The Bridgeport Crush evoke a time when 16-inch softball was the
biggest game in the neighborhood.
By Andrew Santella
Chicago, April 1999
Sometime later this month, Mick Balestri will dig his spikes, his
bats, his sixteen-inch softballs out of winter storage on the back
porch of his south side home and he'll start another season, his
seventeenth, as the player-manager of the Bridgeport Crush.
Balestri is 43 years old and like most sports-minded Chicago male
of his generation, he grew up playing sixteen-inch softball. Unlike
most, however, he kept playing. He's played perhaps 150 games some
summers, and he's seen every kind of softball season imaginable.
He's seen the dream seasons, where everything went right and his
team won championships and he won MVP awards and the prize money
flowed in. And he's seen the seasons of too few wins and too many
backaches, seasons where the younger teams and the big-budget teams
made him look bad and every time he bent down to pick up a bat,
he felt a twinge.
He's at the point in his career now when a weightlifter's belt,
for lower back support, becomes one of the necessary tools of the
game. He's at the point where legging out an infield single will
prompt teasing from his teammates about his foot speed. And he's
not even the oldest guy on the Crush. Two of his teammates are grandfathers.
Balestri likes to say his team is "tournament-tested,"
which might sound like a polite way of saying they're getting old.
But what it really means is that these guys just might have as many
sixteen-inch softball games under their belts as anybody in the
city. There was a time, not long ago, when they would play ten,
eleven months a year. The summer season bled into the fall season
and then there were the fundraiser tournaments in the snow in January
and February to get them through long winters otherwise bereft of
But now there's an off-season, which for guys like Balestri, is
something like Purgatory: There's no softball, but there is the
promise of softball to give hope.
When you don't know how many more Opening Days you have left, each
one matters a little more. "I don't want to see it end. I don't
like to think about it," Balestri says. "I know eventually
I'll have to find something else. But I'm happy doing this. When
I'm not playing, I like to go watch a game or two. Maybe I'll see
a young player, someone who loves the game, someone with good hands.
But there's not too many young guys like that out there anymore."
One of Chicago's most obscure monuments sits off 31st Street near
the lake. A stone softball mounted on a pedestal, it marks the game's
birthplace in 1887. Given Chicago softball's image as a lunchbucket-and-beer
game, it can only be considered ironic that the sport was actually
invented by a bunch of Gilded Age swells at a boat club. George
Hancock, a reporter for the Chicago Board of Trade, met some friends
at the Farragut Boat Club on Thanksgiving Day to wait for ticker
tape results of that year's Harvard-Yale football game.
To kill time, they started playing an indoor baseball game using
a rolled-up boxing glove and a broomstick. Hancock soon formalized
the rules of the game and it spread throughout the Midwest, taking
on variations in different locations. The version that eventually
took root in Chicago was played outdoors with bare hands and an
oversized 16-inch ball called the Clincher, introduced in 1934.
The game's historians will tell you that the game caught on here
because it was perfect for the densely populated, working-class
neighborhoods. The ball could stand up to even gravel and asphalt
and didn't travel far, which meant the game could be played in even
the most confining city playlots. But that doesn't explain why it
never became so popular in other densely populated cities with working-class
populations, like Milwaukee or Cleveland or New York City.
Whatever the attraction, by the time the Depression hit, softball
was established as something like Chicago's unofficial municipal
game. The Windy City League of the 1930s and 1940s drew thousands
of spectators to watch and wager on fiercely competitive softball.
And hundreds of other leagues in hundreds of parks were staples
of neighborhood social life, turning the best players into local
legends. Balestri's father, Carmie, began playing softball in 1946,
when he returned from military service. A rail-thin shortstop and
third baseman for the Jugheads, out of Armour Square, an injury
ended his softball career when Balestri was seven. By then, Balestri
was a batboy for the storied St. Albert the Great Knights of Columbus
teams and playing the game with friends on empty lots.
The Crush emerged from this neighborhood tradition. Formed in 1979
at McGuane Park, Balestri joined the team in 1982, as a pitcher.
