In America, most adults associate softball with drinking in the presence of co-workers. Not so in places like Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, where vigorous young men favor the game over baseball, and play it with utter seriousness (postgame drinking is still traditional). Staten Islander Gregg Leather, impresario of the Broken Bow Gremlins softball team, is familiar with both approaches. Over the past twenty years, the genial NYPD sergeant has turned what was once a typical neighborhood team into a multinational juggernaut with travel expenses of more than $100,000 a year and more players from New Zealand than New York. Earlier this month, the Gremlins were named top seed at the International Softball Congress World Tournament in Kitchener, Ontario (60 miles west of Toronto).
Though said Softball Congress doesn’t register on the sports radar of most Americans, the best players are world-class athletes, and the Gremlins only got there via a slow and arduous process of natural softball selection. When he started playing with the team that became the Gremlins in 1987, Leather was 21 years old and fresh out of the Police Academy (the team included a number of other cops). Initial success in local leagues and tournaments snowballed in Yankees-like fashion, as anyone who quit was immediately replaced with top talent from weaker teams. Eventually, the club attracted the attention of an Albany-area developer named Bruce Tanski, the highly driven sponsor of a less-successful team. Tanski offered to finance a merged squad on two conditions: that they wear green uniforms (it’s his favorite color), and that they be called the Gremlins.
Though green is hardly his favorite color, Leather accepted, and after the merger, the only competitor that could give the super-squad a run for its money was another New York team, named Patsy’s after the favorite restaurant of its obsessive sponsor. The arms race between the two teams was so intense that last year’s championship tournament (in the less-competitive division in which the team played at the time) was canceled because not a single other team signed up to play against them. “It was the best team I ever coached,” said Leather, “and I had nothing to show for it.”
This year, consequently, the Gremlins jumped up to the highest level of competition. The team included three former college baseball players from Arizona, and six softball nomads from New Zealand and Australia. Tanski housed five of them in one of his apartment buildings up in Clifton Park. The developer is such a workaholic that he rarely attends the games of the club he pays so handsomely for, which is somewhat understandable—teams prepare for the world championships by playing tournaments wherever they can be found. (This year the Gremlins traveled to locations ranging from South Bend, Indiana, to Vancouver.)
Despite the top seeding in the world tournament two weeks ago, the Gremlins made it through only three rounds before running into the So Cal Bombers, a team from Yucaipa, California, armed with an Argentine pitching sensation named Lucas Mata. Mata struck out fourteen Gremlins in seven innings, and they were dropped to the losers’ bracket—from which they were then bounced in a nail-biting one-run loss to their old archrivals, Patsy’s. (The tournament’s eventual champ was another international team sponsored by a bar in Madison, Wisconsin.) Final finish: a disappointing fourth. Leather, who was considering retirement last year, vows he’ll be back next season. “We were short some hitters,” he says. “We just need some more sticks in the lineup.” Until then, he’ll have to take consolation in the one prize the club did take home from Ontario: a plaque attesting to their selection as 2007’s “Best-Dressed Team.”