How a bunch of lawyers playing baseball just helped a lot of N.J. kids

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by Barry Carter,

It’s a lot of softball – and expensive – to play for one day.

The price for a double play, strike out or home run is $125. Give up a grand slam, it’s $500.

But it was worth it on Tuesday after more than six hours of softball for eight law firms and lawyers from Prudential. Their play – which can net anywhere from $70,000 to $100,000 – pays to send city kids from the Greater Newark Fresh Air Fund to camp.

“We don’t mind doing it when it’s for the kids,” said Mike Benak, an attorney with McCarter & English, a Newark law firm.

He’s not just talking about playing. Next year, the firm will organize the Battle of the Barristers Charity Softball Tournament.

That’s the reward for winning. For the second time in the last four years, McCarter & English lawyers are champs. They hoisted the trophy Tuesday night after defeating Newark law firm Genova Burns, 28-11, at Yogi Berra Stadium on the campus of Montclair State University.

The team was hungry this year. During preliminary rounds at Brookdale Park in Bloomfield, McCarter & English had a 4-0-1 record. In the championship game, the team came out smoking, taking a 14-0 lead after two innings. Genova Burns cut the margin in half by the third inning, but didn’t have enough fire power.

After going undefeated, 5-0, in preliminary rounds, Genova Burns started losing team members before the championship game. One player pulled a hamstring and four others couldn’t play in the final game because they had to play in another league.

Team captain Doug Solomon was scrambling to field a team. Players from other firms that were eliminated in earlier rounds pitched in, as well as colleagues from Genova who were able to play when Solomon made some phone calls.

“I would have liked to take them on at full strength,” Solomon said. “But at the same time, we realize why we’re out here.”

It’s all about the kids, many of whom are low income and would not have had the opportunity to attend camp without private donations from the public and the money raised from costly mistakes made during the tournament.

The teams, however, have to chip in more dough based on their overall performance in the standings.

McCarter & English pays the least amount, $5,750, since it was the winner. Genova is among second through fourth place teams in a division who have to pay $6,000 to $7,250. the The fifth-place squad has to cough up the most, $7,500.

It’s a lot of money to raise, but the way this game is played, reaching that benchmark is not impossible to offer a camping experience that gets young people out of the city for a week or even just for the day.

So far, about 100 kids have gone off to camp, which are overnight and day camp programs. By the end of the summer, some 200 to 400 kids will have been in the great outdoors.

“We’re going to send as many as we can,” said Donna Johnson Thompson, executive director of the Newark Day Center, the oldest social agency in the state that operates the Fresh Air Fund.

For those who would like to donate, send your check to the Greater Newark Fresh Air Fund, 43 Hill St., Newark N.J. 07102, or you can give by credit card at The names of contributors will be published on Sundays in The Star-Ledger.

This is the 33rd year for the tournament, but its relationship with the Fresh Air Fund began with two law firms. Gibbons and the then-Robinson, Wayne & Greenberg played for bragging rights. Players would go out for drinks after each game until they decided the money could be used to help someone in need.

Enter the Fresh Air Fund.

Michael Griffinger, 83, senior director with Gibbons, has only missed one tournament in 33 years, recalling the days when only lawyers played, and when the umpires were federal judges.

“None of the lawyers would fight with the judges, because they would have to see them in court the next day,” said Griffinger, who pitched two innings.

The rules have changed a bit over the years. The combined age of the catcher and the pitcher no longer has to be 100. And while the majority of the players are lawyers, some are employees in other departments with the law firms and Prudential.

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