Hardball Softball

When the closing bell sounds at the New York Stock Exchange, hard-charging brokers and clerks trade their wing tips for spikes and head for the playing fields of Jersey City. Welcome to Wall Street softball, where only the ball is soft.

Glowing under the orange night-game lights, Mary Benson Field looks like an image from an Edward Hopper exhibition. The baseball diamond is wedged between some sad, dirty buildings on the fringes of downtown Jersey City, New Jersey. Just beyond the outfield fence, an overpass of the New Jersey Turnpike bears a steady stream of long-haul trucks. But the Depression-era ambience vanishes when you notice Fred "Tuffy" Tufariello, 49, manager of the New York Stock Exchange softball team.

The NYSE team is the odds-on favorite to win the Wall Street Softball League's "world series," which plays out in the same place every October. But at this moment, Tufariello, a rotund, profanity-spewing smoker, doesn't like what he sees. NYSE is clinging to a precarious two-to-one lead over Atlantic Mutual, a team that it steamrolled in the series opener. Tonight, Tufariello's usually patient singles and doubles hitters are gunning for home runs — but coughing up pop-ups instead.

Michael Cavataio, 42, NYSE's center fielder, takes a Sammy Sosa-size swing at a fastball — and whiffs. "Leave the fences alone," barks Tufariello. "Get the lead runner on; that's how we play!"

Most of the 270,000 corporate softball teams in the United States play in coed or slow-pitch leagues. You know the score: The gang from the office chips in for a keg on a Friday night and whacks that big softball as it arcs lazily over home plate.

But NYSE plays modified fast pitch — a brand of softball that is hardball in almost every sense of the word. Sneakers are traded for spikes. Pitchers fire underhand balls at 40 MPH. Players spit, swear, and generally comport themselves like aging minor leaguers who've lost their shot at the majors but plan to go down swinging.

NYSE dominates the Wall Street Softball League, which comprises weekend warriors drawn from New York's large financial companies. From nine to five, NYSE players work for a handful of Wall Street brokerages. Some are clerks who work the floor at 18 Broad Street, taking buy and sell orders from large, institutional investors. Others are brokers who actually make the trades. All of them ply their craft in a fishbowl world that's crammed with video monitors, phone banks, and crowds of noisy men (virtually all are male) in polyester blazers who spend their days shouting and thrusting slips of paper at one another.

"We might be dealing with millions of dollars on a single trade," says NYSE first baseman Larry Jensen, 47, a broker with Bocklet & Co. "The pressure can eat you alive — unless you have a way to get rid of it."

That's where softball comes in. The baseball diamond is a safe haven, a place to reboot for another run on the Street. "At the end of a workday, you're mentally beat up," says Jimi Fagan, 45, the team's pitching ace and a broker at Lawrence Helfant & Co. "But then you hit the field, and you get to run around and scream and do something with your body."

As it turns out, NYSE's players are just as intense on the diamond as they are on the stock-exchange floor. They regard winning the league's world series as roughly on a par with nailing a big year-end bonus. That's why they drive to Jersey City on chilly autumn nights, change into their uniforms in an empty parking lot, and take the field before a crowd of exactly zero.

Will the bulls of NYSE prevail against scrappy Atlantic Mutual? The answer, it seems, depends largely on whether three of NYSE's blue-chip players and one manager turn in a market-beating performance.

Pitcher-Broker Jimi Fagan

From the dugout, Tufariello nervously eyes the chain-smoking Fagan as the star pitcher plows through Atlantic Mutual's lineup. "Hey Jimi, I've got the oxygen tank over here," rasps Tuffy, as Fagan lands another strike. The manager's admiration is total. Here, in the fourth inning of a one-run game, Fagan is the only thing that's keeping NYSE in the hunt.

By all rights, Fagan shouldn't even be on the mound. He retired two years ago from the team so he could spend more time with his teenage daughter, and to give his aching hamstrings a rest. Tufariello talked him into coming back as a part-time clutch pitcher this season. Now he's pitching each of the team's four world-series games.

