“All right, Adam, don’t be the piece of garbage we know you are!”
A yellow softball whiffs over home plate, but good-natured insults are landing hard and fast at the double-header championship of L.A.’s Comedy Softball League.
Weekly games are on Sundays at Venice’s Penmar Recreation Center, field No. 5. No one bothers with batting helmets or catcher's gear. First- and third-base coaches rotate throughout the batting order. Players’ dogs watch the proceedings from the shade. Bagels, donuts and cookies abound.
Comedy Central vet Leah Kayajanian, who played softball from the time she was 6 through high school, established the first coed team in 2015. A second quickly followed. She organized a four-team league last year under the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks. In spring 2017, the league grew to five teams.
The Bringers and the Slugs are out of tournament play. After walloping the Fighting Hangovers 24 to 15 in game two, Kayajanian’s Slayers face the top-seeded Hacks. Under manager Robert Vertrees, a former boxer, the Hacks lost only one game all season — to the Slayers. Now the Hacks’ best pitcher is out with a broken wrist, other players are at work or in New York, and yet another is nursing a recently busted ankle. The Slayers have a chance.
At the top of the deciding match, Slayers pitcher Pat Barker hits a double, sending a runner to third base. “Hey Bruce, that’s how you slide into third!” The Hacks’ Bruce Gray, who, at 24, is the league’s youngest player, waggles his wrapped ankle and raises his middle finger.
Fighting Hangovers players have stuck around to root against the Hacks. “C’mon Duong, do what you did to us!” one cheers as dependable Slayers hitter Alex Duong enters the batter’s box.
While comics naturally bond with others early in their careers, Comedy Softball fosters a different camaraderie than that forged among dark clubs, tough crowds and the merciless grind.
“When we’re trying to make each other laugh, we’re just doing it for the fun of it, and enjoying each other’s company,” Kayajanian says. “It actually helps us get to know people outside of stand-up.”
Play stops as two adults and three children cut across the outfield without so much as an apologetic glance. The Slayers and Hacks grumble in a united front. “Why aren’t you in church?” someone says, half-kidding.
The Slayers’ once-commanding 7-1 lead dwindles. When Vertrees tears home from third base, Barker leaves the mound for the catch and tag. The two collide on the baseline and go down. “He was blocking the plate!” the Hacks shriek of Barker. Mark Goldberg, league umpire of six years, upholds the out.
Barker rises and massages his knee. Vertrees, kneading his lower back, winces. “Oh, he pulled something!” one of the Fighting Hangovers says. “Oh, he pulls something every game,” another points out.
It’s 9-9 in the final inning. The Fighting Hangovers chant, “Tie! Tie! Tie!” from the bleachers. “Let’s go, guys!” Kayajanian rallies. “This is where heroes are made!”
When the Hacks squeak by 10-9, there’s surprisingly little razzing. Most players just seem relieved no serious injuries occurred.
“That was kind of intense,” Kayajanian admits. “The heckling wasn’t as light-hearted as usual.”
“I think there are more insults in games where the outcome isn’t in question,” echoes Vertrees. “If one team is up so much we already know who’s winning, then people loosen up and the insults start flying more freely.
“I feel bad for the umpires,” he continues. “If they’re not given some kind of warning or heads-up before coming to our game, I can just imagine what it’s like walking into a bunch of comedians saying the things we say to each other.”
The teams relocate to a few miles north to Busby’s bar for generous shots, post-game analysis and early planning for next season. They might start assigning non-playing teams to bleacher heckling duty, maybe film the games with an eye toward pitching a project someday.
Goldberg loads his umpire gear into his truck. “They were about average talent for what I’d expect of comedian softball players,” he assesses. “But they’re not as competitive as most others. They definitely seem to have more fun.”
The Comedy Softball League’s fall season begins Sept. 10. Registration is $60 per person. Interested parties can contact Leah Kayajanian via social media.