It was like a scene from a baseball movie. The park lights shone brightly in the top of the fourth inning, the bases were loaded, and the crowd held its breath as the sound of a bat cracking a ball into the sky echoed across Randall Park in Freeport.
That was one recent softball game. There have been many such games since May 25, when Elvis Baez, 39, and his friend Frank Peña, 42, joined forces to launch the Freeport Men’s Softball League. The league, they say, is a passion project and an opportunity to challenge others to friendly, but fiercely competitive games of softball.
Organizing a “brand-spanking” new league, Baez said, has been a challenge. The expense of it alone has run into the thousands of dollars. According to Peña, the support that the league has received from the village officials, family members, friends and sponsors has been overwhelming.
The league plays every Friday night through the end of the month. The men bought 800 softballs, which they believed would be enough to make it through the league’s championships. “I didn’t realize all of the work that went into trying to formally get a league started up,” Baez said in his native Spanish. “But it’s been a adventure.”
Baez, originally from the Dominican Republican, moved from East Rockaway to Freeport when was he was 12. As he was growing up, his life centered on baseball and he even played for the Freeport High School team.
Now raising two daughters, Hannah, 4 and Rihannah, 4, taking them to and from ballet, while also running his Baby First Daycare in Freeport with his wife, Ana Reyes, Baez has limited time for baseball or softball. Still, he thought there should be a local league.
“I love baseball,” Baez said. “It’s my life. That’s why I knew I had to do something, because I knew I couldn’t be the only one itching to get out to play.”
After attending a party with other baseball fans in January, he decided he would launch a league of some kind in Freeport. He later learned that the village had been the home of a Latino softball league for more than 20 years before it disbanded eight years ago. Eager to start a new one, Baez, its president and Peña, its vice president, canvassed their neighborhoods and chatted with close friends to rally players and supporters.
“I saw my husband get so excited as he started forming the league,” Reyes said. “It was something I know meant a lot to him, and though it keeps him away from home on game days, I’m happy to see him happy.”
Peña, a resident of Franklin Square who is of Dominican Republic and Ecuadorian descent, is the father of three, Solangel, 20, Lucas 16 and Satchel, 14. He said the biggest challenge of starting the league was getting people to believe it was “back and stronger than ever,” after he quickly realized that Freeporters believed that the new league was the same as the old one.
“We had to show everyone that we were a league of our own,” Peña said in his native Spanish. “Little by little, everyone who was serious about playing started coming around.”
The Freeport Men’s Softball League has more than 100 players and five teams sponsored and named after local Freeport businesses — Dazzling Spa, Work ‘N Wear, Metro West Water, Guy Lombardo Food Center and Gala Food Supermarket.
Besides the players, each week a string of team managers, umpires, scorekeepers and even a live D.J. attend the games in Randall Park.
“The players aren’t just competing for a championship trophy,” Baez said. “The best team wins an all-expenses-paid trip to the Dominican Republic.”
“You can say it gets competitive,” Peña said with a laugh.
While bachata, guitar music from the Dominican Republic, recently played and burgers sizzled on a grill, the Dazzling Spa and Los Foforos teams went head to head, while spectators cheered and even heckled throughout the game. Children played a game of baseball of their own behind the bleachers, while others argued over which was the better team was. It was a typical Friday night.
“I play in the Juncalito League in Copiague, but my brother, Edwin, plays here in Freeport,” Eric Then, 33, from Copiague, said. “I like coming out here to watch these guys play and have been thinking about joining them next season.”
For Baez and Peña, starting the league was also a way to become role models in the community. They have hopes of using their love for the game to influence teenagers to consider joining the league so they stay out of trouble, according to Baez.
“There’s such a negative stigma about Latino men,” Baez said. “We want to change the conversation and share this with them and our community to help keep them off the streets.”
Though the league is primarily comprises of Hispanic men from all parts of Latin America, anyone who wants to play can join, Peña said. “If a woman wants to join us,” Baez said, “we wouldn’t oppose it. We’re here to play.”
“We’re open to anyone who wants to participate and play a good game,” Peña said. “At the end of it, it’s about coming out here and playing a good game of softball.”
Ultimately, according to Baez, he and Peña hope they can eventually start raising money to donate to local charities and support some of the youth leagues. But because they’re only in their first year, and a nonprofit organization in its early stages, it’s something they’re working on gradually. The intent, in 2019, is to add a sixth team and even host a draft with their players.
“We’re so grateful to our sponsors,” Baez said. “When we approached them with our ideas and plans, they jumped right away without hesitation.”
Visiting from Union City, N.J., Elizabeth Galimore, 33, heard about the game from a friend and made the trip to Freeport. She said attending the game was a way to shake things up and support local sports.
“Normally, catching a Yankee game is fun, but seeing these guys play was really cool,” Galimore said. “They were so animated, and because they were into the game, I got into it. I caught myself cheering for the Foforos.”--