Thursday’s softball game between the Keyser’s Angels and the Studio City Stutzmans initially seemed like any other adult-amateur league game.
Easy to catch balls…were not. Powerful swings created pop-ups or dribbles. No one fired massive shots into outfield – a good thing given a large group of dog owners were watching from right field.
The most visible indication that something else was going on was a slogan many players wore on their outfits:
Many angels played in t-shirts with the word running down the front in different colors. Some Stutzmans wore Writers Guild of America strike hats and removed the “Strike Captain” pins they had worn at the picket line hours earlier.
Then there were the team names. Keyser is Co-Chair of the WGA West Negotiating Committee and past President Chris Keyser. Stutzman is Chief Negotiator Ellen Stutzman.
The six teams in the WGA Strike Softball League began play in the first week of July — about two months after the writers’ strike began and about two weeks before the SAG-AFTRA strike — and will play through September.
Although the league is union-sanctioned, it is not restricted to members. These include actors, showrunners, stunt people, industry newbies, and anyone else wanting to vent their frustrations at Hollywood’s employment impasse with games that are equal parts The Bad News Bears and Norma Rae.
“It’s a way to bring everyone together and give us a one-hour break from worrying about paying bills,” said Stutzmans captain Andrew Aroche, a WGA West diversity and inclusion coordinator. His wife, a member of the IATSE entertainment industry union who is out of work because of the strike, cheered from the stands with their chihuahua terrier mix, Oreo.
“Most people come off the picket line, and no matter how weary we are, we come,” Aroche said. “The players want to experience that.”
IATSE member and Angels player Steph Cheng told me she joined the league because she had “the right spirit” for members to deal with the situation. Nobody tried to dupe each other like in the typical writers room. There was no nonsense, no moaning about mistakes. Instead, shouts of “good eye,” “good contact,” and “next time” filled the air.
But the longer the game went on, the louder the cheers, the swings got stronger and the high-fives more passionate. The competition was real.
During one play, Stutzmans player and WGA member Charles Morris ran with such ferocity to hit a pitch at home plate that he grabbed the backstop rail to keep from falling through the chain link fence.
“This is the high point,” Morris yelled as he got back to the dugout, “of the last 101 days.”
Benji Kaufman, a 30-year-old Simi Valley resident and SAG-AFTRA member, founded the league after missing a cocktail maker and the social contact that came with it. He figured softball was an easy way to feel sorry for his fellow forwards. After all, for decades, studios, broadcasters, talent agencies, and television shows have assembled leagues that play games across Los Angeles, including here at the Studio City Recreation Center.
But these leagues are for people with jobs and historically have been male dominated. Kaufman wanted to make room for non-union people trying to break into Hollywood who have faithfully watched and even participated in the WGA and SAG-AFTRA pickets.
“Camaraderie events are important right now,” Kaufman, whose team is the Inglorious Batters, told me while a Department of Recreation and Parks employee painted the baseball diamond and set up the bases. “This is a group of people going through something together and the solidarity is wonderful.”
As commissioner, Kaufman assigned each team a color and $425 in league dues to cover city fees, which included use of two fields and an umpire. Each squad consists of 12 players and must play at least four women in each game. There is an ever-growing waiting list, now numbering 36 people willing to register via email for the three games taking place every Thursday night.
The batters had first place the day I was there, against the purple team, so named because their assigned color was, well, purple. But half an hour before the game, Kaufman and I, along with the Rec and Parks rep, were the only ones there.
“A lot of people are out of town for the holidays,” Kaufman apologized. Shortly thereafter, Laura Monti from Glassell Park showed up with her boyfriend Danny Ryan. The two had just found out about the league through the WGA’s weekly email.
“I haven’t played in a while,” admitted Monti, a WGA member who has written for a Marvel Studios series that will premiere next year. Ryan, an aspiring writer, last played organized ball in the eighth grade.
“Don’t worry,” Kaufman said, smiling. “We were all like that the first week.”
Soon after, more and more players showed up and lay down to the soundtracks of Rage Against the Machine, Green Day and System of a Down. The Inglorious Batters wore blue T-shirts with their logo on the front and ironed numbers and last names on the back. The Purple Team wore outfits in the shade of the same name.
“The names aren’t particularly funny or clever at all,” said Isaac Gonzalez, a WGA member of the league who was out of town but spoke to me earlier. “You don’t get funny names if you don’t get paid.”
“It’s time!” yelled the referee—the same Rec and Parks guy who chalked the diamond and refused to give me his name.
“Don’t do, don’t not Throw the bat,” he said to Kaufman and Purple Team captain David Sidorov, loud enough for both sides to hear. “The first time it’s a warning. The second time you’re out.”
In less than five minutes, the Purple Team led 4-0 through well-placed hits and bobbles from the batters.
Kaufman was undeterred. “Let’s stick together, let’s stick together!” he yelled as the batters went to, well, bat.
The stands began to fill with supporters from both teams. Matthew Brandon sat on the grass with his friends. Signs on her lap featured words of encouragement and photos of Matthew’s brother, Purple Team first baseman Thomas Brandon.
“They bond so beautifully in these games,” Matthew said. “It’s a good way for them to relax a little.”
I was bouncing back and forth between that game and the Angels vs. Stutzmans game, which the latter team won 9-4. It was great to see the busy hustle and bustle of the players, all living through historic but also frightening times in their careers, reminding themselves that forwards deserve a few hours of unabashed fun.
To paraphrase a quote often attributed to legendary labor activist Emma Goldman, no one should want to be part of a revolution that doesn’t let them play along.
I returned to the Inglorious Batters and Purple Team for their final inning. The batters had made a furious comeback. They were now 15:9 in the lead.
Members of the Goldfish, another Strike Jeague team scheduled to play at 8:30 a.m., looked on. They wore buttoned jerseys and hats with an “old drunk tired fish on them,” joked Emelle, a SAG-AFTRA member who only has a lowercase letter.
She was there with teammates Betzi Marroquin, Veve Melendrez and Lorinda Hawkins Smith. The four appeared in a play about homelessness in Los Angeles this summer.
“It’s like another community that we’re creating,” Marroquin said.
“It’s not like we’re doing anything else right now,” Melendrez replied with a sigh.
The batters and the Purple Team lined up to congratulate each other. The batters then celebrated near Pitcher’s Mound. “That was our biggest second leg,” Kaufman told his players. “It was an absolute team effort.”
There were two games left before the playoffs. The batters were now in third place. There is already interest in a fall league, Kaufman said — hopefully when everyone returns to their jobs and works under a fair contract.
“I wasn’t sure if it was going to be my thing, but this is awesome!” exclaimed Rachel Alter, a mission captain at Paramount, wearing a pink baseball cap that read “In My Strike Era.” She ran four times and scored four runs. “The pickets are among the first gatherings that people meet at work after the Corona crisis. So when you play together, the writers can bond even more.”
Everyone clapped as Kaufman passed the cue ball to Alex Blagg. The author and comedian took another hit.
“Sometimes when you’re dealing with big opportunities and strong producers,” Blagg said cheeringly, “you just have to trust your team.”