He was 27, the oldest player on the team, and he led the Crush to
the playoffs of the Donovan Park league, where they lost the championship
to the Stickmen, a team that featured George Kelleher, who would
join the Crush 15 years later. In 1983, Balestri brought in five
new players and, this time, the Crush beat the Stickmen for the
league title. The two teams would meet in the park championship
twice more in the next two years, and each would win once.
The Crush's roster was made up mostly of players from around 31st
Street and the Stickmen came from around 37th Street. Games between
the two neighborhood rivals drew hundreds to the park to watch.
Balestri's son, Mickey, began keeping score for the Crush when he
was five, his father having taught him how. Before he graduated
from high school, the boy would be a full-fledged member of the
"I always told him that when he turned 16, he could play. And
that's what we did," says Balestri, a City of Chicago employee.
"I didn't have the opportunity to play with my father. They
tell me he was a right-field hitter, just like me. Now my son's
playing in the same parks I grew up in. I like to see that."
It was Kelleher who urged Balestri to enter the Crush in its first
national competition in 1985. Balestri did, and his Crush rudely
eliminated Kelleher's Stickmen that year. The Crush has twice won
United States Sixteen-Inch Softball Association A Division titles,
in 1989 and 1995. (Softball competition is divided into levels of
play, Major being the most competitive, followed by A, B, and so
on.) But the team's best year may have been 1987, when they went
80-20, won six tournaments and earned more than $5000 in prize money.
The Crush are a throwback to softball's neighborhood glory days.
Mostly neighborhood Italian-American and Irish-American men from
Bridgeport and Canaryville and Garfield Ridge, some of whom have
been playing with and against each other for three decades, they
compete against teams with bigger budgets and wealthier sponsors,
teams made up of younger players recruited from all over the city
The Crush, for the last few years, has kept one foot planted in
the neighborhood-oriented world of A softball, while also playing
at the Major level, in the Pro League. Some of the Crush's players
have urged Balestri to recruit more aggressively to field a team
that could be more competitive in the Pro League. "Mickey's
wanted to keep things in the neighborhood, but you have to beef
up a little to compete in the majors," says the Crush's centerfielder
Dave Bradel. "We're about three players short."
The Pro League was founded seven years ago, inspired by the old
Windy City League. But it has been unable to recreate the excitement
of the prewar years. "They used to draw thousands of fans for
those Windy City games at Bidwell and Thillens. They outdrew the
Sox and the Cubs sometimes," says Al Maag, an historian of
16-inch softball and manager of Molex, a Pro League team. "Now
we're lucky if we can get our wives out to the games."
Increasingly, the talk in the softball world is about how the game
is down, about how the kids aren't playing the game, about how Chicago's
boys of summer are aging. The game is still played by thousands,
of course. You see people playing in vest-pocket parks in neglected
neighborhoods and you see them playing along the lake, with the
office towers looming over the outfield fence. But you also see
more and more kids playing soccer and golf and even 12-inch softball,
the variant that predominates everywhere but in Chicago.
"The soccer-mom phenomenon has hit softball. The world has
suburbanized and softball has suffered," says George Bliss,
a softball aficionado who runs a telephone hotline that offers daily
updates on games around the city. "When I see a team like the
Crush, it's like being in a time warp, because they're really from
that old city tradition."
Other homegrown games have withered in other cities. New York stickball
is just an occasionally played oddity now. In Chicago, every time
two softball teams play, there's a sub-contest going on. It's the
battle of a quirky local culture trying to hold out against the
forces of national standardization.
In the Pro League, the Crush runs up against teams like the 45s,
Puglise Cartage and Lettuce, newer teams that spend the off-season
intriguing and enticing the biggest stars to play for them. The
most persistent controversy in Chicago softball is over which teams
offer money, jobs and other enticements to recruit star players,
a practice to which no one will admit. The first rule of sixteen-inch
softball is that if anybody is paying for play, it's the other team.
