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Home runs and High Life: The Philadelphia Amateur Baseball league and the resurgence of America’s pastime

It’s a Sunday, and the weather’s hot and sunny after early morning rain, a perfect afternoon for baseball. Alejandro Hohmann waits on second base during a pitching change. In a few moments, he’ll tag up to third, then score a run on a base hit. His team, the Narwhals, will take a 4-0 lead and slap plenty of high-fives on their bench.

They are grown men playing baseball, an unusual sight. The game is generally reserved for professionals, school teams or children. And a few years ago, Hohmann and the others who participate in the Philadelphia Amateur Baseball league could’ve only dreamed about playing a full game with nine players on each side. More than likely their best option for a summer sport activity on a Sunday would have been the sports du jour for most 20-somethings in Philadelphia, like kickball and softball. But the Philadelphia Amateur Baseball league is in the middle of its fifth official season. One-hundred-twelve players comprise eight teams. It’s real baseball, with nine-inning games, a paid umpire, playoffs and home runs, years after the players thought they’d have to give up the game.

“We have people who have been playing baseball their whole life,” says Keith Marchiafava, another longtime member of the league, “and people who didn’t get to play as much as they should have, as well as people who haven’t played at all.”

The league started five years ago when Hohmann, Marchiafava and some others got together a few friends for pickup baseball on Memorial Day weekend and continued playing a little throughout the summer. The next year they made the league official and had enough people for three teams. Most of the players were friends. They had mainly attended Central or George Washington high schools or were students at Temple or University of the Arts. They’d celebrate every game that first year by shotgunning a can of Miller High Life when it ended.

“That was part of the dues,” Hohmann says.

Marchiafava says “people came out of woodwork” over the next couple of seasons. Calvin Washington, a pitcher, heard about the league at the Central five-year high school reunion. Others heard about it from coworkers or just saw them on the diamond. Marchiafava says the league now features players from nearly every corner of the city and from jobs ranging from lawyers to accountants to security guards to a garbageman. Hohmann would like to see the league expand to 12 teams eventually (the price this year was $175 for returning players and $200 for new ones).

Like professions and residences, skill levels vary. Washington played JV ball at Central. Some of the guys used to play in college. Another player recently immigrated from India. He was a good cricket player but had never played baseball until joining the league. Jim Brady (not to be confused with Billy Penn founder Jim Brady) says he once tried out for the Wilmington Blue Hens minor league team and made the fourth cut. He pitched six scoreless innings for the Narwhals on Sunday, smoking a cigarette between nearly every inning.

Most players are in their 20s, with pitcher Jim Zastowney the biggest exception. He’s the oldest player in the league at 58. Washington describes Zastowney as the league’s Jamie Moyer, a guy who can really throw a “slurve.” Two years ago, Zastowney struck out 15 or 16 batters in one game, an urban-legend-sounding event that was confirmed by multiple players.

“You gotta understand,” Zastowney says. “Every pitch I threw could’ve been my last one.”

Zastowney would know. He has unfortunately thrown what probably is his last. A couple weeks ago, he broke his right hand when he was hit by a pitch. He says his playing career is over.

Philadelphia Amateur Baseball is not the only option for rec baseball in the city. There’s the Greater Philadelphia Men’s Adult Baseball League and the Liberty Bell Men’s Baseball League. Philadelphia Amateur Baseball League is young and fun. Though players want to win, Hohmann says it’s a little more care-free than the city’s other leagues.

“Fun and baseball, that’s the first priority,” he says. “Winning is the second priority.”

But they’re getting older, too. The High Life tradition has been shelved for something little tamer: enjoying a couple of drinks after the games.

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