What is this, Hollywood?
How did any of this JCC Softball League season even happen?
Let’s rewind to about 18 months ago, when I determined I would move back to Cincinnati from Bellingham, Washington, where I lived from age 24-33. On the phone one day with my dad, Johnny Berg, I said, “If I come back there, we’re playing one season together in that JCC League.” He said, “Ah, we’ll see.”
Back around sign-up time, we still weren’t sure we’d play. A few days before the deadline, we talked on the phone about the league, and I thought, “This is our only chance. We have to do this.” So I told him I’d play. Johnny, age 63, reluctantly agreed to come along for the ride.
And what a ride it was.
When the “New players workout” arrived, JB was still laying by the pool and tearing up golf courses in Scottsdale. I had no idea what to expect when I showed up–I didn’t even know what position I’d play.
Then, the draft. Or as it will go down in history once I sit down and interview Adam Cronstein about it, The Draft. I get a phone call from Adam. I had no idea who he was. He told me I’d be on his team. I called my dad to ask about Cronstein, and he said, “Adam’s a really good ballplayer but his teams haven’t done much.” (“His teams were like the Cubs,” Ben Rodriguez would later state.)
The season gets off to a rocky start
We show up for Opening Day to face Jeff Weisbrot’s team. In the top of the first inning, their big third baseman, Evan Cohen, belts a 3-run home run to left center. Five brutal innings later, Team Cronstein walks off the field a 22-10 loser.
I call my dad to give him the news. You can imagine his response.
Game Two: Waxed 11-1 at the hands of Jason Faust. If it weren’t for leadoff hitter Mike Askin’s deep HR to left in the final inning, it’s a shutout. (Mike Gray pitched that game for us. He would get his payback later in the year.)
I call my dad to give him the news. His response: “I don’t wanna play for this f*ckin’ team.”
Discovering some power
Meanwhile, in my world, I switched to my old slow pitch softball stance for that second game, to no avail (0 for 2 with a strikeout). “The Stance” is anything but traditional: I stand with the toes of both feet pointed at the pitcher and wave the bat like Gary Sheffield before striding forward. After the game, Gary Askin told me, “Hey Justin: Just hit the ball, will ya?”
The following Saturday night, on the eve of Game 3, I stood out on our deck, late at night, in a “hazed” state. I was at a crossroads: Stick with “The Stance” or go traditional and just try to hit line drives up the middle.
I started swinging a whiffle bat with “The Stance,” but with a more relaxed (naturally, at that juncture) stride and stroke. It felt good. It felt comfortable. It felt right.
I’m rolling with it, I said.
The next morning we took the field with a host of subs to battle Roger Rosenthal’s squad. In the bottom of the first, I came to the plate. After Steve Eppstein tossed three balls and a get-me-over strike, he made a fatal mistake: He threw me a pitch directly in my “cream zone,” middle-away and just above the knees. So, as I had the night before, I sent a calm cut at the softball. I connected nicely, but wasn’t sure what that meant, not having played in this league before. The ball sailed over the right centerfielder’s head; I rounded the bases for a 3-run home run.
Two at-bats later, deja vu. “The Stance” is here to stay.
Team Cronstein won that game, aided by 5 big RBI by veteran catcher Gary Askin, who caught every inning of that game and EVERY INNING OF EVERY GAME the entire season. For any human being, that’s impressive. At his age, that’s incredible. Gary was our field general, he rarely threw the ball away, and we all know he got way under the opposing players’ skin. He was a huge part of the team’s success.
It wasn’t until Game 6 that I finally stepped onto the field alongside my dad. I had heard all about his career as a sure-handed infielder and a very difficult out at the plate, but I had yet to see him play. He had never seen “The Stance.” We won the game that day. It was a very special experience for both of us.
Around that point in the season, I looked around at the league and realized, “You know what? I think we have the best team.” With Team Cronstein, I saw a sharp pitcher, a sound defense and a batting order with no holes.
The Team went on to finish 2nd in the first half, a remarkable feat considering those first two run-rule losses.
