Central Florida and Tampa Bay softball leagues celebrate milestone anniversaries this season

By : Steve Blanchard
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For more than two decades, LGBTQs in Central Florida have enjoyed friendship and sportsmanship on the softball field. The area’s two largest leagues are celebrating milestones this fall season.

The Suncoast Softball League in Tampa celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and the Central Florida Softball League will mark its 20th year when the first pitches are thrown out this fall. Besides their incredible growth over the years, both leagues have plenty of reasons to celebrate their respective milestone anniversaries in 2017.

A quarter century ago, Central Florida LGBTQs didn’t have many options when it came to socializing within the community. Social networking was a thing of science fiction and bars were the only place where LGBTQs congregated to make friends, develop romances and learn about the community.

But some people within the community wanted another option.

Members of the Tampa Panthers hang out at the 2011 Gasparilla Softball Classic (Photo by Steve Blanchard).

“A few friends gathered at a home and talked about ways to get the community to do something besides just going to the bar,” recalls Kyle Gaither, a long-time board member of the Central Florida Softball League and Orlando Meltdown tournament director. “Nothing against the bars, but they looked at ways to bring the gay community together through athletics. Softball seemed like the way to go.”

Soon, the Central Florida Softball League was formed with the assistance of the Suncoast Softball League in Tampa, which started five years prior. The “sister cities” worked together to bring the grassroots league to fruition.

Partnerships are just as important today as they were in the early days, according to Bobby Schmahl, Suncoast Softball league commissioner.

“Community outreach has always helped us grow,’ Schmahl says. “Word of mouth is the most efficient way to do it but we’ve also partnered with pride organizations and the GaYbor Coalition, all of which attract a good number of people who show interest in competitive and recreational softball.”

Gaither is thankful for the Suncoast Softball League’s influence in those early years and says the two organizations still work closely together.

“We took a little from Tampa and the Suncoast Softball League helped us get up and running,” Gaither says. “One of our first managers I met at an exhibition game in Tampa. It was a chance for us to see how things flow and I found my Orlando team that day.”

While Gaither says he was always an athlete, that’s not the case for all players. Both leagues offer a friendly environment for the athletically inclined and the new-to-athletic crowds to intermingle, learn softball skills and, most importantly, create friendships.

“My team has been together for 20 years,” Gaither says. “Friends bring friends to join the league and soon they bring more people out. Some of my best friends are guys and women I’ve met on the field—gay and straight.”

CFSL Team All For One at 2007 NAGAA World Series came in second place (Photo courtesy Steve Roberts).

While both leagues are co-ed, CFSL also grew large enough to have an all-women’s division, which has become much more than an athletic outlet for women athletes, according to Bonnie Marsh, who is part of CFSL and its Amateur Sports Alliance of North America (ASANA) liaison.

“Since its inception, the women’s division has become much more than just a safe place,” says Marsh. “It has become a place of intense rivalries and at the same time, creating unbreakable bonds and a fierce loyalty to each other.”

Marsh adds that the loyalty extends well beyond Sundays at the softball field and continues throughout the week through other social activities and life in general.

Schmahl admits that when he first stepped onto the softball field 22 years ago, he had no experience with the ball and glove. In fact, he never imagined he would be a part of any sporting event.

“Technically, this is my fifth year as commissioner,” Schmahl explains. He served his first term in 2004-2007 and was again elected to the post for 2017-2018. “I’ve been a team manager, a representative for teams at council meetings and I co-produced the Gasparilla Softball Classic for six years.”

But how does a novice at softball become so engaged in a sports league? For Schmahl, it was all about the environment and the timing. He had just come out of the closet as a gay man two years prior to joining the league and it was through word-of-mouth that he heard about a different way of socializing with other LGBTQs.

“A friend of mine was dating someone in the league and he got me to come out and join a practice,” Schmahl recalls. “I could barely throw a ball when I started and I’m glad to say my skills have improved. I haven’t stopped playing since that first day.”

Throughout the two decades he’s been involved, Schmahl has seen plenty of changes in the league. The divisions have changed somewhat, but the biggest—and in his opinion the best change—has been the increased number of transgender and allied players who have joined the league in recent years.