The Pro League is one of two in the Chicago area classified as major
leagues, the other being the Classic League in Mt. Prospect. All
of Chicago's elite teams play in one of these leagues, and most
play in both. Mondays and Wednesdays find them playing in Mt. Prospect's
Classic League; Tuesdays and Thursdays are for Pro League games,
which rotate between Bensenville, Hodgkins and Forest Park. Weekends
are for tournament play. All together, top teams end up playing
about 100 games or more each summer.
Pro League teams pay a $1300 entry fee, which is combined with sponsorship
money from Miller Beer to form a payout pool. Teams get $30 for
every regular season win and bonuses ranging from $2000 to $150,
depending on their place in the league standings. Adding in playoff
bonuses, top teams can figure to earn about $3000 for the Pro League
Apart from the high level of play, the Pro League is easily distinguished
from neighborhood leagues. There's the steep entry fees and the
payouts. There's the strict rules about matching uniforms for each
team. And, until this summer, there was the glamour of television.
Sportschannel had televised a Pro League game of the week for the
last few seasons. But since Sportschannel became Fox Sports Chicago,
the game of the week has been discontinued. The charms of Chicago's
game were lost on the channel's new owners from the coast.
The most common misperception about sixteen-inch softball is that
it's a power game. The pitcher delivers the ball to home plate in
an inviting arc and the first impulse of the uninitiated is to try
to muscle the soft lob over the heads of the outfielders. But for
the average hitter, such an approach can just as easily result in
an embarrassing squib hit back to the pitcher. Sixteen-inch softball's
football-like final scores are more often the result of precise
placement hitting, the ability common to all great softball hitters
to direct the ball to the gaps in the defense. (Even that's not
as easy as it sounds. To the nine defensive positions familiar to
baseball fans, softball adds a tenth, short centerfield.) A hitter
like the Crush's Jim Crowley, who can drive the ball beyond the
outfielders in one at-bat and then dump it in front of them in the
next, can be murder on the defense, even with ten players.
Softball pitchers, like those in baseball, get the credit when the
opposing team is held to a low score, but in softball the pitcher
is almost wholly dependent on his team's defense. Strikeouts are
virtually unheard of.
"Any good hitter knows he's in control. He's got the bat in
his hand," says Balestri. "There are guys I couldn't get
out if I was throwing overhand. My philosophy is don't throw a strike
until you have to. Let the hitter make the mistake. Hitters get
intimidated. That happens in sixteen-inch, believe it or not. A
teams sees that so-and-so is pitching against them and they think,
'That's it, we're not scoring any runs.'"
Usually the best a softball pitcher can do is to prevent the batter
from hitting the ball where he wants to hit it. Thus, when the game
situation calls for the batter to drive the ball between the first
and second basemen, the pitcher will offer a ball that can only
be hit to the other side of the infield. Even from the bleachers,
the sag in a pitcher's shoulders is plainly evident, after he has
coaxed the batter into hitting a weak double-play grounder, only
to see the play botched by his one of his infielders.
The most important defenders might be the pitcher himself, who is
expected to act as an extra infielder. The drop step, a kind of
balletic stride backward from the pitching rubber before pitching,
is intended mainly to position the pitcher to cut off any ball hit
toward the center of the diamond. The Crush's George Kelleher, a
bespectacled and compact 43-year-old, is an outstanding defensive
pitcher, the sort who can calmly snare a hot line drive at a distance
of some forty-five feet and then fire a strike to the first baseman
to double a runner off base.
The Crush wear white t-shirts with their sponsors' name on the back:
The Old Neighborhood Italian American Club. On the front of the
shirts are renderings of the Italian and American flags. Even the
Crush's biggest players have the undefined look of postwar musclemen,
in marked contrast to the sculpted, health-club physiques that predominate
on other teams.
In 1997, when the Crush first made the leap to Major-level play,
in the Pro League, they did surprisingly well. They won eight games
and lost eight and upset Lettuce, the best-known and the best team
in Chicago over the last decade. Lettuce is the New York Yankees
of sixteen-inch softball. Perennial winners with multiple championships,
the team has a knack for acquiring the best players. Founded and
sponsored by Lettuce Entertain You maven Rich Melman, Lettuce is
a team with deep pockets and a swagger that shows even when the
players are walking to the diamond from the
Lettuce's players come outfitted in one of a seemingly inexhaustible
array of black and teal uniforms, complete with warmup jackets.
