Softball is not an official AYF Olympic sport. That means no points are awarded to the final chapter totals. While this may be the case, no one seems to be worried about this little detail. Over the years, softball has grown in popularity to the point where it’s now called Softball Saturday. Everyone makes a day out of it with plenty of food and fun. It almost always turns out to be a competitive and exciting event; win, lose, or draw, players always shake hands and hug after the game.
One would think softball has been a part of the AYF Olympics for all 85 years. That is not the case. Saturday used to be dedicated to Track and Field preliminaries for many years. There was also soccer and tug-of-war. We may even have tried baseball and softball for a few years back in the 1940s, 50s, or 60s.
It was actually Robert Najarian and Chuck Ouligian’s idea to introduce at the AYF Olympics. During their time at Northeastern University, they played the three-pitch game, shrinking a 90-minute game into seven innings (about one hour). The first games were at the 1984 Watertown Olympics on the fields behind Harvard Stadium.
Najarian’s brother, David, has been a dedicated umpire, keeping scores and statistics for the AYF softball games for 32 years. I learned about his involvement and history of AYF Softball at the same time. A contractor by trade (his last name Najarian means ‘carpenter’), David says he has enjoyed his three-decades (and counting) as an umpire. “You show up and just do it. It is for our family and community.”
Najarian reflected on the 1984 Hartford Olympics and a 3-2 game between Providence and Watertown. “I can’t even remember who won,” said Najarian. But what he does remember is that “from day one, everyone played hard and then would shake hands after. It is a perfect game for a fraternal organization.” Najarian would like to see Olympic medals awarded for softball. “I love that I see the next generation of AYFers playing softball just as their parents did.”
This year, 12 teams participated in the AYF Softball Tournament. Last year’s top four teams, Detroit, New Jersey, Western US, and Greater Boston, had byes in the first round. The Mixed Chapter Team lost to Washington, D.C 18-4. Philadelphia dominated Manhattan 12-5. Chicago and North Andover squared off with Chicago surging to secure a 10-9 win. In a tight first round game between Providence and New York, Providence won 10-9 with a walk-off grand slam home run from Nareg Mkrtschjan in the bottom of the 7th inning. “It was unbelievable,” recalled Mkrtschjan, “We were down 9-6 with one out. I hit a fast shot down the right field line which bounced right past the right fielder, and I drove in the three runs on base. My teammates mobbed me around third base. We couldn’t have been happier.”
The seeded teams all played in the second round. Detroit crushed Washington 15-0, leading everyone to believe they would be repeat softball champions. New Jersey took on the home team, who desperately wanted to beat their neighboring rival. But, New Jersey prevailed 11-8, while California outslugged Providence 18-9. Greater Boston bested Chicago 18-11.
In the third round, California showed both power and defense in beating Boston 13-3. New Jersey faced Detroit, which is always a grudge match. These two teams have faced each other in several finals over the years. Detroit pulled ahead with two monster homeruns, perhaps the longest ever hit in AYF softball, from Mike Haase and Michael Nercessian. Detroit won 13-7.
Last year’s final repeated itself, as California and Detroit faced off. Detroit ended up winning in 2017. After the impressive hitting and fielding performance of Detroit, most assumed another Detroit championship. But California brought their A game, and the Detroit bats got a bit quiet. California ended up winning its first AYF softball championship 13-7.