Before Monday night’s clash between the East Hampton Town men’s slow-pitch softball league’s top two teams, the defending-champion Schenck Fuels and CfAR, a team without a sponsor that has adopted the Citizens for Access Rights logo, about 15 minutes was spent filling in a deep hole in shallow center field so that fielders would not risk injury.
That bit of deferred maintenance — it took three or four full buckets of dirt from the woods abutting the field to fill it — could serve as an apt metaphor for this season: The slow-pitch league, which once numbered 14 teams in two divisions, has fallen on hard times.
There are only five teams now, and one, as aforesaid, has anted up what a sponsor normally would pay; the scoreboard — or its control board — doesn’t work; the game had to be stopped in the top of the fourth inning until some softballs, fouled off either onto Abraham’s Path or into the woods off the right-field line, could be hunted down, and nobody knows quite why this decline in what used to be a buoyant local pastime has occurred.
“Be sure to say we want more teams,” Ray Wojtusiak, CfAR’s player-manager, said at the end of the game, which his team had won 12-11, thus clinching the pennant and the top seed in the playoffs, which are to begin at the Terry King ball field tomorrow night.
“Five teams — horrible,” the Fuelmen’s manager, Rich Tuthill, said before the game began. “I’ve never seen it like this. . . . I don’t know what it is.”
Rich Schneider, the league’s longtime spokesman and one of its umpires, said he didn’t know the cause, either. An aging population? More enthusiasm on the part of young people for lacrosse, soccer, surfing? Less leisure time because of the demands of summer work? Rising fees, the result of costs passed on by a budget-paring town government? Or all of the above.
At any rate, onto the game, which was, as slow-pitch softball goes, a good one, not a blowout.
CfAR, the visitors that night, jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the first on a bases-loaded two-out, two-run single by Brian Pfund, the team’s sixth hitter. Schenck’s got one back in the bottom of the second, which Jerry Uribe led off with a triple to right. The next batter, Beau Lawler, drove him in with a hot shot up the middle that almost took the pitcher Rob Nicoletti’s foot off.
A two-out, two-run home run well over the right-field fence by Vinnie Alversa made it 3-2 Schenck’s in the bottom of the third, but CfAR wrested the lead back, at 4-3, with a two-run shot over the left-field fence by Chris Pfund in the top of the fourth.
An unearned run traced to an error by Andy Tuthill, who was playing short in place of Adam Gledhill that night, treated CfAR to a 5-3 lead in the top of the fifth, but the defending champions once again went up by one in their half of the inning thanks to a two-run single by Tuthill and a sacrifice fly by Brendan Fennel that made it 6-5 Schenck’s.
Neither team scored in the sixth, but CfAR made tracks with seven runs — all unearned — in the top of the seventh. Doug Dickson, the Fuelmen’s veteran pitcher, bobbled a soft comebacker hit his way by Nick Jarboe to begin the denouement, and after Marco Serra lined out to Lawler at third, Schenck’s third baseman threw wide of second base in going for a forceout there after fielding a grounder by Nicoletti.
Then the floodgates opened. Wojtusiak tied the score with a line single to left, Diego Palomo drove in two more with a base hit up the middle, Bill Collins followed with a scorching r.b.i. single off Lawler’s glove, and Andrew Foglia, the cleanup batter, whom Dickson had held in check till then, striking him out in the first, inducing him to pop out to short in the third, and getting him to hit into a force play at second in the fifth, poled a monster three-run shot into the parking lot behind the left-field fence for a 12-6 CfAR lead.
It seemed as if Schenck’s was finished, but they came back with five runs of their own in their last at-bat — the big hits being a bases-loaded run-scoring single by Alversa, a three-run triple by Fennel that got by Palomo in right-center, and a two-out r.b.i. single by Lawler — falling just short at 12-11, as aforesaid.
The big win improved Wojtusiak’s team to 10-1 with one game to play in the regular season, and dropped Schenck Fuels to 8-3, also with one game left.
CfAR had defeated the Fuelmen 18-13 in their first meeting, on May 30. Schenck’s evened the series on June 20, stonewalling the Access Rightists 22-11. Monday’s was the rubber game.
All five teams are to participate in the double-elimination playoffs, which are to begin tomorrow with the second seed versus the fifth seed, and with the third seed versus the fourth seed. The winners are to play a best-of-three semifinal series beginning Monday. In the lower bracket, the top seed, which is to receive a first-round bye, will play the upper bracket’s lower-seeded loser Monday and the higher-seeded loser Wednesday. Should the top seed be upset in either of its lower-bracket contests, a semifinal game would be played Friday, July 20.
A best-of-five final will determine the playoff championship. The same playoff format, said Schneider, will be used by the women’s league.