Even their coaching staff has a pedigree. Ed Zolna was one of the
game's great pitchers, for the Bobcats, the dominant team of the
late 60s and early 70s. (Having any coaching staff whatsoever sets
them apart from many other teams.) Lettuce is the team everybody
in softball guns for, and they know it. "If you beat Lettuce,
it makes your year," says Melman.
Melman was instrumental in establishing the Pro League. "I
knew about the Windy City League and I thought it would be fun to
recreate that, to play for money," Melman says. He made Lettuce
a disciplined operation, telling his players to knock off the betting
and the drinking, and entrusting them with a $15 per diem for road
trips. But he says Lettuce does not pay for play. "Very early
on, one player got some extra expense money. But I quickly came
around to see it was stupid. It was naivete more than anything else.
I just felt it would pull the team apart," he says. "It's
very difficult to say, here's $2000 for one guy and nothing for
the others. But for years, people were always saying, 'You're paying
this guy or that guy.' I would tell them that's bullshit."
For teams like the Crush, enticing players is not an issue. Outfitting
his team is costly enough for Balestri.
"Other teams buy the $28 jerseys, but I get the $8 t-shirts
and cotton shorts. I just don't have the big budget," he says.
Balestri knows his players like the exposure and prestige of the
Pro League--the televised games of the week were a big deal for
everybody--but his heart is in neighborhood A ball and he's not
sure the Crush belong at the Major level. He toys with the idea
of finding a group of younger players, players like his son who
could benefit from his experience, and competing at Armour Square
Park, in the old neighborhood.
"It would be more fun and less stress. Without the excitement
of television, it's hard to keep guys excited. I'm losing players.
One guy's building a home and can't get away. One's a copper and
he's on the night shift now. But if you want to play, you have to
make arrangements. This is too high profile."
For his part, Balestri can't count the number of graduations and
weddings he's missed for softball. "I wouldn't miss a game
for just anything. This is more important," he says. "I
send an envelope instead."
To see the Bridgeport Crush in their element, head for a small,
apparently unnamed park on 37th Street, just west of Austin, in
Cicero. On Monday and Wednesday nights, the Crush will be there,
performing before a small crowd of wives, kids and neighborhood
old timers, who come with their own seat cushions, the better to
survive a night of softball on the aluminum bleachers. This is the
Clyde Park District Super A League, a league the Crush has dominated
in recent years.
The Crush can look as bad as a softball team can look some nights,
but when they're on their game, they offer a primer on how Chicago-style
softball should be played. Sometimes, they display both extremes
in the same game. In June, against Color of Success, they stumbled
to a 3-0 deficit in the first inning, provoking a round of critiques
from the retirement-aged men in the bleachers. But the Crush's defense
settled down in the middle innings and Kelleher began retiring Color
of Success hitters with efficiency. A spectacular catch by the speedy
centerfielder Dave Bradel saved a few more runs. Then the Crush
jumped on a string of Color of Success errors. They finally broke
the game open with a two-run, two-out double from Dale Mitchell,
the Crush's 48-year-old right fielder and sometime leadoff man.
The Crush won 11-4.
Mitchell plays the game with a frightening intensity. "Dale's
incredible," says Kelleher. "To be playing is one thing,
but to be playing the outfield at that age is something else."
Mitchell also plays for a team called the Heat Wave in a predominantly
black league at Washington Park. Two years ago, he won the Most
Valuable Player award there. "I brought my trophy out and showed
it to the guys on the Crush," he says. "I was kidding
them. I said, 'Hey none of the rest of you white guys have one of
Mitchell has a six-drawer dresser at home filled with nothing but
softball jerseys from teams he has played with over the years. "I
play ball seven nights a week," he says. "My wife tells
me that I shouldn't ever tell her I'm gonna quit, because when I
tell her that, she'll know I'm lying."