Another “Almost” Trophy
After splitting the first four games of the second half, The Team caught fire, running the table in the final four games of the regular season. Unfortunately, despite finishing with the best overall record in the league, Team Cronstein finished second in both halves, meaning the players missed out on a trophy…
“We’ll just have to win the whole damn thing to get our trophy,” Adam said after the final regular season game.
The Tournament (Single Elimination)
Sparked by 11-hole hitter Mark Bloom’s moonshot triple to left in the bottom of the 5th, Team Cronstein staged a dramatic come from behind win against Team Rosenthal in Round One, avoiding the dreaded 8 vs 1 upset. The victory was bittersweet, as first round draft pick Jeff Finkelstein blew out his hamstring midway through that ballgame, relegating his status to unknown for the rest of the tournament.
After surviving that scare, The Team played loose and free in Round 2, dispatching Team Weisser, 9-2, setting up the matchup everybody wanted to see: Cronstein versus Guttman. 1-seed versus 2-seed. A rubber match for all the marbles.
The Championship Game
On a windy, overcast Wednesday evening at Triple Creek, the teams took the field to battle for the 70th JCC Softball League championship trophy. Opposing captain Brandon Guttman was not able to make it to the game, so he selected the powerful Matt Steinberg as his sub.
Team Guttman scratched across two horseshit runs in the top of the first inning, both scoring on wild pitches, one reaching base on a jam-shot chopper. The Team started slow at the plate as I ended our half of the frame with a weak popout to right center.
In the top of the 3rd, Ken “Hack Wilson” Groh made a mistake to Steinberg, leaving the ball over the plate and elevated. Steinberg lifted a high drive to left center, and it carried over the fence for a 2-run homer.
The Team now found itself in a 4-0 hole against a pitcher (Mike Gray) who hadn’t allowed a run since the first round of the tournament.
Cue Gene Hackman’s character Coach Norman Dale in the movie Hoosiers: “Maybe they were right about us! Maybe we don’t belong up here!”
But The Team is The Team. A Team with a batting order completely filled with threats from leadoff to the final spot. A Team that played extremely well defensively throughout the season. A Resilient Team.
In the bottom of the 4th, Captain of the Year Adam Cronstein led off with a laser up the middle, then advanced to second on an outfielder muff. “Hack” Groh followed up with an identical laser up the middle to get The Team on the board as Cronstein sped home.
That brought me to the plate. Before the at-bat, I asked Jeff Weisbrot for some advice. I had been popping the ball up of late. I just wanted to hit a line drive. I contemplated scrapping “The Stance” for the traditional approach. When I walked up to the plate, something told me to stick with “The Stance,” but to revert back to the way I was calmly and effortlessly swinging that whiffle ball bat four months earlier.
Gray started me off with a big juicy cleavage ball, belt-high and on the outer portion of the plate, so I took a Zen-like poke at it and drove a high fly ball to dead center field. As I rounded first, I saw the outfielders running out of real estate… and then the ball dropped on the other side of the fence.
The Team pulls to within 4-3. We’ve got ourselves a ballgame. Three straight drill-jobs off of Mike Gray.
But Gray would settle down. As his team was tacking on two more 2-spots, one coming on Steinberg’s second tater of the game, he allowed a single run over the next couple of innings. When The Team came to bat in the last of the seventh, trailing 8-4, things looked bleak for one side and like aces for the other.
Who’s Writing This Screenplay?
Wouldn’t ya know it…The Team would send the “bottom of the order” to the plate in that final frame. Or so Team Guttman thought. You see, there’s no “bottom of the order” on The Team. There’s just The Order. You get through the first four hitters, then you’re dealing with the three best veterans in the League…you get through them, you’re dealing with the RBI Rabbi and his Four Horsemen.
Yitzi Creeger, “The RBI Rabbi,” put a real nice swing on one to lead off the inning but unfortunately hit the ball directly to Steinberg in left center for the first out. Ben Rodriguez (yes, he is a Jew) then sent a ground ball to second baseman Matt Hiudt…oh no, will it be two outs and nobody on? Of course not. This is Hollywood. Hiudt yipped the throw over the first baseman’s head.
Was that the break The Team needed?
