International softball tourney visits St. Louis

BY VICTORIA SIEGEL, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

On Labor Day weekend, 225 men from across the United States and Canada arrived in St. Louis to play in the 30th annual International Jewish Men’s Slo-pitch Softball Tournament (IJMST).

“This is the biggest softball tournament for Jewish teams in the country,” said Rich Levy, member of the tournament organizing committee and left fielder for one of the St. Louis teams, the RiverDawgs. “Nothing comes close to this in terms of an adult Jewish softball tournament. No one else brings together teams from all over North America.”

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The IJMST began in Canada and was a mid-summer project of the Toronto B’nai B’rith region. Eventually, the tournament expanded to include teams from the USA and moved to Labor Day weekend. Currently, there are 16 teams in the tournament, including three new teams that made their inaugural appearance in St. Louis. This year’s tournament was played at the Bridgeton Municipal Athletic Complex (BMAC) and the host hotel was the Sheraton Westport Plaza.

While the weekend centers on the games, the competition is not what brings these men back year after year. As one of the Montreal players put it: “It’s the camaraderie and friendships with people you only see once a year.”

David Cohen, a member of the St. Louis Heat and organizing committee, said that he’s made a lot of connections and stays in touch with new friends through the online message boards. “I have forged a lot of relationships with the St. Louis team members. We meet for lunch and some have kids that are the same ages as mine.”

Tony Beugen, a member of IJMST’s executive board and 11-year player with the Minnesota All Stars said this tournament gives him a connection to the Jewish community while promoting Jewish athleticism. “There are not a lot of Jews in professional sports so this tournament is a nice way for Jewish athletes to get together.”

St. Louis was represented by two teams this year: St. Louis Heat and the St. Louis RiverDawgs who made it into the finals for the first time in its five year history.

“Most of the guys on our team play in the Sunday morning league at the JCC,” Levy said. “We play on separate teams but come together for this annual tournament. The Heat is new but we always knew St. Louis would have a second team.”

The Heat, managed by Michael Poscover, was put together from various Jewish leagues around town including the Inter-congregational League and the JCC Men’s Sunday league. “We plan to keep the team together for the tournament next year in Minneapolis,” Cohen, whose wife Golda led the attendees in blessings before Sunday night’s banquet, said. The Heat went 1-5 and finished 14th.

Many times over the week end the main attraction of this tournament was visibly demonstrated. For example, during the playoffs, many of these visitors to St. Louis could have been sightseeing or shopping. Instead, they chose to come to the ball fields, in 90-plus degree heat and humidity, to watch the final games.

In another demonstration of great friendship and shared Jewish values, Wayne Nemy, a member of IJMST’s executive board and co-manager of the Winnipeg/Detroit Crown Royals, told this story: During one of the playoff games the umpire thought the count for the batter was 3-1 but it was really 4-0. The pitcher, who would have benefited from the umpire’s mistake, corrected the ump which put a man on base. “That’s what it’s all about…sportsmanship. This tournament is a friendship thing. It’s about sharing core values of sportsmanship and growing relationships with other people,” Nemy said.

A number of the players have been attending this tournament, which is held in a different city each year, for over 20 years making Labor Day weekend an annual tradition to renew old friendships and make new ones. And based on feedback from attendees, this tournament in St. Louis seemed to rise to the top in terms of hospitality and organization. A member of the Toronto contingent, who’s been involved for 15 years said, “This was the best one so far. The ball diamonds, the hotel and hospitality suite and the amenities…all were fantastic. Westport is great; it’s like a village where you have everything right outside your front door.”

Nemy, who has attended 10 of these tournaments, praised the host committee for its hospitality and hard work. “They did a phenomenal job. This was a first-class event and the finest facility we played at in 30 years.” Mark Michelson, chair of this year’s organizing committee, said his motivation for putting on the event was based on his affection for this tournament. “These guys are my family and I wanted to give them something great.”

Members of the St. Louis organizing committee put in a bid to host this tournament three years ago and have been working on it ever since. The committee members were Michelson, Ben Sandmel, Rich Levy, David Cohen, and Aaron Unell.

The tradition of this tournament is so powerful for some players that a number have recruited family members. In fact, there were 14 sets of brothers, eight sets of fathers and sons, and three sets of uncles and nephews at this year’s tournament. In St. Louis, brothers David and Daniel Norber play for the RiverDawgs along with their uncle Larry Norber; brothers Scott and Lee Lieberman play for the Heat. In addition, brothers Jeremy, 16, and Ethan, 13, Lang, accompanied by their father Joe, volunteered at the tournament. Jeremy is co-editor of the Light’s new teen page.

Todd Kaluzny from Detroit, who was attending his 14th tournament, summed up the event this way: “I feel a bond, a connection, with these guys that I don’t have with any random person who’s not Jewish. It’s the camaraderie-the commonality of culture, background and values that makes this tournament so special.”