37 years later, they’re still playing
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37 years later, they’re still playing

It’s the oldest established permanent nonfloating Jewish softball game in Closter

The boys of summer? Not quite.

Even when the group — not really a team, not quite a league, but a very real thing — was founded, its members were less boys than men in early middle age, and their elastic season now stretches from late spring to mid-autumn.

The Not-Quite-Young Guys of the Middle of the Year came together in 1986, and now, nearly 40 years later, they’re still playing softball. They’re not all old — now they’re multigenerational, although the average age still is in the high-ish double digits. They missed
a few months in 2020, the first covid year — they started to play in July instead of April — but that’s it. They’ve played every year since.

So who are these Old Guys of the Spring, Summer, and Fall?

First, meet Larry Semegran of Closter. At 78, he’s the oldest member of the group; he organized it in 1986 and has been the engine behind it ever since.

In the 1980s, Mr. Semegran belonged to Temple Beth El of the Northern Valley in Closter. (That once-flourishing Reform synagogue had about 500 member families then; it since has merged with Temple Beth Or of Washington Township to form Kol Dorot in Oradell. Mr. Semegran has switched his membership to Temple Emanu-El in Closter.)

The league’s team picture in 2020, the covid year. The games were a great source of comfort to the players.

He also belonged to Beth El’s men’s club, so when its president, Vic Borden, asked him if he’d like to organize a baseball team, he said he’d love to.

“I was 41 then,” Mr. Semegran said. “I had a lot of contemporaries in the men’s club. I ended up getting maybe 25 of them who wanted to play. We were going to play other temples and organizations, but how do you tell some guy you can play and some other guys that you can’t? So I said, ‘Let’s just play among ourselves.’”

Mr. Semegran grew up in Parkchester, in the east Bronx. “Back then you just had pickup games,” he said. Whoever was around and wanted to play could play, at least until his mother told him — quite possibly by yelling out the window — that it was time to go home.

It was a great model. “So I said let’s just do it that way.”

There have been some tweaks to the system.

For the last 37 years, every Sunday morning during the season, by the time the guys show up, the teams have been arranged. One of the team members, an accountant, puts them together. They’re carefully calibrated to be competitive; the game is supposed to be fun, and it wouldn’t be any fun if one team was destined to win and the other team would see itself as packed with underachievers.

Larry Semegran is the team’s engine, and also one of its pitchers.

The rules have been tweaked to keep play competitive. No team can score more than four runs in any one inning; without that rule, the game could get lopsided and boring, Mr. Semegran said. “And we all want to have the chance to play. We want to be able to have a full nine-inning game.”

There also are some rules that have developed over time as a response to the players’ aging bodies. (Whenever he talks about this, Mr. Semegran is careful to add that not all the players are aging. This team, it’s worth repeating, is multigenerational. But the founding generation is at its heart.)

For example, “you can overrun the base,” Mr. Semegran said. “That’s to stop people from sliding,” and that’s because at the beginning, when most players were mostly in their 40s, two of them broke their ankles by sliding. “I’m very cautious, because I’m always the one who is going to get hurt,” he said. Why? “It’s just my luck.”

Over time, the rosters changed. Some players dropped out or moved away; others joined, sometimes coming from farther away. While overwhelmingly most are Jewish — about 90 percent, Mr. Semegran estimated — others are not. “One of the guys,” a player, “owned a taxi fleet, and so some Dominicans” — taxi drivers — “came over from the Bronx to play for us,” he said.

One of Mr. Semegran’s sons lives in Demarest and the other is in Scarsdale; one played but got hurt and the other does not. His daughter lives in Brooklyn; sometimes his son-in-law goes through the tunnel and over the bridge to play in Closter.

About 25 people show up most weeks, although on off weeks there can be as few as 14. There always are enough players for a game, even if it demands some creativity. There are now more people who want to join than the group can handle; the membership ceiling is about 25. That’s to ensure that everyone has a chance to play.

Larry Semegran pitches as Fraser Seitel stands behind him.