“Yes, we are a gay league,” Schmahl says. “But we are a very welcoming organization. I’ve had straight players who joined our league talk about their gay brother, cousin, sister or transgender aunt or uncle. They want to show their support and be a part of our community. I don’t see how that can be anything but a positive thing for our league and the community of Tampa Bay.”

Gaither has seen the same thing with the Orlando league and the Orlando Meltdown tournament.

“The leagues shatter expectations and stereotypes on all sides,” Gaither says. “I am definitely supportive of our allies and they are supportive of us. They will tell you being part of this league and being side-by-side out there with gay men has proven that we can be just as athletic as straight men. It’s no longer a gay vs. straight mentality. However, we don’t want to change the league’s identity. We are an LGBTQ league.”

Marsh recalls joining CFSL 20 years ago and being the lone woman on a team of men. She says she was welcomed with open arms.

“There is no better way of breaking down gender barriers, even those that exist within the LGBTQ community, than being on a team together,” Marsh says. “I experienced nothing but love and support from my ‘boys.’ Over the many years, I have always encouraged the women in our league to experience the co-ed division, as it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

Last day of CFSL 2010 season (Photo by Tom Dyer).

Both leagues are open and welcoming places for anyone who loves playing the sport but they are conscious of the fact that they are LGBTQ-focused, and as such both donate to local LGBTQ causes, albeit in different forms.

In Tampa, the Suncoast Softball League raises money for local charities through its Miss and Mr. Suncoast Softball Pageant. Its annual food drive in the fall helps feed the less fortunate and its several pet drives supplying needed items to pet shelters is always successful. Its annual Gasparilla Classic tournament, which celebrates 24 years in February 2018, helps fund its traveling teams throughout the rest of the year.

For the CFSL, charity takes the form of the annual Meltdown Tournament every Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.

“Each team plays for a charity and where you place determines the size of the donation,” Gaither explains. “Teams come from across the country to play, so we have donated to charities across the country. Money is determined by sponsorships and donations of course, so each year the amounts might differ. But it shows how important the community is to our league and to our tournament. Bars, businesses, individuals—all donate to help us give back to the community. Our one largest and consistent sponsor is the Parliament House, who also hosts our tournament’s sign-up night each year.”

In 2013, the CFSL also bid to host the ASANA World Series. CFSL prevailed and hosted 60 teams in October 2015.

“We’re still told by the ASANA members that it was the best tournament they had ever attended,” Marsh says. “The success of that tournament is a testament to all of the members of the CFSL.”

When the two leagues started, each only had a handful of players and a few teams. Today, membership numbers for both the Suncoast Softball League and the Central Florida Softball League have exploded.

According to Schmahl, 26 teams encompassing nearly 500 players are expected to take to the fields this fall. Gaither estimates the CFSL will have more than 35 teams participating in the fall 2017 season. Both leagues also offer a way for players’ families and friends to socialize each week without stepping foot on the diamond.

“We attract players’ families,” Gaither says. “One of the biggest changes off the field that I’ve seen in 20 years is the number of kids at our games. Our players bring their kids, nieces, nephews…and it’s great to see. We’re a family-friendly environment.”

When asked for his fondest memory about his two decades with CFSL, Gaither didn’t hesitate with his response.

Keith’s is one of 12 teams that played in the Suncoast Softball League in 2001. They are pictured here in a 2001 issue of Watermark (Watermark Archive).

“I had a player who never played ball in his life come up to me and say ‘thank you for what you do,’” Gaither says. “He said that his father came out to see him play ball for the first time. He said that he had a hit and he was able to see his dad cheering for him. I teared up at that story because it is an experience I took for granted as an athletic kid—my dad was always in the stands. Now, here is a young player whose dad tells him he plans to be in the stands every week to watch his son play ball, and that memory reminds me of why I’m on the board and why it’s important to keep leagues like ours going.”

While both leagues are focused on their upcoming season, an even larger event is looming in the near-future. Tampa Bay will play host to the Gay Softball World Series in September 2018. The event not only brings in teams and players from across the nation to participate in a competitive tournament, but it also gives the Suncoast Softball League a chance to showcase Tampa Bay.

“We have a number of complexes to play ball and a number of attractions here because we’re a tourist destination,” Schmahl says. “This will attract more than 5,000 people to Tampa Bay and bring a few million dollars into the local economy. There is so much going on here that it’s the perfect time for us to host the World Series in our city.”

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