A softball season is a marathon. Hardcore softballers will play
nearly as many games in a summer as Sammy Sosa or Frank Thomas.
The difference, of course, is that neither Sosa nor Thomas has to
rush to his game from his day job, change in his car, or settle
for a dinner of concession-stand hot dogs. Nor does the softball
junky draw a salary from the game he plays.
"It's love of the game," Balestri will say when asked
about his devotion to softball. "I'm not getting rich off this,
that's for sure. I love the competition and I love running the team."
Not that running a team like the Crush isn't without its frustrations.
Simply turning players out for every game demands rounds of phone
calls and arranging rides for players. The team had to forfeit last
year's Pro League game against Lettuce, a team they upset the season
before, because they couldn't field a full squad.
For a key midseason game against the North Stars, the team sponsored
by sports-talk radio host Mike North, Balestri picked up the power-hitting
Jim Crowley himself. The Crush were off to a poor start in the Pro
League, with two wins and four losses. Another loss against the
North Stars would make a spot in the league playoffs a remote possibility
for the Crush. Balestri especially wanted Crowley at this game because
it was being played at Hodgkins Park. The left field fence there
is just 255 feet from home plate, but it rises high, like a chain-link
version of Fenway Park's Green Monster. "I told Crowley I want
him to hit a few over that fence tonight," Balestri said. "I
told him I wanted three home runs."
As it turned out, Crowley didn't clear the fence that night, but
several Crush batters blasted balls off of it, making it ring like
a bell. Balestri hit the fence with a line drive that he was able
to leg out for a double, bad back and all. "I've got to hit
one over that fence before I stop playing," he said later.
The Crush's hitting gave them an early lead, which the North Stars
proceeded to whittle down, until in the seventh and final inning,
North Stars scored what appeared to be the tying run. But on an
appeal, the umpire ruled that the North Stars' base runner had missed
third base on his way to scoring. The runner was called out and
then ejected from the game for arguing the call. The North Stars'
threat died and the Crush had a crucial victory.
Tim Maher was sitting in the shade of a tree watching a first-round
game in the annual Hawthorne Classic tournament in Cicero. It was
10 a.m. on a July Saturday and the beer truck at the north end of
the park was open for business.
So was Maher. He was hawking t-shirts piled high on a card table
behind one of the backstops. They were silk-screened to read, "Chicago
Style No Glove Softball Players Have Bigger Balls." A helpful
illustration compared the relative size of 16- and 12-inch softballs.
The shirts promoted Maher's weekly softball report on WKKD, a suburban
FM station, as well as his intense preference for the Chicago-style
16-inch game, played barehanded, over the generic 12-inch game,
played with gloves.
Maher, like a lot of softball people, is distressed that Chicago
teams, after playing barehanded all summer, have to put on gloves
for national tournaments, as a concession to teams from Iowa and
elsewhere, who never developed the barehanded tradition. "I
say there's two types of people who play with gloves, girls and
12-inch players," he began. "It's the gloves that everyone
hates. Now, one of the Iowa teams, Graphic Edge, is coming in to
take off the gloves in the Forest Park tournament later this summer.
I give them credit. It's our game and they should play it our way."
(Over the past off-season, Maher announced the formation of a new,
Far from being just a family squabble over competing styles of play,
the gloves question goes to the heart of the game's continued survival.
Some fear that without the involvement of teams from outside the
Chicago area and without the support of national associations, the
Chicago game can only shrivel inward and die. Of course, the approval
of national associations and the involvement of non-Chicago teams
comes with a price: gloves in national 16-inch competition.
In the midcentury glory days of Chicago softball, local players
by local rules for all games. Pitchers took the usual drag step
from the pitching rubber before delivering to the plate, hitters
soaked their wood bats in oil to make them heavier and nobody thought
of using gloves. That all changed in 1964, when the Amateur Softball
Association formalized the rules for national competition. No drag
steps, no doctored bats, no bare hands.
