As Dykema, Gossett PLLC’s softball team assembled at Grant Park for the championship game in the city’s lawyers league, the team’s opponent — the seven-time defending champion Cook County state’s attorney’s office — was already taking batting practice.
And wait — was that a 50-year-old cranking out pushups in the outfield?
“I’m not making this up,” said John F. Rhoades, a Dykema associate and team co-captain.
“A few of them had cutoff sleeves, and one of the guys — he must have been in his 50s — and he was doing pushups in the outfield while they were taking BP.”
Rhoades, 30, watched — thinking, “Are these guys for real?”
“They’re for real,” he said a week after the state’s attorney squad captured its eighth straight title, beating Dykema 11-1 on July 15.
“I don’t know if he was getting psyched up or if that’s their routine, but they bring that level of intensity to each game.”
The man in question, 54-year-old Robert F. Heilingoetter, was actually just executing part of his pregame regimen after tearing his bicep on a swing two seasons ago.
He is the supervisor of the prosecutor’s 2nd Municipal District office, located in Skokie, and is also a third baseman and one of the team’s several veteran torch-bearers. The team has won every title since 2008.
It is the job of the older guys to bequeath the stories and traditions to the younger ones — to educate them in the ways of Kunkle and Sarros and Sparky and the rest.
“These are the future leaders of the office,” Heilingoetter said, “and probably the future leaders of the softball team.”
Including the three-game postseason, the “State’s,” as the team is known, finished the season 10-0, its third-straight unbeaten season in the now 15-team Grant Park Lawyers 16-inch Softball League.
Sponsored by O’Neil’s on Wells, a pub at 411 S. Wells St., the team draws players from all seven of the office’s bureaus: criminal prosecutions, juvenile justice, narcotics, special prosecutions, civil actions, investigations and administrative services.
“Realistically, we have a huge pool to pull from because of the size of the office and a constant influx of younger attorneys working their way through the office,” said Heilingoetter, who joined the team about 15 years ago.
Youth is certainly served on the State’s — captain Anthony D. Gattuso is 28, one of nine players under 40.
But jumping to the conclusion that youth accounts for the team’s success “would be all wrong,” said Bruce H. Balonick, 66, co-captain of the Arnstein & Lehr LLP team.
“Every once in a while they’ll have a young guy who will come up who’s there a game or two and he’ll be a phenomenal athlete,” Balonick said. “But the core of that team are not the 35-year-old people.”
Among that core is pitcher Arthur S. Zaban, 53, of Zaban and Zaban. Known as “Artie,” Zaban was a long-time member of the attorney general’s office’s team — a fierce on-field rival of the prosecutors.
When the AG office’s team folded in the early 1990s, Zaban joined the state’s attorneys’ team.
“Their pitcher — the rumors are true,” said Arnstein & Lehr co-captain Erik L. Kantz. “The guy is damn good.”
At-bats begin with a one-and-one count, and Zaban is known for dropping strike two past befuddled batters, setting up a must-swing second pitch.
He can hit too.
“I have seen Artie hit some balls that could on a cloudy day create rain,” said Balonick, whose Arnstein & Lehr team gave the state’s attorneys’ team its closest game of the year, a 16-7 opening day loss.
Those seven runs were a season-high for an opponent. Johnson & Bell Ltd. scored four runs. No other team scored more than two.
“You have to have a no-mistakes game,” said Gabriel R. Judd, captain of Johnson & Bell’s team and the league commissioner.
“No team is unbeatable, but you have to play mistake-free ball.”
At third base, Heilingoetter has a Santo-esque reputation.
“You look at the third baseman and he doesn’t look like he can throw it across the diamond, let alone field every hot shot that you hit and throw a laser to first base,” said Peter G. Skiko, captain of the Swanson, Martin & Bell LLP team.
Skiko’s team missed the state’s attorney’s squad in the regular season but drew it in the playoffs.
“If we were unsportsmanlike about it, we would literally walk their No. 3 guy every time up,” Skiko said about Joseph D. Cook, who worked as a prosecutor for six years in multiple bureaus before joining the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.
Cook went four-for-four in the championship game, including a crucial three-run home run that anchored a five-run third inning.
“He can hit the ball to any part of the field over any fielder’s head regardless of where they are playing,” Skiko said.
Directional hitting is a large part of the team’s success. Its 11 runs in the championship game tied for its fewest of the season.
“Watching them play is truly an art form,” said Skiko, a self-proclaimed “softball aficionado” who has played in Grant Park for more than 20 years.
Skiko’s team’s strategy was to use four deep outfielders and dare the state’s attorneys to hit it past them.
Instead, they ripped line drives.
“Then when we moved up they just jacked it over our heads,” Skiko said.
“It really is amazing how all the way up and down their lineup, all they need to do is shift their weight just a fraction of an inch and they can put the ball on a line literally wherever they want.”
Yet despite outscoring opponents this year by 142 runs, the prosecutors continue to engender goodwill around the league.
A championship game a few years ago against Arnstein & Lehr remains “the most fun I ever had playing softball, even though we lost three to two,” Balonick said. “They play hard but they play fair.”
Rhoades was amused during the championship game when the two teams continued playing after reaching the slaughter rule. With the game in the books, a Dykema player decided to enjoy a beer while playing second base.
A member of the state’s attorney’s team swiped the beer while rounding second base and took it to third.
“I thought that was a pretty good move,” Rhoades said.
When Johnson & Bell showed up to its regular season game with only seven players, the state’s attorneys loaned Judd’s team two men — including an outfielder, typically among the better players.
“They’re good guys,” Judd said. “And I like their captain Anthony. I think he’s doing a good job.”
Gattuso, who works in criminal felony courtrooms in the office’s narcotics bureau, said the team is a great way to meet other Cook County assistant state’s attorneys.
“We have a nice collection of attorneys starting from guys with about two years of experience in the office to guys with about 30 years,” Gattuso said.
“We wouldn’t normally cross paths in the office at all but for being on the softball field. It’s been a great way to meet people in our 800-person office whom you would normally not interact with.”
Approaching its 49th season, the league is comprised of teams from 10 law firms, the state’s attorney’s office, the U.S. attorney’s office and three teams of law clerks.
There are no rules about gender. Some teams are co-ed. Others, like the state’s attorney’s team, remain all-male.
But two of the four teams in the semifinals were co-ed with co-ed teams beating all-male teams.
“We have tremendous female athletes within our office that would fit perfectly with the team,” Heilingoetter said.
The office plays an intra-office, one-day tournament which is co-ed, something several team captains think the league should become.
“With our own eyes we could see (the league) morphing, and I would embrace that idea,” Heilingoetter said. “Perhaps it’s time for that.”
Judd wants to add additional teams. Those interested can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Any new team will have its work cut out for it.
“There’s a special art to playing the 16-inch game,” Rhoades said.
“Obviously based on the state’s attorneys’ track record, they’ve mastered it.”