When Judge Ben Lerner, pushing 80, steps into the batting cage, the mantra is always running through his mind.
“Don’t turn your head. Keep your eye on the ball. Keep your weight back. Don’t embarrass me.”
The hitting mantra was given to him — well, foisted upon him — by his younger brother Alan, and the last instruction is the most important. After all, Alan was the one who taught his older brother how to hit, well into his middle age, and long after Lerner had assumed he’d never play the sport he loved, not in a real way.
It was a rare gift for a baseball nut. One that for Lerner, a judge in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, still sparks to life every spring, when he returns to his over-65 hardball league and hits the way his brother taught him.
Alan died nine seasons ago, but in the cages and on the fields, the judge’s loss stings a little less. And sometimes, when the judge’s team is winning, or when he’s roping the kind of line drives his brother would have cheered, it stings a little more.
Growing up in Feltonville, the Lerners were baseball crazy. Ben Lerner, 78, recalls that joyful day in 1950, glued to the kitchen radio as the Whiz Kid Phillies clinched the pennant and his father, a normally sedate door-to-door insurance salesman, swung from the moulding in baseball bliss.
Alan could always hit. The judge could never hit a lick. But on the gravelly sandlot at B and Wyoming, they were inseparable. The judge pitched; Alan caught. By high school, when kids their age began to throw the ball 60 feet, 6 inches — with heat — the judge realized he was doomed to the grandstands.
But Alan kept hitting. First for Central High School and then for the University of Pennsylvania. Later, Alan Lerner played semi-pro ball.
Alan at the bat, the judge recalled, was like the old Phillies catcher Smoky Burgess.
“They said that you could wake him up on a frozen Christmas morning, and he would get out of bed and go out and hit line drives,” he said. “Alan was that kind of hitter.”
If baseball was the Lerner brothers’ first common language, law became their second.
Alan spent the summer of 1964 in Mississippi, registering black voters. By the mid-'80s, he was a father of two, a Philly attorney specializing in civil rights and child welfare. Ben was heading the Defender Association of Philadelphia.
Ben had an idea: Phillies Dream Week in Clearwater, where diehard fans can play ball on the team’s spring training fields. The judge had attended on his own twice, and came away with indelible memories: tossing a complete game one day against the hated Mets fans squad, getting yanked off the mound another time by coach Larry Bowa. The judge still cherishes the personalized, profanity-laced tirade from the legend.
Ben wanted to go down with Alan. But Alan had one caveat: Ben would have to learn to hit.
So in the winter months beforehand, they went to the Grand Slam USA batting cages in Malvern. And Alan taught his older brother the science of hitting.
On his shelf, the judge keeps a photo of the two in the Phillies clubhouse during their Dream Week.
“Here we are,” the judge says, “Lerner and Lerner, in our Phillies uniforms. This is just some good time we were having in the clubhouse.”
The dream didn’t end in Clearwater. Eventually, the Lerner brothers started to play together again — like they hadn’t since they were boys. In the senior leagues, Alan played third and the judge mostly played the bench, thrilled nonetheless.
“He was the best competitor, but he was also the best sportsman," Ben recalls. "When he congratulated you, even if you were on the other team, people could tell he really meant it. He just loved the game so much. And wanted everyone else to love the game — win or lose — as much as he did.”
Alan, by then a celebrated law professor at Penn, was diagnosed with lymphoma one off-season. He died in October 2010, the night after Roy Halladay pitched a no-hitter, and the night before his senior team had a scheduled game. When his teammates — and the other team, for that measure — heard the news, they sent the judge a signed ball.
Now, 10 seasons later, the judge plays on, thankful to the brother whose lasting gift was the game. On Monday, with opening day near, Ben Lerner took a long lunch, drove to the batting cages, and put a columnist half his age to absolute shame. Meting out some mercy, the judge tossed me a couple of Alan’s tips.