Major League Baseball’s opening day is steeped in traditions, from the old (presidents throwing out ceremonial first pitches) to the new (ESPN broadcasting more games than any of us have time to watch).
The Diablo Valley Tzedakah Softball League has its own season-opening tradition, as well — one that is steeped in shmear.
That’s because the slow-pitch league — based in Contra Costa County and made up of Jewish players of varying ages and ability — opens its schedule with an annual event that has come to be known as “Bagelfest.”
Held at Heather Farm Park in Walnut Creek, the gathering includes players from all of the league’s teams coming together for practice games and a nosh. For the 100 or so players in the league, it’s perhaps the most special day of the season.
“You get to see the people that you’ve been playing with for many years,” said Barry Dubin, a longtime player for Temple Sinai in Oakland.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that inclement weather and muddy fields on March 25 forced Bagelfest 2012 to be postponed for a month or two. Then came more bad news: Opening day on April 1 had to be postponed, as well; even though it was a sunny day, a downpour the day before had rendered the field unplayable. They’ll try for another opening day of games on Sunday, April 8.
The league’s 30th anniversary season might be off to a bit of a rocky start, but the DVTSL is still going strong. Known as the B’nai B’rith League until about five years ago, the league started out with four teams and swelled to as many as 13 a few years ago.
This year, Temple Isaiah in Lafayette and Temple Sinai in Oakland each are fielding two teams. Of the remaining five squads, three represent synagogues (Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek and Beth Chaim in Danville), and two do not (B’nai B’rith III and the Jewish Businessmen’s Lunch Group).
Some of the teams go by their nicknames, such as the “BC Stars” for Beth Chaim, “Minyan/580” for Beth Abraham and JBL for the businessmen. Also, the B’nai B’rith team no longer has any affiliation with the international organization of that name, and usually goes by the name “BB III.” All of the games are at Heather Farm Park.
“It’s about Jewish guys getting together and playing softball on Sunday mornings,” said league commissioner and active player Sandy Zimmerman of Oakland, summing up the essence of the league.
Zimmerman, who plays for JBL, is among two active players who have played continuously since the league’s 1983 inception. Ron Brown, his JBL teammate, is the other.
“To once in a while have a moment of glory, to get tha base hit to win the game or make a putout, it just gives somebody that chance to relive — or live — that brief moment of glory,” Zimmerman said.
“We all think we’re capable of doing that more often than we really are, and this is a chance to accomplish that once in a while.”
Zimmerman’s JBL team experienced the flip side of that glory, losing to another non-affiliated team, the Lost Tribe of Israel, in the 2011 playoffs. The Lost Tribe disbanded after the season.
“They were going to retire anyway, but they went out champions,” Zimmerman said.
DVTSL champions are determined in the playoffs that follow a 13-game regular season. The league is made up of nine teams playing in two separate tiers, or unofficial divisions, based on last season’s records. Each team plays each of the other teams at least once.
While the league does engage in some tzedakah (as its name might imply), having donated to Chabad of the East Bay and some Jewish nonprofits, keeping registration fees low is more of a priority than benevolence.
The DVTSL features players who range in age from 18 or 19 to their early 70s. The league has had players who have played college baseball. One player commutes from Folsom.
The league has developed a distinctively older flavor, Zimmerman said, noting that 20-year veterans are no rarity, with many players in their 50s and 60s.
Zimmerman and his son, Scott, are JBL teammates, and among several father-son combinations who play for the same team. The elder Zimmerman hopes to play long enough to be joined by his 13-year-old grandson, Ryan, who needs to be 18 to play.
“I’d be 76, but it could happen,” Zimmerman said.
The oldest known player, Murray, was in his mid 70s when he hung up his glove for good about 10 years ago.
“I don’t know if [Murray] is still alive,” Zimmerman said. “I just remember every time he came up I thought I could get him out because the man looked like he was older than dirt, but I could never get him out. It was pretty embarrassing.
“Murray was a legend in this league.”
The league has had one or two rabbis since its inception, and women have played in the league, too; however, none are listed on active rosters this season (players can sign up at any time by contacting Zimmerman).
There was talk of adding two Marin synagogues to the league, especially after Kol Shofar of Tiburon and Congregation Rodef Sholom of San Rafael staged a successful exhibition game last summer, but the expansion plan didn’t happen for logistical reasons, Zimmerman said.
Though the league is geared more toward recreation than competition, it’s not just about sharing bagels with friends on Sunday mornings, either.
“One of the guiding principles is that we’re out there to have fun,” Dubin said, “but having said that, what I always tell our team is we’re there to have fun, and we want to remember that winning is more fun than losing.”
Diablo Valley Tzedakah Softball League For information: “DVT Softball” page on Facebook, or Sandy Zimmerman, (925) 262-7505 or firstname.lastname@example.org