Well, after Brent Canseco (Carroll) moistened all the panties in the stands with an absolutely stroked double to deep, deep left center and Mark Bloom followed with a lashed base knock to left, the momentum laid solely with The Team and the tightness emanated in Gray and the rest of Team Guttman.
Mike Askin “The Quiet Assassin” stepped to the plate as the lineup turned over. He’d had a rough night at the dish up to that point. But this is The Team. Askin promptly laid into a high fastball and drove a rocket into left field for a double, setting the stage for Captain of the Century Cronstein, who now miraculously represented the Tournament-winning run.
High drama on Field 2 at Triple Creek Park.
Cronstein wasted no time Stan Musial’ing a frozen rope to left center to tie the game. The captain raced around to 3rd on the play, placing the winning run 90 feet away.
After Team Guttman elected to intentionally walk “Hack” Groh and me to load the bases, the stage was set for who else, Jeff “Marty Finkhowser” Finkelstein. After an internal debate, Fink decided to bat left-handed.
At this point, Team Guttman is shell shocked. An 8-4 lead had evaporated, and now the bases are loaded with one man out.
Fink wastes no time and sends a high fly ball down the right field line. What should the right fielder do? Let it drop? But what if it lands in fair territory? Gray yelled for his defender to let it drop, seeing the ball tail into foul territory. But the fielder made the catch. Cronstein tagged up from 3rd and zipped home to clinch the title.
In that video, you can see my grandma, Ruth Berg, delighted and in disbelief at the same time. She was there representing her late husband, the great Bob Berg, who used to come to all the games before he passed away unexpectedly two years ago. Grandpa Bobby knew the game inside and out, and he would yell out things like “Move in! This guy can’t hit” and “All he does is bunt!” He was so well respected that after he passed, one of the umpires joined my dad’s team for a ceremonial pre-game shot of Maker’s Mark whiskey. That umpire, a fella named Lee, was (naturally) behind the plate for the championship game.
Did Bob Berg have a hand in his son and grandson’s triumph? Well, the wind was blowing out that night. And The Team somehow managed to rally from four runs down in the final inning to clinch the title.
All in all, it was a special rookie season for me in the JCC Softball League alongside my father. Even with my insane imagination, I don’t believe I could’ve written a better screenplay than the one my dad, myself and all of Team Cronstein just lived.
Top row, left to right: Jeff Finkelstein, Gary Askin, Mike Askin, Danny Cronstein’s hair, Adam Cronstein, Yitzi Creeger, Brent Carroll, Mark Bloom. Bottom row, left to right: Justin “Jux” Berg, Johnny Berg, Ken Groh, Ben Rodriguez. Not pictured: Scott “Shorty” Adams
(Editor’s note: The player not pictured in the team photo is a good fella named Scott Adams. His nickname is “Shorty,” for reasons unknown to most. He batted last in the order, but he contributed, just like the rest of the fellas. He laid down numerous important sac bunts and had an extremely key sacrifice fly in Round One of the tournament right after the aforementioned Bloom triple. In the field, well, I’ll leave that to his sarcastic/hilarious son Jay, who had two of the great all-time quotes:
1) After Shorty fielded a ground ball at second, had plenty of time, but errantly threw the softball to first (way up the first base line, Rodriguez had nary a chance of coming near it, let alone catching it)—Shorty comes off the field at the end of the inning to the tune of, “Jeez man, what was that throw?” from Jay.
2) After that same ballgame, as Shorty and Jay were leaving the dugout, I said, “Way to hit the ball today, Shorty” and he said “Thanks” and then Jay turned and said, “And that golden glove.”
Well-placed, Jay, well-placed.)
(Editor’s note #2: Brent “Canseco” Carroll never ever played baseball before! In fact, in his entire life, he had only played two games of softball before this season! And he crushed the ball and was really solid in the field at multiple positions! How is that possible? Because this is Hollywood, that’s how.)
(Editor’s note #3: Before the championship game, my dad came over to me and asked, “Is it good luck or bad luck if a bird poops on you?” He pointed to a stain on his right shoulder. “It’s definitely good luck,” I replied.)