Pictured CMSA Senior Cup action, photos by Ross Forman.
By Ross Forman
They come to Chicago from across the country. From San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle. From Houston, Detroit and Atlanta. And for one weekend ( Sept. 10-11 ) , they all wear a sky-blue t-shirts with white lettering on the front that says SIDETRACK, the Lakeview bar that serves as the sponsor for this mix of softball superstars. On the back, their shirts say, Another Year Above Ground.
Welcome to the world of 40-and-over softball, showcased with the sixth-annual CMSA Senior Cup, played in the heat and humid on the dusty Waveland Park fields along the lakefront.
Will Hartmann, a former Sidetrack bartender ( 1984-'88 ) who is now a postmaster in Mineral Bluff, Ga., coaches the crew of competitive division castaways that captured the top-tiered Rocker Division in the annual post-Labor Day tournament for the fourth time in six years.
Sidetrack had to defeat the Seattle Hard Attacks twice to claim the championship—and they did, winning 14-8 and 11-2.
'This tournament is awesome, like a company picnic or family reunion,' said Hartmann, who pitches and plays various infield positions, including first- and second-base. 'Every year at the Gay World Series, held in August, there's always one player who comes up to me, wanting to play on my team in this tournament. But most have played each and every year.'
Hartmann recruits the Sidetrack team from peers he's played with and against more than 20-plus years. The Sidetrack team ranges in age from 40-47. Hartmann's partner, Mike Crocker, is only 33, so he can only coach the bases.
'This is my opportunity to have fun playing alongside guys who I really respect,' Hartmann said. 'I look forward to this tournament more than any tournament in softball because of the camaraderie. That may not have been the case years ago, but certainly is now. This tournament is more relaxed than others. There isn't as much competition or stress.
'Umpires tell me all the time that gay softball is a pleasure to work because the guys don't fight or really argue; there's no backstabbing; there's no testosterone-overload. This tournament is even more so that way because everyone out here really respects each other. There's so much mutual respect.'
This year's Senior Cup featured a tournament-record 19 teams, up from 15 last year, with three divisions: Rocker, Walker and Scooter. There were participating teams from Seattle, Cleveland, Dallas, Atlanta and Minneapolis, among other places.
'The tournament went very well and everyone seemed to enjoy it,' said tournament director Peter Meyer, who celebrated his 50th birthday hours after the final out was recorded. 'We are at the point now where we need to discuss expansion, or do we want to remain at an intimate number, 19.'
Meyer played for Rob's Roundup, playing catcher and left field for the Chicago-based team, despite wearing a Jackhammer softball shirt on Sunday. He had a home run in his first at-bat and a triple on Sunday, among other hits.
'There really is an appeal to playing with guys you may not normally play with during the regular-season. Plus, this is a very laid-back tournament,' said Meyer, a Senior Cup founder, who vividly recalls the rain-filled 1998 tourney with seven teams—when the dream then was just to expand to a 16-team field.
'Well, we've surpassed that ( goal ) because the fire of softball burns within everyone, regardless of one's age.'
Take, for instance, Pat Conlon, who played for the Pilsner Huffin Puffin team of San Francisco. He was born in 1932. Then there was Chuck Dima, of the Fort Lauderdale Alibi Angeles. Though he was just a Senior Cup coach, Dima was born in 1929.
'The folks who are here are all mature, and have a view of what's really important in the world, that sense of perspective that we hopefully get when we get older,' said Sidetrack owner Art Johnston. 'That said, they still are very competitive, but it's the friendships that are the most important aspect of this tournament.'
Johnston and Hartman, for instance. Hartman jokes that he's the main reason Sidetrack wasn't boarded up years ago. Johnston counters that, if he listened to Hartman's advise on which drinks would be popular, the bar would have failed.
Each laughs with the other's tale.
'This tournament is one of the highlights of my year,' said Johnston, a former CMSA board member now retired from on-field action. 'Getting to see guys who played on teams that I sponsored, or played against us, back in '83, '84, '85 and '86, and now live elsewhere, but still come back for the event, that's very enjoyable.
'Anyone who is over 40 and has been around gay softball for even a little bit, they're here. This tournament really is a joy, truly a special experience.'
This year, there were five or six women playing, Meyer said. And at least one straight player: Phil Runions, the Sidetrack pitcher who has played in gay softball leagues since 1981. Runions, 45, has been married for 25 years to Kathy, and their daughter ( Jennifer, 27 ) also plays in the CMSA leagues, though she too is straight.
'This is just a great tournament,' said Runions, an importer who lives in Norridge. 'During the season, we're enemies. But for this tournament, we're friends again. If they don't have a problem ( that I'm straight ) , I don't have a problem with ( the fact my teammates are gay ) .'
Runions plays for the Chicago Spin A-Division team during the regular-season.
'These two teams ( in the competitive division championship ) probably could compete with any two teams in the United States,' Runions said. 'I would play this ( Sidetrack ) team against any other team, gay or straight, in the U.S. ... This is a very, very good team and this is a great, great tournament.'
The San Francisco-based Bubbies team defeated the Crew team of Minneapolis 8-2 to capture the Walker Division championship.
Bob's Old Bats of Chicago defeated the Seattle Stroke to win the Scooter Division. Bob's had to win back-to-back games over the Stroke for the title—and they did just that, winning 18-12 and 16-15.
'The tournament was a lot of fun,' said Bob's Bob Heidrich, 43, of Wrigleyville, who pitched and played left field. 'Most of the guys in this tournament can hit. It's the other parts of the game where guys are slower, weaker. However, the competition is very good, in every division.'
The seventh-annual Senior Cup will be Sept. 9-10, 2006.
'The community has suffered a lot of losses due to AIDS, yet these people, in this age-group, 40-and-over, really appreciate friends who are still alive,' Johnston said. 'I think that's one of the things that makes this tournament so important, so special.'
See www.chicagoseniorcup.com .