By Ross Forman
Wedding bells and softball bats converge in the nation’s capital this week.
This year’s NAGAAA Gay Softball World Series is hosted by Washington D.C., and 157 teams will be participating in five divisions, including the top-tiered A-Division and the age 50-and-over Master’s Division. The Gay Softball World Series is the annual showcase of the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance a non-profit international sports organization, comprised of more than 800 teams in 45 leagues across the U.S. and Canada.
About 2,500 players will be swinging for softball glory at three area complexes, on 16 total fields.
“We were a bit afraid, having the event on the East Coast, that some of the West Coast teams may not attend, but that has not happened,” said Chris Balton, the NAGAAA commissioner who has played in the Series for 12 years and is making his debut this time in the Master’s Division. “There are a record number of teams, so we’re excited about that. In fact, expansion going forward is the big issue, something we will need to address. If we continue to grow, it will eliminate some of the cities that can host the event, based on the needs,” of the tournament.
Last year, there were 154 teams in Minneapolis, and there were 151 in 2011 in Chicago. The 2014 Series will be held in Dallas.
“The level of play will be excellent, the best of the best, as always,” said Balton, 53, who lives in Memphis. “Typically, if you follow the path of winners in really big brackets, you have to get a break now and then; sometimes it might just be the luck of the draw. But, when you get down to Friday and Saturday, I don’t think the competition gets any better.”
The champions of the five-day tournament will be crowned on Saturday.
“The World Series is all about the camaraderie; it’s like a family reunion, seeing players who you might only see once a year. It’s such an amazing social event, beyond the on-field competitiveness,” said Jack Neilsen of Chicago, who is the business development director for NAGAAA and will be playing for the B-Division Roadhouse 66 Dragons, marking his eighth World Series appearance. “This event is huge for so many, with friendships built at the World Series that last a lifetime.”
This year’s Series certainly will have a lifetime flavor, with same-sex marriage allowed in Washington D.C. and Maryland.
Balton, for instance, is attending his first two gay weddings while on the East Coast, both for players associated with the Series, and he even is the best-man for one of the weddings.
Balton’s emotional East Coast trip will be capped Wednesday night when he is elected in the NAGAAA Hall of Fame, along with seven others: Dan Cleveland (Atlanta), John Deffee (Phoenix), John Haas (Boston), Terri Goddard (Kansas City), Frank Delgado (Los Angeles), Scott Young (Tampa), and Chip Brown (Washington D.C.).
“I’m real excited, honored,” to be inducted, Balton said. “When my partner committed suicide (in 2000), if I didn’t have softball, I don’t know what I would have done. Softball became my family, my support for so long. I do what I do because I want to give back to softball because I never could give back enough to softball what it’s given to me.”
Balton has played gay softball for 13 years, and his partner, Levi Grant, also is in the tournament. In fact, Grant will be playing for the C-Division Twin Cities Insanity team, along with his dad, Tom Grant.
“I am honored to be part of the World Series for the second time,” said Tom Alcock, of Chicago. “As a straight player and ally to the community, being accepted by my teammates, the (predominantly gay) league (in Chicago) and NAGAA is touching. I look forward to bringing the World Series trophy back to Chicago.”
Palm Springs is the lone new city represented in this year’s Series. There are also teams from Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
Predicting the World Series Winners:
A Division: Orlando Force
B Division: Twin Cities Frostbite
C Division: Chicago 3160/Tanel Express
D Division: Houston Toros
Master’s: Tampa Half Century Sluggers