The Sound and Fury of Media Softball

Congratulations to repeat champions Chartbeat, who doused the comeback hopes of former champs, The Wall Street Journal

Thunder rumbled, and lightning flashed progressively closer to Central Park as the New York Media Softball League playoffs commenced on Saturday, September 9. Weather had plagued the league the whole season, with an unusual number of rainouts and airouts because of the Canadian wildfires in June. It had rained the night before these games, and it was uncertain whether the playoffs could go forward as scheduled. “As of yesterday, I thought we wouldn’t get it in,” said league commissioner Steve Bloom. “It didn’t keep raining, thankfully, but now it’s threatening. We’ve never had a rain delay or rainout in the middle of the playoffs. We’ve had rainouts where we have to cancel and reschedule, but never while we’re playing in the playoffs it pours.” They’d keep playing, he said, “until the park people come along and tell us ‘You can’t play.’”

The season had been notably off-kilter. The league had lost a team before it began. Each team is required to have at least two women in the lineup, but New York Public Radio coach Caryn Havlik built a team that went well beyond that minimum, fielding as many as seven. This inspired gripes. “It just didn’t fit with the league. We tried to expand to three women at one of our last meetings. I supported Caryn’s effort to do that, but we couldn’t get enough teams to back that, because they have a hard time getting even two qualified women,” Bloom said. “They were often playing four or five women and not being competitive. One time I said to Caryn, ‘I wish you’d be more competitive.’ She got mad at me and that was that. She didn’t want to talk to me ever again because I’d made a comment that was kind of hinting that the women weren’t good enough. I was saying, ‘You really can’t play like this in this league and win, or even be competitive in the games. So be competitive in this league.’ And she just refused.” Havlik did not respond to a request for comment, but two years ago, she told The Fine Print, “It is a little-known fact that sometimes softball can be unwelcoming to women.”

Further controversy came with the introduction of the league’s first-ever sponsor, Cornbread Hemp. The CBD company’s co-founders, cousins Eric Zipperle and Jim Higdon, came up from Kentucky to watch the playoffs, though it wasn’t their first stop of the day. “We went to the Beastie Boys festival” — the unveiling of Beastie Boys Square on the Lower East Side earlier that day — “and it took forever to get here,” Zipperle said. “We came in this weekend to seal the deal on the sponsorship and make sure we got out here and shook some hands.” They’d been inspired when the much larger CBD brand Charlotte’s Web formed a partnership with Major League Baseball last year. “We’re nowhere near that size, but we wanted to sponsor a sports league that fit what we were up to,” Higdon said. “A scrappy media league in Central Park fit our vibe.” They rolled in with a big sign, a folding table, and gummies to hand out to the players.

Cornbread had put up $8,000, initially meant to be split, with $1,000 going to each team. Some teams were relieved to have someone else take on the financial burden. “Permits are like $500 right there. A case of balls is $150. It’s an expensive hobby,” said High Times Bonghitters coach Mike Safir. “Back in the day, when we were really with High Times, High Times would cover everything, which was awesome. We had a $50-a-game budget for drinks.” But The Wall Street Journal and Euromoney turned the money down. “I had to say we can’t accept it,” said Wall Street Journal coach Jared Diamond, though individual players were happy to pick up some samples. The sponsors didn’t seem salty. “It’s old school journalism ethics,” said Higdon, a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and sometime contributor to The Washington Post and Politico. “It’s good to see it in action still.”

Reigning champions Chartbeat — wearing their customary “You Ain’t Safe” shirts — faced off against the High Times Bonghitters in one of the semifinals. The Bonghitters had struggled this season, as they have in recent years, with an aging team that’s had trouble recruiting since the magazine they had once been associated with moved across the country. As Chartbeat racked up runs, their opponents’ anxieties focused on the weather. “It’s a fun league. I just wish we weren’t playing in this thunderstorm. It feels very dangerous,” said Austin Lyon, a rare new recruit. With the threat of lightning seeming ever more pertinent, he got nervous picking up a bat “and just standing in the outfield. In Africa, people get struck by lightning all the time because there’s not a ton of tall buildings. If you read Trevor Noah’s book, he details that people in his family got struck four times.”

