Life with Gracie: For MJCCA league softball player, 47 years on the mound isn’t enough

5:00 a.m. Tuesday, June 27, 2017 Living
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Gene Benator throws a pitch during another Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta league game. The 68-year-old from Dunwoody has been playing the game with them for 47 years now. If his knees hold up, he hopes to play for three more before he retires his pitch for good. CONTRIBUTED

Gene Benator’s quest for another Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta Modified-Fast Pitch Tournament softball title ended quietly on Father’s Day.

After tying the game in the fifth ending, Team Benator sadly ended up on the wrong end of a 9-5 score, in a “do or die” loser’s bracket game.

After nearly 50 years playing in the league, and playing both spring and fall seasons for nearly each of those years, Benator was used to winning and close game losses. But losing on Father’s Day was admittedly a bit tougher to swallow.

“It just didn’t go our way,” Benator said the other day. “We didn’t play well. I didn’t pitch my best.”

It’s just the same. Win or lose, the 68-year-old real estate broker is considered a Hall of Famer of all things athletic and modified pitch softball, in particular; proof positive that doing what you love and loving what you do almost always leads to satisfaction and success.

Two days after his team’s season-ending loss, Benator told me his love affair with sports began when he was a boy growing up in Norfolk, Va.

He was never what you might call a star though he played sports all through high school and he played hard. If there was a ball involved, there he was in the midst. Baseball. Softball. Football. You name it.

After he graduated in 1967 from Granby High School in his hometown of Norfolk, he headed south to the University of Georgia, where he pledged Tau Epsilon Phi and immersed himself in the fraternity’s intramural sports program.

He didn’t know much about the modified pitch, but the moment he witnessed it, he knew he had to play that, too. All he had to do was take what he’d learned in the church slow-pitch league back in Virginia and combine it with his bowling game.

After just one season, Benator had found the sporting love of his life on the softball diamond, and on the pitcher’s mound, in particular.

He played his first modified season at MJCCA in the summer of 1971, a year before graduating from UGA with a Bachelor of Arts in public relations and advertising in March 1972.

During the offseason, he dabbled in the center’s basketball and flag football leagues, but nothing made him feel like he did when he threw a modified pitch, a compromise between a slow-pitch softball lob and a windmill fast-pitch delivery, toward home plate.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Gene Benator of Dunwoody in his heyday playing modified-fast pitch softball. This year marks his 47th consecutive year as a pitcher, playing league ball at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. CONTRIBUTED

Then in the winter of 1984, after two failed attempts to go out with Patty Simon, he met her on a blind date.

Benator knew Patty was the one when she woke up early one February Sunday, and called to wish him good luck in his basketball championship game. A few months later on June 6, he proposed, and they were married in October.

Patty agreed to postpone their honeymoon a day so Gene could pitch a doubleheader in the 1984 Modified, fall, postseason tournament. If he got hurt and couldn’t go, she told him, “I’ll send you postcards from Paris, London and Venice.”

Benator won and the two of them were off.

By the fall season, he was a father, pitching with his son Brian’s hospital birth picture taped to his glove. Two years later in August 1987, daughter Jaime arrived. Benator took the season off, the last one he’d ever miss.

But let me be clear. That doesn’t mean family had taken a backseat to ball. It hadn’t. Gene Benator just learned to successfully juggle the two. He coached both his children and some of their friends at T-ball, basketball, youth league baseball and, of course, softball.

Still, he never pushed Brian or Jaime into any sport. Brian, now assistant men’s basketball coach and recruiting coordinator at the University of West Florida, played Little League baseball, then basketball at the University of Georgia, where he was team manager for the 2008 Georgia SEC basketball tournament champs.

And Jaime, a neonatal intensive care nurse at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, was on the Walton High School swim team. You can blame her for Benator’s short-lived coaching stint in the Mount Bethel United Methodist Church girls’ basketball league.

Jaime was just 6 that year when she asked her dad to come coach her. Benator didn’t hesitate. They were in the midst of their first practice session when Jaime took a pass the wrong way off her thumb and tore the ligaments.

She didn’t get to play that season, but her father coached with her sporting a lime-green cast at his side.

It’s one of his favorite memories from a very long career playing and coaching adult and youth league sports, cultivating friendships on the sideline, gathering a gaggle of admirers.

One of them, Jack Arogeti, a longtime friend and pitching competitor, marvels at Benator’s longevity on the pitcher’s mound.

He described him as “the Energizer Bunny of the Men’s Modified Softball League, a fierce competitor and very friendly guy.”

“We’ve played against one another since our 20s,” said Arogeti, 63, of Dunwoody. “Everyone knew that Gene loved the competition every bit as much as the camaraderie. That he’s excelled on the pitcher’s mound for so long, with no end in sight, is amazing.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

More than 600 wins and 400 losses later, Benator is still throwing strikes, giving up home runs, aggravating and hitting batters, and still in love.

This year marks his 47th pitching year in the MJCCA’s modified softball league. This season marks his 84th playing softball, and his arms, believe it or not, are still in good shape.

After the fall season, he hopes to play three more years, then hand the ball over “to the older players.”

Fifty years, 89 seasons, and six decades of fun, friends and memories too many to count is more than any pitcher deserves, and for that, Gene Benator is eternally grateful.

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