ShowBiz Softball--Accent the Biz

Times Staff Writer

The mention of a star’s big hit, a producer’s new-found clout or a writer’s wild pitch doesn’t necessarily mean Hollywood heavy hitters are discussing the latest industry buzz. They may just be talking about the ShowBiz Softball League.

“I once went into Lee Gabler’s office to discuss packaging a TV series,” said Leslie Greif, an executive producer at Orion Television. But Gabler, head of television at International Creative Management at the time (he’s now with Creative Artists), had softball on his mind. “He pulls out photos of his game against William Morris,” recalled Greif, “and for the next 15 minutes, all we talked about was big plays and batting averages.”

Like the film of the same name, it happens every spring. Thoughts turn from box office to box score and some Hollywood stars (Michael Keaton, Tony Danza, Mark Harmon, Billy Crystal) and executives (NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, “thirtysomething” executive producer Ed Zwick) trade in their Guccis for Nikes to play on softball teams sponsored by the some of the industry’s most powerful companies.


‘Well-Known Celebrities’

With 43 teams--among them NBC, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox--paying a $1,650 entry fee, the ShowBiz League is one of the largest, and certainly most expensive, industrial softball leagues in the nation. For eight months beginning in March, about 700 players--roughly 20 of them “well-known celebrities” according to Greif--play a good brand of modified fast-pitch softball at Encino’s Balboa Park.

Not surprisingly given the participants, softball isn’t the only game on the diamonds. The league provides the right climate for a Hollywood chemical reaction, a venue where contacts can be made. Third to second to first. Producer to director to writer. In sports, it’s called around-the-horn; in Hollywood, it’s networking.

“When a guy runs to first, you practically see resumes flying out his back pocket,” said Bob Logan, a writer-director who has played eight years for a team called Ten Guys. Logan got his first TV writing assignment, on “Laugh Trax” in 1982, when his teammates--who happened to be the show’s head writers--found themselves laughing at his jokes and asked him to “punch up a script,” he said.

Greif, executive producer of HBO’s “Glory! Glory!” miniseries and most recently a member of the league’s Harry Gold Stars, admits that the league exists, in part, to further careers. Ten years ago, when he was 23 and a page at NBC, “I didn’t know anybody in the business.” Which was one of the reasons Greif, along with seven others including Tito Jackson of the Jackson 5, started the league.

What show business is done is usually done tastefully, the players say. “Guys don’t want to be hustled,” Logan said. “Nobody comes up and says, ‘Hey, I got a script. Can you read it in the car?’ ”

But according to Logan and others, most of the players have a simpler reason for showing up every weekend in Balboa Park. “The deal-making is certainly in the back of your mind,” Logan said, “but that’s not why you’re here. Show business is such a tough business, you want to get out and be a boy again.”

(According to Greif, league administrator Vic Puglisi Jr., and other unofficial league historians, women who just wanna be girls have traditionally looked elsewhere for their softball. Nothing in the 80-page manager’s handbook precludes women from playing, but they simply haven’t shown an interest, Puglisi said.)

Forgiven by Sinatra

Tom Dreesen, a stand-up comedian who opens for Frank Sinatra, commutes from Las Vegas to play on the Little Rascals. Once, he nearly missed the opening curtain when his return flight to Las Vegas was late. “Sinatra asked me what was so important in L.A. to almost make me late,” he said. “I told him I was playing softball. He used to play himself, so he says, ‘For a softball game, I can forgive you.’ ”

When the “core group,” as Greif calls the eight founders, started the league with pickup games in 1979, Michael Jackson used to come out to cheer his brother’s team, players would cut up by playing sound effects and dropping their pants, and fun was the overriding theme. But as the league grew and the emphasis on winning intensified, teams recruited players, sometimes even advertising in the newspaper.

Now, perhaps as many as 15%-20% of the players are from outside the entertainment industry--ringers brought in to beef up the lineup. “We’ve asked managers to police the league and limit the number of outsiders to two per team,” Greif said. But professional athletes such as Reggie Jackson (who plays with The White Fish), Mitch Kupchek (LaMonica’s New York Pizza) and Steve Yeager (GCO Pictures) aren’t counted as ringers because sports is considered entertainment, Greif said.

So games are much more competitive than they used to be. “These are all my good buddies out here,” Dreesen said, “but I want to beat their pants off anyway.”

On a typical Saturday at Balboa Park, the league plays about 20 games, beginning at 9 a.m. and ending well past 6 p.m. Greif, who says he may not play regularly this year because of other commitments, takes frequent inspection tours around the perimeter of the softball complex, where eight teams are playing on four diamonds. He walks with Puglisi, the mustachioed owner of MVP Athletics, a Reseda sporting goods store. Puglisi sees part of his job as being the “protector” of the players, particularly the celebrities, who get approached not only by fans but by strangers with unsolicited screenplays.

Greif and Puglisi stop at the diamond where Michael Keaton, star of the current hit movie “The Dream Team” and the upcoming “Batman,” is playing the outfield for Ten Guys. A talented athlete who also plays ice hockey, Keaton isn’t as fanatical as Dreesen. But he has been known to work out on the road with major league baseball teams.

“When I’m in Toronto I’ll play with the Blue Jays and in Seattle with the Mariners,” he said behind the backstop, waiting his turn to hit. “But when I’m in L.A., I look forward to every Saturday here.”

A Livelier Ball

Keaton steps to the plate with nobody on base. The league--acting on requests by the players--is experimenting with a livelier ball this year, the Spalding Tournament Plus. Keaton takes a whack at one and manages only a pop-up to the pitcher, but he hustles hard to first base anyway.

Diagonally across the complex, Tony Danza finishes up a game behind the plate for LaMonica’s New York Pizza. Usually gregarious, he turns down an interview.

According to Greif, Danza was more talkative the night of the screening for his new film, “She’s Out of Control.” “While everybody else was talking about the movie,” Greif said, Danza cornered him and schmoozed about his .500 batting average and his team’s chances of winning the title in the A-class Studio Conference. “That’s kind of the essence of the league,” Greif said. “It gives people a common denominator.”