Fagan's dark eyes seem to sink back into his head as he stares down Atlantic Mutual's cleanup hitter. In one alarmingly quick motion, he brings the ball behind him, to about head level, and whips it toward the plate, twisting his wrist to put a wicked rise on the pitch. The batter takes the pitch — a clean strike — and slouches back to the bench.

Fagan dominates Atlantic Mutual with his head as well as his arm. After playing nearly 15 years for NYSE, he's memorized the hitting tendencies of most of the league's veteran batters. He's got a plan, like any winning pitcher — or, for that matter, like any winning broker.

At work, Fagan takes on the same zealous, almost predatory precision. Orders for hundreds of thousands of shares give him the latitude to work the market for the best price. The extra quarter or half point that he can squeeze out of a trade keeps the client happy and the commissions coming.

But executing trades gets a little hairier when Alan Greenspan hints at a change in interest rates, Fagan says. "Then the phones start ringing, and guys start screaming, and you have to be in 10 different places at once."

Even during a low-volume session, the floor is a big outlet for competitive aggression. The other day, his broker pal Clancy had passed around some snapshots of Fagan sunbathing at his weekend cabin in the Poconos. Fagan confronted him in the middle of the floor. Clerks from both of their firms circled around the trash-talking combatants, as if this were some kind of Wall Street rumble. "He won today," Fagan admitted later with a rueful smile. "But I'll get him back."

Compared to this, life outside stocks and softball can start to feel as though it's going in slow motion. "You get used to the pace, and then you can't slow down," Fagan says. "I'm here for the rest of my life." He's talking about his career as a broker. But he might die with his spikes on, if Tufariello has his way.

Catcher-Clerk Anthony Balestrieri

By the fifth inning of this seven-inning game, NYSE's bats still haven't ignited, and after walking two batters, Fagan seems to be faltering. But then he changes his strategy: Instead of trying to overpower hitters, he throws hittable balls and lets his team's defense do the work.

Anchoring that defense is 31-year-old Anthony "Bam-Bam" Balestrieri, a clerk at Gerard Klauer Mattison. This squat, bighearted guy looks as if he was made to be a catcher. "The pitcher controls the game," Balestrieri says. "I control the field. Once the ball is in play, I'm up, mask off, yelling at somebody and directing the defense."

For Balestrieri, life on the floor of the stock exchange isn't much different. A clerk must relay numbers succinctly, without getting his signals crossed — ever. Somewhere in the city, a trader takes the client's order and phones it in to Balestrieri, who then beeps, nods, or yells to the broker to pick up the order. Clerks must use split-second timing to get orders into brokers' hands; three minutes is often considered way too long.

If Balestrieri wore a catcher's mask at work, it would come off whenever the volume heated up. That's when a clerk has to make a split-second call: whether to pass the order to his broker, who may be hopelessly swamped, or to give it to a broker like Jimi Fagan, who works for an independent house and handles the extra business for a commission. Fellow clerk and third baseman Cono Corvino, 36, overstates the case only a little when he says, "A broker is only as good as his clerk makes him out to be."

Balestrieri, a tough kid from Staten Island who never finished college, is happy with the role he's grown into — a stand-up guy who makes everyone else play better. On the field, being the catcher and team leader has its own rewards: In the past eight years, Balestrieri has helped lead the team to two world-series titles. But on the floor, being a clerk means waiting for years — maybe even forever — before getting promoted to broker and earning the big bucks. "That's what I'm striving for," says Balestrieri.

Shortstop-Clerk Eddie DeJesus

Finally, in the sixth inning, shortstop Eddie DeJesus — one of the team's few power hitters — drills a ball toward the turnpike and over the outfield fence. That solo shot delivers the insurance run that the team desperately needs. Fagan closes down Atlantic Mutual in the top of the seventh, and NYSE prevails. The score: 3 - 1.

DeJesus, just a second-year man (on the team and at work), had the patience to wait for his pitch. "A pitcher is bound to give you one pitch," he says. "If I'm looking for it, chances are I'll hit it."