“We’re risking our fucking lives, really,” another Bonghitter erupted. A huge rumble of thunder sounded. “Go fuck yourself,” he shouted at Bloom. “I’ll throw you out of the league,” the commissioner warned. “Use common fuckin’ sense,” the player responded. “What? Because of fuckin’ money? You couldn’t cancel the thing?” “Shut the fuck up already! Stop it. Alright? We’re handling it,” Bonghitters pitcher Rob Aguelli told the player. “The umpire should be doing it. It’s safety and shit,” responded his teammate, sounding perhaps momentarily mollified. “We’re handling it,” Aguelli repeated. “Enough! It should have been handled hours ago,” the player shouted. “I’m the only one fuckin’ talking shit. You wouldn’t do anything if I wasn’t here, so go fuck yourselves.” “If I’d go fuck myself, I wouldn’t have to leave my house,” Aguelli said. The thunder rolled again, and the player stormed off with Lyon.

“That guy’s a lunatic,” Bloom mused. “You’re really going to get hit by lightning in the middle of the outfield? Back in our day, when we started this league, we played in every fucking weather, and now it’s like the slightest bit of rain, and they cancel games.”

Still, the Bonghitters played on, ultimately losing 12-4. “Chartbeat does not have anyone over the age of 50, I think it’s safe to say,” Safir noted. Maybe 40, this reporter suggested. “I’m 39 in nine months, so I’m a little sensitive about the 40 thing. I’m still super young and cool,” he said before turning to Chartbeat celebrating a victory beyond the backstop. “I’m sorry, is anyone on your team over 40? We just have to know. No? One person? Is anyone 39? Is anyone 38? Is anyone 37?” he spiraled until a reassuring shout came back. “AJ’s 45! Okay, good. He’s older than me. That’s awesome. They’ve got one guy who’s older than me,” Safir said. “We’ve got to get some younger people, obviously.”

A row of geese stood in for an audience under tree cover as The Wall Street Journal took on BuzzFeed in the other semifinal two fields away. Though the Journal holds the most championships in the history of the league, they’d had a rough few years, and this season felt like a comeback. They wore “IStandWithEvan” T-shirts which had been distributed to the newsroom after Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was arrested in March for doing his job in Russia, where he continues to be detained. “People this season have asked, ‘What is that shirt?’” Diamond said. It wasn’t just that feeling of solidarity with their colleague that carried them. “During COVID, we rarely had our A-team. So that was a big thing. This year we had our A-lineup more,” Diamond said. “And obviously, Luke joining the company really helped.”

Luke Ratchford had played baseball all his life, though he switched his focus to wrestling when the competition proved too stiff at his Philadelphia prep school. “I went in there thinking I was gonna go D1 and then got quickly humbled when guys were 6-3 in ninth grade. So then I just worked my way onto the roster, and I was a pitcher,” he said. “NYU had an intramural league, and that’s how I stayed sharp in college.” After he joined Dow Jones in February 2022, he stood out as an obvious asset to the team.

The game had been delayed by a late umpire. By the time he arrived, the rain situation was threatening to turn dire. “I don’t think we’re finishing this game,” Diamond noted not long after they got going. But it went on, and the skies began to clear. BuzzFeed had reigned as champions for two seasons before Chartbeat’s victory last year, but they seemed to have lost that energy and momentum. The Journal closed it out with a 5-2 victory.

Before the final, the rain seemed to stop, but it started drizzling again as the game got going. A Journalplayer wheeled his electric scooter under a tree. “It’s not exactly weatherproof, so I don’t know how I’m getting home,” he said. It promised to be a competitive matchup. The Journal was the only team that had beaten Chartbeat this season, with a 1-0 victory on the Journal’s home turf. Chartbeat had prevailed 8-7 in their follow-up match-up. Those hopes fell apart rather more quickly than expected. Chartbeat ran up runs with merciless rapidity, finishing the season with an 18-2 blowout while a seemingly oblivious couple shot wedding photos in the grass nearby.

“Having a team try and repeat a championship, there’s a real mental hurdle of expectation and keeping it fun,” said Chartbeat coach Mark Davis. “We did our best to do that.” No team in the league has broken a two-championship streak since the Journal’s fourth consecutive win in 2012. Will the pressure get to Chartbeat next year? Davis seemed unflustered. “I think we can go for three,” he said.