Friendship and the 4th on the field

A rivalry, nearly as old as Columbia itself, has been brewing for 34 years. Tomorrow, neighbors and friends will vie for bragging rights at a softball game where the sole purpose is fun.

July 03, 2005|By Tyrone Richardson | Tyrone Richardson,SUN STAFF

Tomorrow, under the sun-bleached water tower behind Harper's Choice Middle School, a July Fourth tradition nearly as old as Columbia itself will unfold as members of the Hesperus Wrecks and the Eliot's Oak Nuts again do battle.

The stakes may not be a nation's independence, but softball bragging rights for a year will do for these tongue-in-cheek holiday warriors, fresh from the traditional Longfellow neighborhood holiday parade.

"It means that you are part of a community, and you feel that you belong," said Bob Russell, the softball game umpire and event organizer. "You're part of a team, and you are having fun."

The idea for this neighborhood battle originated in 1971 as a group of friends were mingling along the lakefront during Columbia's birthday celebration.

John Lea, a resident in the Longfellow neighborhood, posed the idea of a beer softball game to the group of friends.

Lea said the group "quickly" decided with one expression: "Done."

"I don't think we really took a vote. We just decided, and that was it," he said.

In a matter of days, fliers seeking players littered the neighborhood.

Two teams - the Hesperus Wrecks and the Eliot's Oak Nuts - were formed based on the two main streets in this western Columbia neighborhood. The players were selected based on their proximity to either Hesperus Drive or Eliot's Oak Road.

When the first July Fourth game rolled around, a dump truck crept through the neighborhood, and one by one, each player jumped in. Once enough players were in the truck, the next stop was a nearby field.

The first game was a success, Lea said, filled with home runs, strikes, beer, peanuts and fun. It was the birth of an annual competition.

"This is just a friendly community rivalry," said Joseph Mazalewski, team manager of the Hesperus Wrecks.

The beer-softball match has been brewing for 34 years, and the event is a staple in the community's history. The game starts at high noon, right after the Longfellow Friends of the Tradition 4th Parade, at 10 a.m.

Tomorrow, the victors of the six-inning game gain bragging rights.

"The winner simply gets a pat on the back from everyone," Mazalewski said.

The event traditionally attracts many of the retired players and hundreds of spectators.

The game has changed over the years - today, women play, and the minimum age for participants is 16.

"Many kids look forward to being 16, just so they can play in the game," Russell said.

For the elders, this is a spectator sport and a time to get some beer and mingle.

"A lot of the old players come back," Russell said. "This is a reunion as well as a nice party for the kids."

Lea, 72, said he has not attended many of the games in a while, but, he remembers some funny times in its past.

"We had our first streaker during one of our games," he said. "He just appeared by the tree-line and walked around the other end of the woods."

Lea said there were times when people would forget the game was just for fun. He would simply solve the problem by stopping the game to hand them a beer to guzzle.

Lea also mentioned the time one player "ran" the bases in a bicycle.

"Whatever was silly, we did," he said. "It was a beautiful thing because nothing really mattered."

The teams don't practice for the game. The managers say whoever shows up from the neighborhood gets to play.

"It's just one and done," said Marty Quinn, manager of the Eliot's Oak Nuts.

Although "official" records say each team has won 17 times in the 34-year history of the game, Mazalewski and Quinn are a little skeptical, noting that a few games were rained out.

But they acknowledge the value in saying that the series is tied.

"It's going to bring more people to the game, and it's going to be good," Mazalewski said.

Said Lea: "Since this is the tie-breaker, I think some may have to wear [neck] ties."

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