By Ross Forman
There was a wide-variety of flavors for the countless Gatorade bottles, both full and empty. The sun was hot and the dust was everywhere. Some wore kneepads or braces to help ailing joints. Some wore Cubs hats; some wore White Sox hats; and some even wore hats supporting the locally hated St. Louis Cardinals. There were numerous bloody knees, or raspberries as they are known in this business, a by-product of sliding while wearing shorts. The cell phones had, it seemed, been silenced.
Summer in Chicago certainly means softball, showcased within the gay community by the third-annual CMSA Chi-Town Softball Classic, July 2-3 at Lincoln Park and the Waveland Fields. There were about 400 athletes competing, representing 41 teams from across the country, up from 25 in the past. There were four divisions, starting with D. There also was a C-Recreational, C-Competitive and B—with numerous Chicago teams in each division. Not to mention teams from Atlanta, Dallas, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Houston, Tampa, Memphis and elsewhere. They had classic nicknames, such as Buck U's, Woody's and Hot & Spicy.
'The biggest thing about softball, and this tournament, is the camaraderie of being with a bunch of guys, getting together and playing together,' said Bob Dias, a pitcher for the Fort Lauderdale Chaos team that advanced to the semi-finals of the C-Competitive division, ultimately losing to Cobalt Big Blue, a team from Washington, D.C.
'We come for the competition, but also the dinners and socializing.'
And the beer, as seen—or heard—by Chaos' post-game chant that ended with, 'Miller Time.'
Dias' team, like most others in the tournament, has a wide range in age. There was a 22-year-old on up to 50—and that's Dias. The team has real-life entrepreneurs and professionals, and literally everything in between.
'I just enjoy playing, like we all do,' said Dias, who is gay, yet his partner of nine years ( William ) is not a participant. There were, though, four Chaos fans who double as real-life partners to the players.
'I've played in straight leagues, but the bond of being gay makes this so enjoyable. You don't see anyone yelling at each other on the field, as you often do in some of the straight leagues. This was a really well-run tournament. This was our first time here, and we definitely will be back.'
Chaos travels across the circuit, stopping at six or seven gay softball tournaments annually. At home, they play games twice-a-week, year-round.
The CMSA regular-season runs from late-April to early-August, with games every Sunday ( except for the Chi-Town Classic weekend and Pride weekend ) . There are 38 teams this summer, a bit more than last year. Games are played at the Lawrence Avenue field and Clarendon Parks. There are about 19 games per Sunday, with each team playing two games per Sunday.
'I love being around my teammates. This really is a bonding experience,' said Dave Bartnick, who serves as the catcher and coach for the Chicago Pizanos team, which captured the championship of the C-Competitive Division. 'This is like the opportunity to be with 12 of your best friends. ... These people are like family to me.'
That helps explain why Bartnick had the crew at his Lakeview home for pizza between games.
The Pizanos range in age from 26 to 54, and some have played together for 15 years. 'Brian' is the youngest of the bunch, a right fielder who laughed when his championship game single was nothing more than a swinging bunt that he legged out from the left side of the plate. 'One way or the other,' he said, standing on first base in the bottom of the first inning. 'Joe,' also in his 50s, ripped an expletive in the second inning when the Cobalt shortstop snagged a hard shot and tagged second base for the final out of the inning. 'Lou' arrived late for the title tilt after struggling to find nearby parking. 'Isiaah' smacked a home run to right field, then blazed around the bases.
This was the Pizanos' first trip to the Chicago tournament finals. They attend about four other tournaments, such as grinds in Atlanta and Palm Springs, among others.
Softball can, believe it or not, be a rough, grueling sport. Teams can play six or seven games in a day, in a row, no less, during a weekend tournament. Bartnick said before the championship game that he was hoping for the title, if only because he was scheduled for arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder three days after the third out of the final game was played—a product of a 2004 softball injury that never fully healed.
'The majority of the players out here are here for the love of the game,' said Dave Salem, who, along with Rian Akey and James Platt, were this year's co-directors for the tournament. 'A lot of people out here are big baseball fans, especially of the Cubs, myself included. That's one of the reasons we play. The team dynamic is special, something very important to a lot of people. Plus, there are a lot of professionals in the league and this tournament, and this is their form of relaxation.'
Salem, 36, was born and raised on the South Side, and a Sox fan. He now lives in Lakeview and has converted to a Cubs fan. He's the shortstop for Chicago Allen Brothers Meats, a C-Competitive team, and he's been playing for about seven years.
'Softball has been an unbelievable experience. I've met some incredible people through softball,' Salem said. 'The thing I really like about softball is, everyone just wants to have fun.'
The on-field competitiveness increases parallel with the level of play. Chicago has only one A-level team. There were three B-Division teams from Chicago in the tournament, and the Chicago T's Cougars finished in third-place in the nine-team division.
The Los Angeles Faultline was the B-Division champion, defeating the Dallas Woody's. The Minneapolis Ravers were the C-Recreation Division champions, beating the Buck U's in the finals. The Chicago Buckshots were the champs in the D-Division, besting the Chicago Scots in the final game.
'Chicago does fairly well on a national basis,' said Salem, whose sister ( Lisa ) and partner ( Terry ) were among numerous tournament volunteers. 'I think we're fairly honest in our rating systems. We follow NAGAA's rating systems completely, which is the national gay softball governing body. We've spent countless hours reviewing players and rosters, to make sure that each and every player is rated properly, fairly. We represent Chicago. We're proud of that fact, and we want to showcase Chicago in the best light possible.'
Softball in Chicago will, no doubt, be a main draw for the 2006 Gay Games. That might mean the 2006 Chi-Town Classic is cancelled, Salem said. But then the '07 tournament should be its best ever, he added.
A decision about the 2006 Chi-Town Classic is expected by November, Salem said, though hopefully by September. 'We have finally documented the administrative process to get this tournament to where we need, want it to be. Now, almost anyone could take this 'document' and basically run a successful tournament. We've meticulously documented what needs to be done, and when.'
To that, Salem is hoping for up to 80 teams at future Chi-Town Classics, complete with a post-tournament award ceremony held in a hotel overlooking the city.
The annual NAGAA Gay Softball World Series will be held Aug. 15-20 in San Diego, and seven or eight Chicago teams are expected to participate.
'The World Series is a fantastic event,' Salem said. 'You have a great time, playing against the best of the best from around the country.' Chicago teams have won in the past, and Salem predicted a B-Division championship for a Chicago team this year.
'The great thing about softball is, there is not a stereotypical player. Anyone and everyone can play—big, small, tall, short, Black, white, gay, straight, whatever,' Salem said.
Each team is allowed two straight players. Lesbians and transgender athletes also can play. There were about 20 women, mostly lesbians, participating in the Chi-Town Classic.
'Having straight players on the field is great because you wish everyone could be like them—accepting,' Salem said. 'Straight guys are comfortable playing in the league too, and the gay guys are comfortable with them playing in the league.'