The team used to be called the Temple Beth El Reformers, Mr. Semegran said; now it’s more or less called the OMJSL — that’s the Old Men’s Jewish Softball League, but the name varies according to the player, it seems — but “we have 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds and 40-year-olds, fathers and sons.”

Mr. Semegran is a manufacturer’s rep. He sells solvents, paints, tools, and abrasives to wholesalers; his clients are wholesalers. He might be 78, but no, he’s not retired. “I believe in work,” he said.

He’s an organizer. “I do this in other sports too,” he said. “I organize games because I love to play.” He plays tennis and basketball regularly, and “I just came from pickleball,” he added.

And he’s still a pitcher. He may not be able to run as well as he once did, he said, but he still can throw.

Fraser Seitel — he’s younger than Mr. Semegran, but not a lot, and his exact age is released only on a need-to-know basis — is the player with the second longest tenure in the league. (Team? Whatever!) He is, according to Mr. Semegran, who says it with great fondness, “a character.” He’s the guy who’s immediately visible in every group picture because he’s the only one not wearing a shirt. (Why? Because even if he doesn’t play well, or his team doesn’t win, “at least I’ll get a tan.”)

“I’ve been in the league for 30 years, and I have had a 20-year batting slump,” he said. (He’s a pitcher.)

Michael Goodman, who’s since moved to Florida, grooms the field after a game.

“I go almost every week,” he said. “I’ll go until they ban me.

“Sunday morning batting practice starts at 9 a.m.; because this is a league largely of older Jewish men, the whining starts at about 9:05.

“Larry is the force behind the league,” Mr. Seitel continued. “He is 100 percent responsible for its sustenance and growth. And I’m very surprised — it has gone on year after year, and every year it seems that we get more and more people, through word of mouth.

“I think it’s because most of the women in the area want to get their husbands out of the house for four straight hours on a Sunday morning.” (Insert drum sounds here…)

Mr. Seitel explains why he goes to the game every week. “To laugh a lot. It’s a bowl of yucks every Sunday. To avoid getting hurt. It’s a badge of honor to come home without aching or being permanently injured.

“And to get a good tan.”

Loren Sonenshine, Andy Gold, and Mark Shanock are caught mid-inning.

He marvels at the fathers whose sons also come to play. “I once brought my son. He hit two home runs, and I have never invited him back,” he said.

“We’ve had hundreds of people actually drive around to see these old men playing softball,” he added. “It’s like we’re a wonder of the community.”

Like Mr. Semegran, Mr. Seitel is a pitcher. “We don’t field anything,” Mr. Seitel said. “We get out of the way as soon as possible.”

Also like Mr. Semegran, Mr. Seitel talks about the rules that were created to help older men stay safe as they play. “A number of players have reached the ripe vintage age of 70,” he said. “Many of the kids who play are really, seriously good. If one of those old codgers hits a line drive, the kid in left field would throw the old timer out at first base, and it is very embarrassing to get thrown out by a 150-foot throw. It is criminal, really.”

That’s why the rules committee — “which is composed of one person, the ump, who umps because he no longer wants to risk getting hurt. So he umps. To his detriment” — ruled that “if you are over the age of 70 and you hit the ball and it falls safely, you get to first base safely. So the great thrill in life now, once you reach that vaunted age, is to hit the ball to the outfield. They can’t throw you out! So you can reach first base and celebrate.

“You don’t have to run as fast as you can, which in the case of most 70-year-olds isn’t very fast.”

Josh Gold hits a ball.

There’s something else that the players have learned that has resulted in a firm rule. “This rule is absolute,” Mr. Seitel said. “No talking politics. There literally have almost been fist fights, so Larry, the dictator who rules with an iron fist, says no politics.”

Mr. Seitel is pure Jersey — north Jersey, to be specific. He was born in Jersey City, grew up in Englewood, moved to Closter, and now lives in Demarest.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s a PR guy. “I am a public relations consultant,” he said. “I have wonderful clients — hedge funds and foundations and companies. For many years, I worked as the public affairs director and a senior vice president at Chase Bank. David Rockefeller was my client — he was a wonderful man and a wonderful friend.

