cover_story_2 (2007-03)

Health & Fitness Issue (continued)

Knoxville’s got a gay softball league. Not a team—a league. There. It’s out. 

It’s called K-town Softball League, or KSL. Faux-athletic gay social club? Not exactly. Women’s Division Commissioner Frieda Fontanilla explains: “Yeah, we’re a gay league. But it’s about softball.”

Here are the stats: Scott Jackson founded the organization in 2004 with four teams. In less than three years, KSL has grown to 12 teams of 12 to 18 players each in three divisions: Men’s C (highly competitive), Men’s D (recreational), and Women’s. (Both of the “men’s” divisions are actually co-ed.) Today there are 163 active participants. They play by the American Softball Association slow-pitch rules, and under the umbrella of the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance.

Anyone over 18 years of age is eligible to play in any division, with one stipulation—only two straight people per team. “We’re definitely dedicated as a gay league,” says Keith McDaniel, who has served as the League Commissioner since KSL’s inception. “Not that we ask players to tell us their orientation. It’s an honor code, designed to maintain a feeling of community and a comfortable environment.”

In the eyes of League members, it’s that commitment to community that makes KSL special. “I saw a flyer and thought, ‘Wow, what a great thing for the gay community,’” Fontanilla says. “Being from out of state and moving here, to have something like this is a big deal.” She goes on to point out that Knoxville’s gay softball participation rivals Nashville’s, even though they’ve been in existence longer.

According to KSL’s website, www.ktownsoftball.com , (which borrows language from Nashville’s Music City Softball League website),  “KSL is a welcoming place for any person who shares our ideals of tolerance and acceptance. Our teams include gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and straight players, in addition to players of every age and race, and we’re very proud of our diversity! We’re committed to creating a fun and exciting environment for the pursuit of athletic ability and camaraderie for all people.”

Doesn’t that just give you the warm-and-fuzzies? Well, not so fast, Pollyanna; if you wanna play, you’d better bring the heat because KSL’s competitive teams are no joke.

They practice nearly year round, and travel regularly to tournaments in Nashville, Atlanta, Birmingham, and as far away as Tampa and Orlando. One women’s team, Gyrlgroove (sponsored by the organization of the same name), competed against contingents from all across the country at Gay Games VII held in Chicago. Think Olympics, but more fabulous. In fact, C-division outfit Hard Knox has been touring the tournament circuit for about 10 years now. You might say they were the muse that inspired the development of the League in the first place.

Yet while KSL is proud of their athletic achievements, they also offer opportunities for beginners or simply less-serious players in the recreational division, which enjoys the same support as the more competitive divisions: same umpires, same rules, same fees, same fields. Same good times, as evidenced by the unusually rapid growth of the entire program.

So far, the League’s success is attributable primarily to its positive reputation within the gay community. Though KSL advertises for new members with fliers, on their website, and at local clubs (such as Kurt’s Bar and Grill, The Rainbow Room and XYZ, which are also sponsors of the League), most members hear about the organization by word-of-mouth.

Now the League is at a point where they want to engage the Knoxville community at-large. To that end, they’ve set up an information booth at nearly every event on Market Square in the last year, occasionally staffing the booth with more people than turn out for the event itself (as was the case at Coming Out Day this past October). And they’re hoping to increase visibility and sponsorship with the upcoming Spring season.

But as you might expect for openly-gay-anything in East Tennessee, KSL has encountered what seems to be some resistance from outsiders. For the last few seasons, KSL has been playing at Mayor Bob Leonard Park off Watt Road, which is owned and scheduled by the Town of Farragut. However, in an e-mail from Town of Farragut Athletics and Parks Council (APC) Coordinator, Jason Wright, sent this past November, McDaniel and other Farragut field users were informed: “Due to expansion of our leagues and increased pressure for practice and game time for softball and youth baseball, the Parks and Athletics Council unanimously voted to adopt a policy refusing use to outside individuals or groups that conduct leagues that duplicate Town sponsored leagues. Currently this would include adult leagues in softball and volleyball. The decision was made to meet the needs of the greater community as a whole. 

“We invite any groups that have been running leagues to participate in Town sponsored leagues. We will have more openings available than in the past for men’s competitive, men’s recreation, and coed [softball].”

Questions of “duplication” aside, when MP contacted Anne LaGrow, Leisure Services Coordinator for Farragut to inquire about park usage for a non-Farragut-sponsored adult softball team, we were told that any field availability not reserved by Farragut sports at a Jan. 16 APC meeting would be available on a first-come, first-serve basis on Jan. 28. We told McDaniel, who’s decided to pursue options in Knox County, where park officials seem to him to be more amenable to hosting a gay softball league.

McDaniel’s plan is to lock down playing fields somewhere by the end of January, hold sign-ups at various gay clubs in February, offer hitting and fielding technique clinics for newcomers in early March, and begin the regular season later that month. Anyone interested in signing up can e-mail McDaniel, or any other officer, via the League’s website. Player fees are $30 per season. KSL is nothing if not organized, and despite setbacks in scheduling facilities, this season should be no different.

It certainly takes some effort to keep things running smoothly, perhaps more effort than the average softball league requires. But for McDaniel, it’s a challenge he modestly welcomes: “There’s a satisfaction you get out of bringing people together, watching them have a good time, and knowing you had a part in that. It’s like when you drive home from work, and you’ve had a good day, and you know you accomplished something, that’s the same feeling as being involved in any organized sport.”