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    San Francisco’s Gay Softball League Welcomes Players of All Genders, Levels, Shapes and Sizes

    softball“P-u-t-i-t-i-n, put it in, the hole, the hole.”

    If you are strolling through a neighborhood park in San Francisco on a beautiful Spring Sunday morning, you just might hear a collective voice chanting this cheer.  You might wonder, “What are they putting in, and in what hole??” Your cat-like curiosity leads you to discover thousands of LGBT players sporting big sticks, jock straps and lots of grapefruit size balls. Upon closer inspection you see a large, closely knit and social community of athletes competing and having some good old fashioned fun!

    I am talking about softball, in case you haven’t figured it out. San Francisco Gay Softball League (SFGSL) is amongst the oldest, most deeply rooted and largest in the country, with 60 teams and over a thousand players. Current SFGSL Commissioner Vincent Fuqua shared that “our league began around 1971 and was the first gay softball league in the country. Our founders also helped form NAGAAA (North America Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance) softball in 1977.” Today, NAGAA has 44 member leagues across the U.S. and Canada. The draw to softball for LGBT players is twofold: first, barrier to entry is among the easiest of all sports; second, when you play on a team, you are family.

    With an entry-level division (D Division) where players new to the game can join a team and learn to play with other new players, SFGSL is welcoming to players of all levels and experience. Fernando Ventura (of “The Fernando and Greg Morning Show” on 99.7 Now) had a brief little league baseball career at age 11. “I bowed out when my friend’s mother eloquently stated that I couldn’t hit my way out of a paper bag.” As an adult, Fernando made a triumphant return to a game similar to baseball, slow pitch softball. “I joined [SFGSL] because the team manager reminded me that everybody hits the bars in the Castro after the games.” Once in the league, Fernando saw that he “wasn’t alone and [he’d] be on a team with players at the same skill level.”

    “Softball is definitely a less intimidating environment, plus you can play softball without being an all around jock,” said Blake Joerger, the Commissioner of Inferno, an LGBT softball organization with eight teams competing in five SFGSL Divisions. Sheryl Phipps, President of the Inferno non-profit, added that “our softball family welcomes players of all genders, levels, shapes and sizes.”

    The newest addition to Inferno is team T-Rex, founded by Tony Padia in 2013. T-Rex players are mostly transgender people coming together for the love of the game and so as not to face “being misgendered, judged and ridiculed based on self-identity.” Although Tony had previously played softball in both the gay and non-LGBT leagues, he didn’t “necessarily feel mentally safe.” Tony further explained, “Before my transition, I played on teams that were co-ed (six men and six women), meaning you had to play a position that matched your gender identity. Once I changed my identity I was told that there wasn’t a ‘male’ spot open on the team.” Tony’s experience motivated him to start a team that is “queer inclusive,” and more importantly, a team that is founded for transgender people where everyone can feel safe and a sense of belonging.

    When asked how the Inferno is able to support so many teams, Sheryl responded candidly: “We do a lot of fundraisers! Our guys and gals have done everything short of standing on the street corner!” Inferno’s success comes from the dedication and commitment of their leaders and volunteers, and their relentless pursuit of customers for Jell-O shots, beer, raffles, tips, etc.  Just as importantly, the teams also receive financial support from various local LGBT businesses forming a symbiotic relationship.

    The Lone Star Saloon has been a long-time sponsor of Inferno, despite a change of ownership five years ago. Current owner JJ Beck shared his admiration for Sheryl, Blake and the entire Inferno organization as the main reason why he sponsors their softball teams.

    “Sheryl is an amazing person!” exclaimed JJ. “She’s done so much for the LGBT community through softball. San Francisco needs more people like her and Barb (Sheryl’s wife).” JJ also cautioned that it is not a requirement for any LGBT business to sponsor teams and organizations, but rather something that The Lone Star chooses to do “to strengthen our community and to have another safe place where we can be ourselves.” JJ truly believes that sports groups such as the Inferno do so much for the LGBT community and “together we are a lot stronger!” I’d say San Francisco needs more people like JJ Beck!

    Now you’ve heard all the cheers, seen all the hot men and women playing gaily and felt that strong sense of belonging, maybe you’ll want to “put it in the hole” or hit the ball where there is no defender?

    John Chen, a UCLA alumnus and an avid sports fan, has competed as well as coached tennis, volleyball, softball and football teams.