Days two and three of the Ezra Schwartz Memorial Baseball Tournament (4/20 & 4/21) encompassed arguably the most unique Shabbat experience of any Yeshiva/Day School Athletic Shabbaton anywhere, as the life and leadership of Ezra Schwartz, z’l was evident in every aspect, from the baseball games before, to the memories shared during to the skills competition afterwards on a local field that bears Ezra’s name.
The early part of Friday saw the Flatbush Falcons play back-to-back games to finish off the round-robin preliminary contests, with the top two teams to face off late Sunday morning for the Tournament Championship (with the bottom two teams to playing for 3rd Place beforehand). The Boys from Brooklyn faced off with the West Coast kids from YULA for their second game of the Tournament. This time, Coach Elliot Zakay sent Ace hurler Dani Sharabi to the mound. Sharabi, coming off of tendinitis in his shoulder, showed that he felt no lingering effects from his sore arm, and was sharp on the hill from the get go. But, this being just the second time on the field for the Falcons, there were clearly a number of rough edges that needed to be sorted out, one of which was the catcher position. Mo Goldman, an outfielder by trade, had caught the day before, and this morning the team got its first look at rookie Kal Abed behind the plate. Abed had last played the position as an 8th Grader with the Middle Division Falcons, and it was clear that high school ball was a major step up. Abed gave a great effort, but his struggles to handle Sharabi’s fireballing fastballs allowed the Panthers to take a 5-run lead early in the game.
Coach Zakay then turned to another outfielder to try his hand behind the plate in Marty Elmekies. This move turned out to be a great find for Flatbush. Elmekies had been a catcher in youth ball, but with the middle Division team he played a top flight centerfield. His time away from behind the plate clearly had no negative effect as he quickly settled into the position, and things settled down from that point forward. Flatbush got a few hits here and there, with Maurice Mosseri, Jeff Zalta and Sol Franco along with Goldman getting on base. Franco’s elusive slid on a play at the plate pushed across Flatbush’s first run of the tournament. It was all they would get against YULA, though. Sharabi pitched a strong 7 innings for the complete game, but the Falcons were still working out the kinks and fell by a score of 9-1.
There was no rest for these Falcons, as they transferred from Sharon High School to nearby Sharon Middle School for their final preliminary game, a match up with the MYHSAL rival Frisch Cougars. Coach Zakay handed the ball to Alfred Sutton for the second time in two days, but he did not throw many pitches the day before against Maimonides, and with proper warm up this time, he was ready to go. But, the defense struggled early and Frisch jumped out to an early lead, which they extended to 9-0 by the end of the third inning.
Faced with the early end of the game by mercy rule, the Falcons were desperately in need of runs to force the game to be played out for the full 7 innings. The bats began to come alive, with Sol Laniado driving in a run with a groundout in the bottom of the fourth. The Cougars got it back in the top of the fifth, but the spark the Falcons got in the previous inning started to become a flame. Flatbush struck for 4 more runs, with hits coming from the bats of Abie Soussan, Mo Goldman and Maurice Mosseri, while the rest of the lineup began showing greater patience at the plate, drawing key walks to advance runners and prolong innings. Though the final score left Frisch the winners of a 12-5 decision, it was an encouraging performance by the Falcons.
Coach Zakay was very positive after the end of round-robin play, despite the 0-3 record to this point. “With the terrible weather we have had in New York this Spring, we really have not had the opportunity to really see what we are on the field. Coach Hall, Coach Beard and I are really looking at these four games as our pre-season. And though we want to win each one, it is more important to get the team to understand how to approach the game, for our pitchers to get comfortable on the mound and for our fielders to begin recognizing where the plays are in each situation. The bats seemed to finally coma alive in the late innings against Frisch, and that is a very good sign going forward.”
With the preliminary games completed, the focus of the tournament turned to Shabbat. All the participants gathered for Kabbalat Shabbat at the Young Israel of Sharon, the Schwartz family’s synagogue, where Ezra celebrated becoming Bar Mitzvah and where a plaque in his memory has a prominent place on the wall in the main sanctuary. After tefilot, all joined in the dining hall for se’udat shabbat. As with all meals, Ari and Ruth Schwartz shared memories of Ezra. Sometimes it was letters received from Ezra’s friends; sometimes it was musings written by Ezra – the most humorous of those being the essays he wrote as part of the consequences of earned detention at Maimonides School. Each brought to light the vigor and energy that imbued Ezra’s life.
Shabbat day brought the Tournament participants together again for tefilah and food at Young Israel. But it was the afternoon activities that made this event different from all others like it in the yeshiva athletic world. One of Ezra Schwartz’s passions was whiffle ball. He played it with his friends and he played it with his family. He turned his family back yard into a “stadium” for whiffle ball games, with a specific set of ground rules unique to the Schwartz back yard.
