As the 24th annual Hurricane Showdown international gay softball tournament approaches, one thing is apparent: It's a chosen family affair.
More than 1,000 players, partners, and other participants are just days away from descending on the Fort Lauderdale area for Thanksgiving weekend. And while local teams from the South Florida Amateur Athletic Association make up a third of the tournament field, it's those teams and players who come to South Florida from around the country and Canada that make this event stand out.
"The Showdown is one of the premier tournaments in the country," said Kevin Riddle, 53, of Nashville, Tennessee. Riddle, who has played in 13 Showdowns, is a former assistant commissioner of NAGAAA, the national LGBT softball organization.
"Fort Lauderdale is a fantastic place to spend Thanksgiving with your chosen family. The first year I decided to play instead of spending Thanksgiving with my biological family was definitely different," Riddle continues. "I realized that family isn't only biological. It is the one tournament away from our regional area that my team as a whole still looks forward to and attends every year. We love it."
Riddle's Nashville Force is one of 55 teams from 17 cities and Canada scheduled to play Nov. 23-25. Some fly in from as far away as Portland, Oregon, Toronto and Minneapolis, while those closer to home drive in from Tampa and Orlando.
Dallas Ziegler, 25, and Daniel Ziegler, 43, both of Orlando, play for the Orlando Circus. Combined, the husbands have played in 17 Showdowns and return annually.
"The Showdown is that long weekend getaway with your chosen family, where there is always laughter, always excitement, and always that competition we all thrive upon," said Dallas Ziegler, who adds that he loves to travel the country to play softball. "For most of us the Hurricane Showdown has become more of a lifestyle than a hobby … to be with your true friends and family."
Daniel Ziegler will be competing in his 14th Showdown. Those have included two years as a coach, one year with a broken leg, and last year attending just two days after an emergency appendectomy.
"The Showdown sparked an addiction to the tournament circuit fueled by the love of the family that is the gay softball community," Daniel Zieglerexplained. "SFAAA year after year continues to run a first-class tournament in one of the best locations. The friendships that I have built out of this tournament are some of the best anyone could be so lucky to have. Everything from the host bars, fields and complexes, the weather, as well as the competition, makes this one of the elite NAGAAA tournaments."
The Showdown, which also brings together local sponsors and businesses, provides a safe environment for the LGBT community and their supporters to gather and compete. This will be the third consecutive year that the tournament is presented with the support of Prudential.
"It gives me a great opportunity to show off the corner of the world that I love to call home," said Tournament Director Michael Moody, 61, of Fort Lauderdale. "I am proud of the league and I'm very proud of my city, which is known for its amazing hospitality and its welcoming attitude toward the LGBT community."
The tournament is played at Mills Pond Park in Fort Lauderdale and Brian Piccolo Park in Cooper City. Off-field events begin on Wednesday, Nov. 21, with a local registration party at Infinity Lounge. The opening registration party is Thanksgiving night at Matty's on the Drive. GYM Bar will host Friday night's party, while The Pub will welcome everybody Saturday night. The closing ceremony will be held at the Alibi/Monkey Bar on Sunday after the championship games, with Pint hosting a nightcap afterward.
The host hotel is the Courtyard by Marriott, just a few steps from the sandy beach and Atlantic Ocean.
"Because of the community involvement and businesses that open their doors to welcome all of our participants, it truly becomes a city-wide experience," said Moody, who is in his third year as tournament director.
The tournament sports three divisions of play based on skill: D Division, C Division and B Division. All teams play three round-robin games to determine seeding for the double-elimination tournament. Trophies are awarded to the top three teams in all divisions, and this year each winning player will receive a ball cap.
Teams can choose to play on Fridays, which makes this event unique compared to other LGBT tournaments. Friday’s games are at Mills Pond Park. Some teams then travel to Piccolo Park for play on Saturday and Sunday morning, and all divisions will return to Mills Pond on Sunday afternoon for the championship games. The community is encouraged to come to Mills on Sunday, Moody says, as the tournament will be giving away prizes like weekend stays at local resorts, airline tickets, dinners for two at area restaurants, and "other stuff."
Friday night also features a home run derby at Mills Pond.
Food by P.C. Concessions and beer will be available at both fields. Breakfast sandwiches and coffee will also be served for those teams playing in the mornings. Dirt Athletic will offer a variety of sportswear for purchase to mark the tournament.
But at its roots, the Showdown remains a chosen family affair.
"I abandon my four children each year to go, and they get it," said El (Michele) Fernstein, of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, who only admits to being 49 and will be playing in her seventh Showdown. "I travel around the country playing 12-14 tournaments a year, and the Showdown is at the top of my list," continues Fernstein, who describes herself as a heterosexual lesbian with a twist. "Being HL, I have always been thrilled and accepted in this marvelous environment. And also being close to the beach isn't too shabby, either!"
As soon as the tournament ends, planning will begin for a milestone event next year as the Showdown will celebrate its 25th anniversary.
"I have lots of big plans in the works," said Moody, who almost resigned as tournament director, but just couldn't bring himself to do it. "I can't give out any details but I promise it will be big and should not be missed by anyone who loves softball or this great city that we live in.
"Plan on getting some sand between your toes next year," Moody hints.
Tim Martin is the chairman of the South Florida Amateur Athletic Association. Visit www.sfaaasoftball.com for more information about the league and upcoming tournament.