At six feet, two inches and a muscular 200 pounds, the 27-year-old shortstop has the look of a major leaguer. In fact, DeJesus is the only player on the team who ever seriously considered going pro. As a high-school phenom in Spanish Harlem, he caught the eye of a major-league scout. But, because of an injury, DeJesus chose to go to community college, where he also played ball. He later tried out for the Mets, among a group of youthful contenders. But despite his strong tryout, no one waved a contract at him. "If you're not inside a professional organization by the time you're 21," says DeJesus, "you might as well look for another career."

Two years ago, a friend who worked at the stock exchange helped DeJesus snag a job as a page, running buy and sell orders from the brokers to their clerk-staffed stations on the floor. "That's the bottom of the food chain," he says. Nothing had quite prepared him for that rough-and-tumble world. But he hustled and fought off the urge to quit. And now he has been promoted to clerk at Wagner Stott Mercator — a significant step up.

"I grew up poor," DeJesus says. "But I was meant for something bigger than working in a mail room." If the stock exchange still seems occasionally baffling to him, so much the better for NYSE. "I started playing softball so that I could work out some of my frustrations on the opposing team," he says.

This year, DeJesus is hitting the ball as hard and as far as anyone in the league. In fact, he's so pleased with his game that he's planning to join an amateur hardball league next season — just to get a little taste of his old major-league dream. But he's not about to turn his back on the team that has, in just two seasons, begun to feel like home, albeit one with some extremely pointed dinner-table conversation.

"We do go at each other," concedes DeJesus. "But these guys would be there for me if I needed help, and I'd be there for them — kind of like family."

Manager-Reporter Fred Tufariello

Tufariello, who records trades for the New York Stock Exchange, once drove away a first-rate player because he didn't seem like NYSE family. That is, he didn't get the jokes. "It was the way he said, 'I take this game very seriously,' " the manager recalls. "So I took him out of the game to see how he'd react — and he never came back." Some guys, Tufariello concludes, just haven't learned the Wall Street trick of using humor to lighten up a high-stakes game. Fagan agrees: "You can get into trouble if you take it too seriously."

Tufariello often says things like "There's no 'I' in team," some variation of which has probably been heard by anyone who's ever played a team sport. But you don't necessarily expect that the old call to selfless team play will be well-received by those who work on the Street, which is, after all, the personification of ego and greed.

But any Gordon Gekkos — the fund managers and traders who try to beat the market — are "upstairs." The guys down on the floor, no matter how much money they may make, are the ones who work to keep the market humming. They're the ones who, in less than a minute, routinely execute client-to-clerk-to-broker trades — the Street's version of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance.

As any veteran investor knows, skill and timing are critical to a market-beating performance, but a little luck never hurts. After defeating Atlantic Mutual, NYSE draws a bye for its fourth game. Its nemesis, Banque Parabas, drops two games and never gets to the finals. Instead, NYSE faces a Dean Witter team that has exhausted itself by squeaking past Morgan Stanley earlier in the evening. Final score: NYSE 16, Dean Witter 2.

After the game, 34-year-old outfielder-clerk Mike "Dirt" Dreitlein limps to a nearby bodega for a couple of cases of Budweiser — the team's reward for winning the series. The guys stand around the empty ball field, drinking Bud and feeling like a million bucks. For NYSE, it's been a bullish year on Wall Street and at Mary Benson Field. Best of all, nobody's thinking about work.

Joseph Hooper (spauldifan@aol.com) writes regularly for "Civilization," "Men's Journal," and the "New York Observer."

Action Item: Top of the First

To organize a company softball team, start with the Amateur Softball Association of America Inc. The ASA's 4.5 million members make it the largest and the most influential of all the softball-sanctioning organizations. Visit its Web site for the nearest ASA regional office, which will provide you with contact information on the local leagues. The ASA's site can also help you keep up with local and national tournaments, coaching and umpiring clinics, and the finer points of snagging uniforms and getting a decent deal on insurance.

Coordinates: ASA, www.softball.org

Sidebar: Batter Up!

Each spring, serious softballers make the pilgrimage to a local sporting-goods store to shell out $200 to $300 for a high-tech aluminum bat. As we head into a new season, here's what they can expect to find.

