Becoming champion of the Massachusetts Biotech Softball League used to be so much easier.
Back 20 years ago, there were just a handful of teams. Today, there are 64. The league has become one of the biggest amateur softball organizations in the state.
“It’s a fair barometer for what’s happening in the industry,” said Alex Long, a research scientist at Amgen in Cambridge, and one of the softball league’s two commissioners.
Thursday night, teams from Organogenesis, a Canton regenerative medicine company, and Boston Scientific, the Marlborough medical device maker, will play for the league’s championship trophy. Along with initial stock offerings and drug approvals, the big silver cup may be among the most coveted prizes for life sciences companies in Massachusetts.
So what makes biotech softball different from other leagues? For one thing, the small talk can get scientific.
“People definitely do talk about work,” said Jane Kepros, a biologist who designs labs for the Boston architectural firm Perkins+Will and moonlights as the league’s other commissioner. “People will always ask: ‘What do you guys do? What products do you make? Do you have anything that’s FDA-approved yet?’ ”
The softball league was launched in the late 1980s by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, an industry trade group, as a way to help members connect with one another. By 1989, there were a dozen teams, and the league continued to grow, eventually becoming an independent nonprofit, run by biotech professionals who enjoy softball as much as their day jobs.
“We’re just a bunch of scientists, for the most part, so we really try not to take it too seriously,” said Michael Kalaitzidis, who works in the labs at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals and is cocaptain of his company’s softball team. “It’s like a beer league.”
Over the years, the league has followed the ups and downs of the industry. When new companies enter the market, the league gains teams. When companies merge, cut staff, or dissolve, the league loses teams.
Employment at biotechs — which use living organisms to develop drugs — and related operations had grown to nearly 58,000 workers last year, according to MassBio. That’s up from fewer than 10,000 workers about two decades ago.
Drawn by the state’s wealth of research institutions and skilled laborers, big pharmaceutical companies have entered Massachusetts and expanded here, while local companies have stayed and grown. Many of these key industry players, including Pfizer, Amgen, Shire, Genzyme, and Millennium, have teams in the softball league. Some companies sponsor several teams. Each squad pays $1,000 to cover the annual cost for fields and insurance.
But biotech is a turbulent industry, with high costs and fierce competition. The 1996 league champion, Immulogic Pharmaceutical, a Waltham company that made allergy treatments, has gone out of business.
After Pfizer acquired Wyeth Pharmaceuticals in 2009, their softball teams also merged. The Wyeth jerseys were replaced by new ones bearing Pfizer’s name.
When the economy tanked and the recession took hold, many teams dropped out of the league. Others left amid internal challenges, like layoffs and disappointing drug sales. Some later returned as their situations improved.
Now biotech is booming by most measures — job growth, stock values, drug sales — but league participation remains below its prerecession peak of nearly 80 teams. Still, there’s a waiting list of up to two years for new teams that want to play in Cambridge, the league’s most popular location.
“We don’t have enough fields,” Kepros said.
Softball has given biotech professionals a relaxing escape to meet and socialize with their peers. Over the years, players have found good friends and tough rivals, mentors and business connections, dates, and even spouses.
Six years ago, when Andrew Reardon was playing shortstop for Organogenesis, he started chatting with the woman playing second base. Their on-field chemistry grew beyond the potential double play, and three years later, they married. Today, Reardon and his wife, Angelina, have a 15-month-old girl, who now watches her parents take the field.
“Ten years ago when I was coming in, you didn’t hear much about biotech,” said Reardon, an assistant warehouse manager and captain of the Organogenesis team. “A lot of younger people coming out of college, everyone was looking for someplace to go and drink and have a good time and play a sport.”
“It definitely has grown,” he said. “This is so much more than it was.”
But for Reardon, his teammates, and his competitors at Boston Scientific, it’s no longer just about having a good time. It’s about winning the championship.
“We don’t want to go home with anything less than the cup,” Reardon said.
David Robinson, the left fielder for Organogenesis, is ready for the big win. He scraped his leg while sliding into second base during the team’s recent win over Merrimack. Looking down at his bloody shin, he smiled.
“Pain is temporary,” he said. “Victory is forever.”