Larry Norber. “The games can be pretty gripping, but when it’s all over, everyone is a friend.”

Many players agree that an incredible common bond develops during this particular tournament.

Norber feels the bond partly happens because it’s a Jewish tournament, but said that being Jewish is more than just about religion. “It’s a brotherhood that you have. It’s just that warm feeling when you walk on the diamond and you know that your competitor is not out to break your ankle,” he said.

For more information on the tournament, visit its website at www.jewishsoftball.com.