But, the best part was the way Ari Schwartz set the teams. With each team consisting of 5 players, each team had at least one member from Maimonides, one from Flatbush, one from Frisch and one from YULA – with the additional fifth from just one of the schools. With this arrangement, new teammates came together, and each of the school teams had at least one player representing them either in the field or at bat in every pairing. It is creating this spirit of unity, of breaking down barriers and bringing people together, that is what this event is partly all about. As the theme of the event goes, “Remembering Ezra Together!” There was one additional team, and that was the “home squad,” consisting of Ezra’s two youngest brothers and three additional friends. (A bit of foreshadowing – the home team’s familiarity with the ground rules and the playing field would be a huge advantage).
While this was the focal event of the afternoon, there was also a ping pong tournament in the basement along with a pool table that saw some action as well. Flatbush’s Sol Laniado and Marty Elmekies showed some skills with the table tennis paddles, and Dani Sharabi knocked down a few billiard balls with his deft handling of the cue stick. On the field, Flatbush’s Mo Goldman set the tone with a pair of home runs, from the left side of the plate (they carried over the pool and into the far trees). Additionally, Kal Abed made a nice play in the field. As the teams competed and the field was whittled down, it was clear that the contest would not be finished before having to return to the Young Israel. With the young Schwartz team having advanced to the final, the other semifinal contest – with Flatbush’s Goldman and Ricky Levy on one side and Flatbush’s Jeff Zalta on the other – was suspended with one inning to play (to be concluded during the Sunday afternoon BBQ).
After a brief rest, all returned to Young Israel for micha, se’udah shlishit, arvit and havdallah. But, the day’s events were not yet complete. One more was on the docket – Home Run Derby!
The Maimonides community turned out to see three representatives from each team step up to the plate with the goal of hitting as many dingers as they could. The contest would take place on the local Senior League field that now bears Ezra’s name, with 90′ basepaths and a pitching rubber 60′ 6″ from home plate, but with fences pulled in to the enticing distance of 200′. How many long balls would be needed to take home the Derby crown?
Before the contest, however, the Schwartz family held the “Opening Ceremonies,” postponed from Thursday night due to the need to push up the Flatbush-Maimonides game. With the players from each team occupying a baseline each (Flatbush was positioned on the first base line), Ari Schwartz welcomed all to the Tournament, every player and coach was introduced, the honorary first pitch was tossed out and with arms interlocked, a full group picture was taken.
With the pleasantries dispensed, it was time for the big boppers to take center stage. The order was set at random, and it had Faltbush’s Murray Dweck opening the contest, with fellow Falcons Sol Laniado hitting 9th and Simon Masry closing the opening round as the 12 and final batter. Each hitter would have the opportunity to slug as many homers as he could before recording 10 outs (an out would be any swing that did not result in a fair ball home run). The top 5 hitters would advance to the final round. Dweck selected teammate Alfred Sutton to pitch to him, and it was a good choice, as Dweck slammed his first pitch off the scoreboard in deep centerfield. The crowd errupted!
Dweck went on to set the early standard for those following him with 10 long balls.
Would it be enough to put him into the finals?
It readily appeared so, as the best the next 8 hitters could do was 9 (that by a Frisch Cougar). That brought Laniado to the plate, and he would have teammate Dani Sharabi serving up his pitches. It took Laniado a few swings to find his stroke, but he soon got locked in.
With each ensuing home run, the fans got louder and louder. In the end, he sent 16 balls into the Sharon night!
He was followed by a pair of YULA brothers, who hit 17 and 18 dingers respectively. That insured both Dweck and Laniado places in the finals. One more batter was left in the qualifying round, Flatbush’s Masry. He would need at least 9 to force a tie for the 5th and final spot. He, too, had Sharabi tossing his pitches, but Masry never found his home run swing. He fell way short of the 10 needed to advance, and the finals were set.
It was quickly clear that swinging for home runs again and again was not so easy. The final round provided each player with only 7 outs to work with, and the players clearly struggled with fatigue. In the end, Dweck and Laniado put up a good showing, but the crown went to one of the YULA Dahon brothers, with Flatbush’s Dweck and Laniado finishing in second and third place respectively. But the best part was seeing the event bringing the boys together (as the variety of hats in the dugout demonstrated clearly).
It was a long day, and it was time to get some rest, as morning would come early for Flatbush and Frisch, with an 8:00 am date to decide 3rd Place!
(Select photos courtesy of Steven Shostek Photography)