“I have been an NYU professor, teaching public relations, I wrote a public relations textbook, I used to teach a public relations class at night at Fairleigh Dickinson in Teaneck.” (So yes, he knows about branding as well as tanning.) In fact, both he and Mr. Semegran reported, the two men first met when Mr. Semegran, working toward an MBA at Fairleigh, took a class that Mr. Seitel taught. “I taught at 8:30 at night — it was the first time I ever taught — and Larry was one of my students. They all fell asleep.”

When he talked about Mr. Semegran’s role as the engine that keeps the games going, “I’ve been trying to impeach him for 30 years,” Mr. Seitel said. “It’s been going downhill for all those years.”

Like Mr. Semegran, Mr. Seitel appreciates the pick-up-ness of the game. “When you were a kid, in fifth grade, after school you could go to Butch Cook’s house and choose up teams. It’s like that. There’s nothing at stake
except pride.”

Fraser Seitel is easy to recognize in OMJSL photos; here, he looks underdressed for the season.

He talked about the awards luncheon that marks the end of every season. “We give out awards — most valuable player, rookie of the year, most embarrassing player. I am the only player who has been in the league for 30 years who’s never won an award. Never!”

Why?

“I don’t know! I have scratched my head about this for years. And it’s ironic! I am the entire awards committee! And I present the awards!

“I blame Larry. He is my archenemy.”

Dan Forman of Closter is a relative kid at 65. He’s been playing softball with the OMJSL since 1992. “I do it because it’s the one thing in the world that makes me forget everything else,” he said.

“When you are out there, it takes you back to another time and another focus. It’s nothing to do with screens, or politics, or anything else. You’re just out there,” on the field, playing ball.

Peter Bregman comes in from the city to play in Closter.

“What makes this unusual is that you can’t get 20 or 25 people together to do anything in the world anymore. So to have this be organized, and include people from 20 to 78 — it is extraordinary.

“People say yeah, well, there are pickup games in other places. Ahh, yes — but certainly none that have awards ceremonies like ours at the end of each year, with campy Burger King crowns with photos and sayings attached to them.

“It’s just so much more than a game.”

Mr. Forman continues to be impressed at how the game pulls people from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. “They come from all over,’ he said. ‘Sometimes girls come to play. Everybody who would like to join us is welcome.”

Like Mr. Semegran and Mr. Seitel, Mr. Forman talks about the rules, which constantly evolve. There are some risks in having strong, fast, good players, most of them young, on the same team or playing against older, slower, no-longer-particularly strong opponents, he said. The rules changes help.

The rules changes also lead to the opportunity for the players to indulge in their second-favorite sport. Arguing. “It’s not a game if we don’t have at least two major arguments. And it’s over obscure stuff. Obscure, nuanced what-if arguments over nonsense.” In that, as in so many other ways, the experience sounds entirely Jewish.

Father and son Ross and Bob Jaffe.

“For me, one of the greatest things is that lots of us bring our sons to the game, and sometimes our grandsons. If my son is in town, he’ll come to play.

“Sometimes I look out at us on a Sunday morning, and I wonder how we got here. We’re still here. And certainly there are other things that we could be doing. Easier things. This weekend, I was away upstate, and I came back home on Saturday night, just so I could play softball on Sunday morning.”

Mr. Forman is grateful to Closter’s recreation department, and particularly to Jim Oettinger, “who has run the department since forever,” he said. “His kids went through the rec programs with my kids. He puts a lot of work into these fields.”

So does the team. “We groom it when we leave, so we help them maintain it,” he said.

Back in his real life, Mr. Forman has just wound up a 40-year career in local TV news. “I’ve been a news director at channels 2, 4, and 7,” he said. “It’s pretty rare. I have really benefitted from having this wonderful career, and now I’m figuring out how to use it.”

He has the opportunity to think about what’s next as he plays the game he loves every Sunday morning. “I really love it,” he said.

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