Maher is one of Chicago softball's most enthusiastic boosters and
at the Hawthorne Classic, he was watching softball the way he believes
it was meant to be played, barehanded. Here was a tournament with
a strong field, played in a working-class softball hotbed. It was
hot, the beer was flowing and the trucks cruising down Ogden Avenue
provided a suitably muscular backdrop for the game. But Maher couldn't
help but sound concerned for softball's future. Maher and others
have noticed that 16-inch softball doesn't seem to matter much to
kids today. They'd rather play soccer or Nintendo or even 12-inch
ball. All of which makes Maher wonder where tomorrow's players are
going to come from. Bob Campbell, a star for the Bruins in the 1960s
and 70s and now a representative of the DeBeer company, manufacturer
of the Clincher softball, says that the company is selling about
half as many balls today as it did ten years ago. "We're not
losing those sales to other companies, we're losing them because
kids aren't playing the game," Campbell says. Maher and others
fear that those numbers mean that 16-inch softball will be gloved
right out of existence.
Maher knows what it's like to try and sell 16-inch softball to kids.
He organizes a high school tournament every year, featuring an exhibition
game between two top adult teams, so the kids can see how the game
should be played. Two years ago, he convinced 16 high school teams
to enter. Last summer, he got eight.
"Kids just aren't interested. When we were kids, we'd crush
milk cartons for bases and go out and play. I used to go to Kelly
Park and watch the Bobcats and the Sobies and I would dream of playing
out there someday, like I was watching the Sox or the Cubs,"
Maher says. "We need to do more to generate the interest through
high schools. I don't understand why more schools don't have more
programs. Maybe it's insurance. But all you need is a bat and ball.
And the Park District says they're running clinics, but I don't
know. If there's a thousand fields in the city, 900 of them are
laying dormant, growing weeds. If we don't get kids playing, this
game's gonna die. We've got five or six more years with the guys
out there now. After that, who knows. If you don't find a way to
cultivate young guys, it's gonna die."
Late in July, with first place in the Clyde Park District league
on the line, the Crush had to resort to another late-inning comeback,
this time against a team called the Leprechauns. Down 7-2 in the
seventh and final inning, the Crush scored five runs to tie the
game, the last two on Dave Bradel's two-out single, to force extra
innings. In the top of the eighth inning, Kelleher retired three
straight Leprechauns. And in the bottom of the inning, Crowley hit
a skyscraping fly ball to deep right field that spun the fielder
around so badly that he fell to the ground. Crowley scored easily
with the game-winning run and was met at home plate by the rest
of the Crush, who mobbed him like a bunch of Little Leaguers.
That win set up a decisive showdown against Luciano's of Berwyn
for the Clyde Park District regular season title, and $2500 in prize
money. With the Crush struggling to reach .500 in the Pro League,
this figured to be the team's only shot at a league championship,
a game to make or break a season. The contest was a suitably tense
one, the team's trading leads in the early innings and the reserves
on both sides spending most of the game on their feet, shouting
encouragement. Balestri had an off night as the designated hitter.
Before the game, he'd heard rumors that some of his players were
considering playing with another team in the season-ending A division
national tournament, instead of with the Crush in the Major division
nationals. "It was all weighing on my mind so much that I was
too pumped up," he said. "I wanted to take over the game."
It wasn't until the seventh inning that the Crush built a comfortable
three-run lead. Even then, Kelleher had to make a nice catch on
a line drive in the bottom of the seventh to seal the 7-4 victory.
After the game, Balestri gathered the Crush by his car to celebrate
and to confront his team about their plans for the end-of-season
tournaments. "I told them it was a slap in the face to me and
the team, if what I was hearing was true," he said. Balestri
got the assurances he wanted from his team. The Crush were headed,
as a team, for the Major division national tournament in Cedar Rapids,
Iowa, and their $2500 prize from the Clyde Park District League
would just cover their hotel rooms.
Twenty-year-old Mickey Balestri remembers when he fell in love with
softball. He was seven years old and sitting on the bench keeping
score for the Crush in a weekend tournament in Mount Greenwood.
