On any given Sunday between 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Mills Pond Park in Fort Lauderdale bustles with men and women who assemble to play a popular variation of “America’s favorite past-time.”
In droves they come, all to play softball and escape – at least for 7 innings – the rigors of daily life.
The catch? This is more than just an ordinary softball league: it’s a well- established, nationally sanctioned, non-profit gay softball league. Roughly 95 percent of those playing are a part of the LGBT community and, while some women do play in the league, most of the players are men who – like many other softball enthusiasts are there not only for the game, but also for friendly competition. Most of them are professional, blue-collar, aged 25 to over 60, who come to be a part of a community. They come to play their beloved sport with those they can best identify with.
“Softball means a great deal to these people. It’s their life and it’s their livelihood,” says Paul Falcone, 44, the elected chairperson of the league. “They can’t wait for Sundays. Family is a little hokey of a term to use, but to explain the friendships that come out of it and, especially for me, [how] the league helped me come to terms with who I am [with my sexuality]. I knew it was OK when I joined the league and became a part of a team.”
Falcone has been a part of the league since its inception in 1994, but the roots of gay softball are much deeper, as the Website of the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance points out:
“NAGAAA's current membership includes over 680 teams from 37 leagues throughout the United States and Canada”
Indeed, it’s no small, grassroots organization. Even the South Florida chapter, known formally as the “South Florida Amateur Athletic Association” is home, at current, to about 25 teams – all of whom are invited to participate in NAGAAA’s world series tournament – hosted in a different city each year.
Teams are confined to a total of 18 members, but as Falcone notes, “most only carry 13-15” and “rarely change once they are put together.”
Each season (there are two in South Florida because of the accommodating weather) lasts approximately a couple of months, according to Falcone. Teams are broken in to divisions based on ability so as to make for equal match-ups, and after it’s all said and done, there is a double elimination playoff. There is a small “A” division, comprising the most elite players, but it is mostly teams from divisions B-D who then participate in a double elimination playoff to determine who goes to the World Series.
Regardless of the “fairness given to every level of skill,” Falcone adds, the reason that the league has and continues to grow in popularity is not because of the competitive aspect, but rather because of the feelings of camaraderie the players bring with them on and off the field.
“…Keeping that sacred place where we can all be who we are is as important… Regardless of the strides made in the LGBT community – it’s a place of unity that we lose in all walks of life when we walk off that field, not just in terms of sexuality, but in terms of the general divisiveness in society. Just turn on the TV and you can see it. Softball, that field, that need for others, that teamwork and mutual reliance is what makes it so special if even only for that short time.”
And it’s this message that continues to resonate with both the members and potential members of the league. Currently, Falcone says, there are 376 participants in the league. This year, it is anticipated that number will rise to 400 as a result of recruitment efforts.
“We already have 50 new members this year and hope for many more. All they have to do is come and try-out and they’re in.”
Falcone adds that “everyone who tries out will become a part of a team,” and goes on to say that, even if more people than there are teams come to the tryouts, the league will not hesitate to expand.
“Everyone should be able to be a part of this, LGBT, non LGBT, whatever…he says.”
Dues are $40 a year for membership and covers both seasons.