DeMarini (www.demarini.com) ignited the rage for expensive, exotic bats in the early 1990s, when it introduced its double-wall model, which is basically a bat within a bat. Its high-grade aluminum outer shell absorbs most of the impact. Both walls spring back in concert, helping to drive the ball off the bat.

DeMarini's newest line of bats feature carbon fibers in the barrel that enhance durability. These bats, which include DeMarini's top-end Double Wall Fatboy, retail for around $250.

In the past couple of years, Worth Inc. (www.worthsports.com) has stolen some of DeMarini's thunder with its own double-wall models, most recently its line of EST (exterior-shell technology) bats. Worth's EST 5 retails for around $250. Its brand-new PST (powdered-shell technology), which features an outer shell made from a powdered-metal mix, hits the market in a limited edition for about $500.

In addition, Louisville Slugger (www.slugger.com) makes its Air Inertia models, which cost about $250 and have an inner chamber of nitrogen to support the bat's walls. And Easton (www.eastonsports.com) offers its ConneXion line of bats (also in the $250 range), which feature an aluminum shell bonded to a graphite core — which improves the strength and durability of a bat.

Sidebar: Seventh-Inning Stretch

1. Hamstring

Jim Wharton, Exercise physiologist and coauthor (with his son, Phil) of "The Whartons' Stretch Book" (1996), has seen a parade of corporate softball players limp through his Manhattan office. "In terms of staying loose," he says, "softball and baseball are the most challenging sports, because you stand around for a long time, and then suddenly you have to run like a sprinter."

Smart softballers, says Wharton, stretch before they start running and sliding. Begin with a pregame hamstring stretch: Grab some outfield, and lie on your back. Bend one leg at a 90-degree angle. Then slowly raise the other leg toward your head, in a straight, locked-knee position. Put one hand on the back of your thigh to guide the leg; put the other hand on the back of your calf. Hold each stretch for a second or two. Wharton recommends 10 reps per leg.

While standing in the dugout between innings, lift each leg (with the knee locked) to about waist height. That might be enough to prevent you from straining a hamstring when you finally come to bat and have to leg out an infield single.

Coordinates: $15. "The Whartons' Stretch Book" (Times Books); www.randomhouse.com

2. Groin Muscle

Spring is the season for groin pulls — that is, straining the adductor muscles that run along the inside of your thighs. Michael Alter, stretching researcher and author of "Sport Stretch" (1997), recommends the following exercise for softball players who don't want to pull up lame this year.

Squat, with your feet about a foot apart and your toes turned slightly outward. Put your elbows against the insides of your thighs, and push your legs outward. Hold each stretch for 15 to 45 seconds; do two or three reps.

Exercise physiologist Jim Wharton prefers the rope: Make a loop with a rope, put one foot in it, and grasp the rope's ends at hip level. Then lie on your back, with both legs extended straight out. Lock the knee of the rope-looped leg, and extend that leg out from the side of your body, leading with your heel. Push against the rope to deepen the stretch but without causing discomfort. Do 10 reps per leg, holding each stretch for one or two seconds.

Coordinates: $15.95. "Sport Stretch," Human Kinetics, www.humankinetics.com

3. Rotator Cuff

You don't need to be a major-league fastballer to have problems with your rotator cuff — the sheath of muscle that connects your arm to your shoulder. As muscles age and lose their elasticity, simply throwing a ball can be hazardous to your shoulder. "The heavier ball that's used in softball," says exercise pro Jim Wharton, "puts even more strain on your shoulder than a regulation baseball." To avoid injury, try this external-rotator stretch before doing any heavy throwing.

Hold your arms at your sides, and then raise them to shoulder level. Bend your elbows so that they're perpendicular to your shoulders, with forearms pointing downward and palms facing behind you. Then move both forearms back as far as you can toward the middle of your body. Do 10 reps, holding each stretch for one or two seconds.

To do a pitcher's internal-rotator stretch, extend your arms out from your sides and raise your forearms, palms facing in front of you. (Imagine being held up at gunpoint.) Press both forearms backward as far as you can. Do 10 reps of one or two seconds each.

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