"It was about 110 degrees out and everybody was having the
time of their lives. I thought, 'This is fun,'" he recalls.
"I wanted to play."
He played youth baseball until he was 16, but gave it up to join
the Crush as a player, after years of hectoring his father for a
spot on the roster.
"It's not an easy game to learn," he says. "It's
taken me a while. I'm just learning to go to right field a little.
But I don't think I'll ever be half the hitter my dad is. It still
excites me to watch him hit. At one point this year, I had as many
hits as he did and I was pretty proud of that. I'm catching up a
little." Balestri is by far the youngest player on the Crush
and certainly one of the youngest in any of the leagues in which
the Crush competes. He's sure he'll continue to play into his forties,
as his father has. "Most young guys don't really have any desire
to play softball. Probably the only reason I'm interested is because
of my father," he says. "But guys that don't know anybody
might never get into it. Most of them don't want to give up their
Friday nights to play softball. It's a long season, and some seasons
can be really grueling. But when spring comes around, you feel that
Most of the teams the Crush had been competing against all summer
in Berwyn and Cicero and Forest Park decamped for Cedar Rapids over
the Labor Day weekend for three days of softball and poolside partying
at the cluster of budget hotels alongside Interstate 380. The forty-team
field for the national tournament was about evenly split between
Chicago-area teams and teams from around Cedar Rapids and Des Moines.
All the teams would wear gloves for the tournament, leveling the
playing field a little to benefit the Iowa teams, who play with
gloves all season long. Still, only once has a non-Chicago-area
team captured a national 16-inch championship--in 1995, when Carpet
Country of Marshalltown, Iowa won, causing widespread consternation
in the Chicago softball community.
The national tournament would be the Crush's last chance to make
their mark in the 1998 season. They'd won the Clyde Park District
regular season title and they'd qualified for the Pro League playoffs,
only to be bounced by the Flash in the first round.
They drew an unheralded Iowa team, CJ's Bar, in the first round
of the nationals and the pairings seemed to point them toward an
eventual showdown with Lettuce. But the Crush lost to CJ's 7-3 and
they dropped into the losers' bracket of the double elimination
tournament. The Crush fell behind in their second game as well,
against another Iowa team, Budweiser. Losing 2-0 in the third inning,
after a flurry of errors, Balestri called timeout, walked to the
mound and chewed his team out.
"I told them they were embarrassing themselves and embarrassing
softball. They were playing like pigs," Balestri said. Chastened,
the Crush bounced back to win the game, 5-2 and stay alive. Then
they won two more games in the tournament's second day, getting
two shutouts against Iowa teams from George Kelleher, 5-0 over H
& F Distributors and 12-0 over Mercantile Bank. Those wins set
up a game on the tournament's final day with the North Stars.
The game was even closer than the two teams' first confrontation,
earlier in the summer. Jim Crowley drove in two runs in the first
inning and Mark Robinson drove in another to give the Crush a 3-0
lead. But the North Stars tied the game in the bottom of the first.
The Crush managed to build several more small leads through the
middle innings, only to see the North Stars tie the game twice more.
Still, the Crush led 7-6 going into the bottom of the seventh. But
their defense faltered in the final inning and the North Stars put
the winning run on third base with one out. In left field, the Crush's
Greg Arredia threw his glove aside and prepared to field his position
barehanded, ready to make a play at the plate without having to
dig the oversized Clincher out of his glove. If his team was going
to lose, he'd go down Chicago-style. But Eddie Kowalski's base hit
drove him the winning run uncontested, giving the North Stars an
8-7 win and eliminating the Crush.
After the game, the field cleared, Robinson's three-year-old son
Markie ran the bases, as he had after every Crush game. He made
the full circuit, pausing to slide into each base, pick himself
up and head for the next base, wearing a plastic batting helmet
in Crush orange, arms pumping.
The Crush's summer was over. On the sidelines, Balestri was changing
out of his spikes, getting ready for the return home. There was
an A-division tournament in Joliet that weekend, and if he timed
it right, he might be able to catch just a little more softball.