4 min

Full count

The batters are at the plate for softball's showcase

GONNA GETCHA. The gay softball gang hosts the world this month. Photo courtesy of the Cabbagetown Group Softball League. Credit: Ideas Photography

Softball is serious business.

There’s backstabbing and nail biting and the list of illegal bats is updated every day, laughs Cabbagetown Group Softball League commissioner George Pratt.

“It changes daily, that’s the big issue. Everybody’s looking for the tool that will give them the hit they require,” says Pratt of the bat list.

Double-walled sticks have aluminum on the inside – which gives the hitter an edge in ball speed and distance. But only the top teams – in the A Division – are allowed to use them. (It’s to keep injuries in check.)

Toronto has no A Division entries in next week’s Series 2000, the Gay Softball World Series, hosted by Pratt’s CGSL for the first time in more than decade.

But Hogtown will have eight teams in the Aug 15 to 19 play-offs, and Pratt predicts Woody’s Xtreme in the men’s B Division has the best chance of placing in the winner’s circle.

Commissioner Pratt has watched the CGSL explode since he first joined 24 years ago.

“In 1976, there wasn’t much to do [in the gay community]. The biggest change is the size,” he says. Ten teams played in Riverdale Park, and “we all seemed to hang out in the same two bars.

“Now we’re 22 teams -there’s a women’s division! – and everybody’s all over the place [with drinking establishments].”

Pratt says softball players are big drinkers; in turn, many of the teams are sponsored by gay bars and the league itself has a beer company throwing money at it. And the liquor board has extended alcohol serving hours to 3am for the duration of the series for the Toolbox and downtown gay ghetto sponsors.

But the league itself is about friendship. “It’s definitely worked for me, most of my friends come from the league. I’ve been traveling to all the world series… because of the bonding and friendship you make when you travel, it’s quite a bonding experience.”

Now the CGSL is welcoming 122 teams, most from the US and one from Tijuana (Pratt is looking for someone who can sing the Mexican national anthem). City Hall will raise the Pride rainbow flag (at noon on Mon, Aug 14) and Church St will close at Wellesley at 5pm on Tue, Aug 15 for the opening ceremonies.

And yes, everyone’s playing to win. Players pay a $100 annual membership fee to join the CGSL.

Says Pratt: “As soon as you get on the field it’s competitive, baseball is about competition.

“I think the women might be more competitive than the men.”

Carol Hylton has coached men and women – and says there is a difference. “Men are more competitive at the physical level.

“It’s far easier for me to coach men. They take constructive criticism… men have blinders on, they just do it.”

The girls get more complicated. “Women are more competitive at the emotional level. They’re not in tune at the same time… You have to be far more delicate. Women can provide a different twist.”

Hylton is now coaching an all-women’s team – the Tango Saints, sitting at the top of the heap in the CGSL Women’s Alternative (or recreational) Division.

This year is her last CGSL outing – she’s retiring after 12 seasons in the league, five of them as a coach – to get the Team Toronto women’s softball squad into shape, a 24-month commitment to take them to the Sydney Gay Games in 2002.

Hylton (a bartender) will miss waking up every weekend at 8am and dragging herself out to a ballpark. “This league’s been my second family for 12 years.”

But she’s leaving with a bang. “We do stand a chance.”

She says it all comes down to the fans and the other players. Support from the sidelines is what gives strength. And being a fan is another way for gay men and lesbians to come together, she adds.

Hylton says many Americans have an edge – teams from Atlanta and Texas have great weather year-round and play year-round – and it shows.

In Toronto, it can be hard for the CGSL to play regular weekend games.

The fields are regulated by the city. “We’ve had the same permits for more than 20 years,” says Pratt. “As slo-pitch has grown, the diamond space is getting quite tight.”

McCleary Park (along the Lakeshore) has three diamonds – only available on weekends until noon. A cricket league has booked the afternoons – but they never show up.

“Every year we argue with City Hall, nothing happens,” says Pratt. “I don’t think they [the cricketers] exist.”

Assistant commissioner Jim Downey says the league had permits revoked one recent weekend in favour of the Fourth Annual Bay St Pro-Celebrity Softball Challenge.

Downey says the players were drinking on the fields and dragging beer cans all over the place.

“It looked a bunch of drunks out there. Our league wouldn’t tolerate anybody drinking in the field. I guarantee if a gay or lesbian person had a beer in their hand, we’d probably be kicked out of Toronto diamonds.”

Pratt says the seeming double-standard was particularly galling because of the careful scrutiny the league suffered during Pride weekend. “We’ve run a beer garden at Pride for the last three years to raise money for Series 2000, and this year liquor inspectors were all over us.”

Pratt has been the softball commissioner for three years – he got the league into Series 2000, and had to see the project through. He’s also a local bar owner, pitching for the Sneak Attack (sponsored by his own Sneakers on Yonge St), and is in C Division. “All the C teams have an equal chance. Since I’m in C, I’m going to say that!”

As for sizing up the US competition: “They’re coming to town, so we can’t say we’re weaker or smaller. We’re equally dedicated.

“Well, they might be bigger, I’m a pretty small guy, five-foot-six, and facing someone six-foot-two, that’s quite intimidating.”

But size doesn’t count in slo-pitch. And Pratt’s looking forward to playing ball.