More than 3,000 softball players have descended upon Chicago this week from all over the continent for the for the 35th Annual North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance Gay Softball World Series, which starts tournament play Tuesday and runs through Sunday.
"No matter what community you're representing, straight gay or whatever, hosting events like this is about so much more than that basic underlying athletic part of it," said Ted Cappas, president of Series 2011 Chicago, the nonprofit organization that has spent the last two years planning the event. "It's about competition and community and in our case, the LGBT community."
This year marks the first time since 1983 that Chicago has hosted the Gay Softball World Series, and organizers say it has grown tremendously since then. According to Aaron Brost, director of marketing and ceremonies for the event, Chicago's 1983 Gay Softball World Series, had just one division with 14 teams. This week, 150 teams from 41 North American cities are expected to participate.
Cappas, who credits the organizers of the 1970s and 80s for creating a tournament that's been sustainable, said that this year's World Series comes at a time when "Chicago, the community, is much more accepting of gays and lesbians." Softball, he added, has had such staying power among gay athletes not only because of its camaraderie but also because people tend to continue playing as they grow older.
At the World Series, play is split into five divisions: A, B, C, and D, with A being the most advanced skill level, as well as a masters division for those ages 50 and older.
To host the tournament, Series 2011 Chicago has raised more than $220,000 in private and corporate donations, and organizers estimate that the city will see $5 to $6 million in economic impact because of the event. Cappas and his seven fellow Series board members are also aiming to raise about $50,000 for local and national charities, like the Broadway Youth Center and the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation, which is dedicated to anti-bullying.
In between Monday and the weekend, the core of the Series -- the softball games -- will take place in Elmhurst, Schaumburg and St. Charles. Brost called the suburban softball fields "just exceptional" and said they will meet tournament regulations better than those owned by the Chicago Park District.
Playing on those suburban fields will be teams ranging from those who are just out there to win to more social teams to those who combine both, like the pink- and blue-clad Shady Ladies, who were also last year's Division C champions.
"I think because people feel so empowered to be themselves, sometimes you do see characters who aren't afraid to really dress it up with a fun uniform or a big cheering team," Brost said. "They're like, 'This is what we do and who we are.'"
Brost, 37, of Lincoln Park, as well as Cappas, 39, of Andersonville, will be playing for a division B team in the World Series called Downtown Bar and Lounge, which is sponsoring the team. Brost said that initially, being a part of a gay softball team gave him a comfortable environment to ease into both a new social scene and into team sports after moving to the city from the suburbs.
"I personally didn't feel comfortable participating on sports teams -- maybe I was feeling I would be made fun of," he said. "Now I actually feel empowered to be an athlete."
It shows, as games among upper division teams can get extremely heated.
Matt Bauman, 24, said that his team, the Orlando Broadway Crush, nabbed third and second in its division the last couple of years, meaning that this year, "if we don't win, I know personally, I will disappointed."
Bauman, a former college baseball player, is so committed to his teammates that he flew back and forth from Nashville, where he lives, to Florida to play with the Crush as they qualified for the World Series, which will be Bauman's second.
"As long as this team exists, I will not play for another team," he said. "They would do anything for me, and I would do anything for them. The bond we have with this team and the friendship made with these guys, we'll cherish when we're way too old to play softball."
Apart from the actual softball games, which are free and open to the public, the Gay Softball World Series includes a street fair in Boystown. Tournament winners will also be recognized on the field during for Pride Day at Wrigley during Sunday's Chicago Cubs game.
For an updated tournament schedule, ceremony and street fair info, and field locations, check out the Chicago Series 2011 website.