The Same, but Different

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The Same, but Different
No matter what team you’re on, softball is softball

At Kiest Park last week, Barbara Barnette, athletic coordinator for the Dallas Park and Recreation Department, was trying to determine whether the Gay Softball World Series was different from any other softball tournament that had been played at the park. "Really, it's not that much different, because softball is softball," she decided, and then paused for a moment as two hairy men in tank tops and sunglasses walked into the park holding hands. "Of course, you're going to see a few things you don't normally see," she said.

The series delivered about 4,000 gay and lesbian athletes to Dallas last week. Their coaches, scorekeepers, umpires, partners and fans followed them as they competed in Southern Dallas, Irving and Carrollton; as they visited the bars on Cedar Springs Road (the umpires may not have actually made it to Cedar Springs); when they attended the Mr. and Miss Gay World Series contest; and as they padded about the Sheraton Brookhollow on Thursday waiting for the rain to go away. One hundred fifty teams from Canada and the United States--including the Chicago Mood Swings, the Evil Empire (Virginia Beach), the L.A. Vipers and the San Francisco Pilsner Huffin Puffins--played in men's and women's tournaments.

What Barnette was saying--that softball is softball, no matter your bedmate--was apparent just about everywhere last week. There was, for example, the piquant aroma of BENGAY; the cheers sound the same as in straight softball; and the umpires dust off home plate just as officiously. The concessions don't taste any better, but at least there was evidence of the redeeming truism that in American amateur sports, the less accomplished the players seem, the more enthusiastic their fans become.

The transparency between traditional and gay softball is something the series' organizers had worked hard to create. Several days before the series began, Lon Berger, the men's division commissioner for the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance (NAGAAA), which produces the series, explained why. "I was never a super ballplayer," he said, "but when I saw what it had to do with people, and particularly gay people, I became very dedicated to providing an opportunity for gay people to play ball." Gay men are just as good as straight players, Berger said, but as a gay male, "you might be a little bit nellier" and perhaps less than confident as a result. "I've played on straight teams and IBM teams and church teams," Berger said, "and you go in the dugout and you go 'Whoo! Whoo!' and the straight guys are like..." and he curled up his face, mimicking their utter misapprehension of his demonstrative team spirit.

But Berger's explanation prompted Matt Miller, who owns the Miss Texas Pageant and two local gay bars and is a local organizer of the series, to pipe up. "I have a totally different take on it," he said. When he started playing softball in 1982 in Kansas City, "I was a 22-year-old male coming out, and I finally got to meet other athletic men that could play softball." Playing softball taught him that he was not, in fact, "the only gay man who watches football on TV."

Then Pam Dunham, a Dallas director of product management for MCI and the women's commissioner for NAGAAA, offered a reason of her own. "We have found most lesbians have played softball their whole lives," she said. "As a lesbian growing up, you might not have known where else to find other lesbians, but you could find them on the ball field. Unlike for some men, who were the last ones picked, in most cases the lesbians were the first person picked."

And so the Gay Softball World Series was packed with the sometimes contradictory expectations of its organizers and players. But with something like 350 games to be played in the men's division alone, and one day lost to rain, there wasn't a lot of time last week to ponder the philosophy behind the series.

Before each game, however, Debra Jean Lowery, a local administrator of the series and the longtime coach of Dallas Front Runner, reminded her players that they were at the World Series because of "friends, fun and fundamentals of softball," a brief philosophy, but a philosophy nonetheless.

On Saturday, the last day of the series, Front Runner had clobbered the Fort Lauderdale Storm 13-1 and felt prepared for the championship game against the San Francisco Fire, nearly half of whose players are firefighters. Last year, at the series in Washington, D.C., Front Runner had been in precisely the same position but "kind of got a wake-up call," as assistant coach Tanya Spencer puts it, after they coasted on their success instead of remaining nimble and humble for the championship game.

They came in second that year. "We're going to make sure that doesn't happen this year," Spencer said before the players huddled up for the last time (the team is disbanding now in their 12th year).

Front Runner hit strong early on, racking up runs that the San Francisco Fire couldn't overcome. After Front Runner won 8-4, the players ran toward the water cooler. Gay or straight, a cold-water dunking is traditional for the winning coach. --Claiborne SmithPanic Button

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