At first blush, it seems like any other recreational softball league holding games on the weekend. Teams with names like “The Family,” “Softball Heroes” or “Trash Talkers” come and go throughout the day. Friends and families of the players show up and eat picnic lunches while watching the games. Children of the players run around and play in the area outside the field. People take time to talk and get caught up with longtime friends. There’s good-natured kidding when somebody misses a catch and cheering when somebody gets a hit. It’s pretty much everything Norman Rockwell would want for one of his paintings of Americana.
This is the “Pride League,” created by and for Salt Lake City’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, and games are played on Sunday at Jordan Park on the field sitting smack-dab next to an LDS Church ward house. Perhaps the scene is an apt metaphor for current relations between the two groups since the upheavals of November’s elections. Neither group is planning on leaving the space it occupies, and both are going on about their business side-by-side without much interaction.
Pride League began in 1992, and according to league chairman Jarrod Ames, the balance of gay-to-straight players is about 50-50. The league plays co-ed rules with five men and women in the field for each team, but since there are sometimes more women than men, teams are allowed to play with more than five women.
Ames emphasizes the general philosophy of the league is low-key. “Everybody out here is just here to have fun,” he says. “Everybody is welcome, no matter what their skill level. During the games, there’s a whole social atmosphere going on.” Interested players can either form their own teams or contact the league to find out about being placed on a team.
Pride League, like many others recreational softball leagues, is administered by Salt Lake County Parks & Recreation. Aaron Smith, who has played in the league since its early days, reports the league was started by gay male players who “got tired of being the one gay team in the league. They said, ‘Let’s just form our own league.’”
Pride used to be the only local league that played on the Sabbath, but there are several others now. He also remembers that the league typically had about six to eight teams that were typically sponsored by gay bars and sex shops through the first decade, but has expanded over the past few years to the point where 18 teams sponsored by a variety of businesses are being fielded this season. “There’s always some evolution with this league,” Smith says of the changes.
Eighteen teams in a gay league that has been around for nearly two decades is notable. “It was a little bit of an eye opener,” says Jessica McKenzie, who moved with her partner from Texas to Utah a couple of years ago and now plays in the league. “They say the gay community here is big, but I didn’t see it until I found this league. The gay community here isn’t as insular as other places. Once you find it, you’re immediately welcomed.”
The concept of getting to know people in a new place is a common reason for joining the league. Ames says, “I get e-mails all the time from people saying, ‘I’m new to the Salt Lake area and I don’t know anyone.’”
Another common reason for getting involved is, as Adah Maycock says, “It gives you something to do with the [LGBT] community that’s not the bar scene.” Having a place to congregate outside of the clubs is important in a city not necessarily known for its nightlife: Gay or straight, “The bar culture here isn’t as big as in other cities,” McKenzie says.
While players regularly sign up for social reasons, it’s also often the case that softball becomes a favorite hobby. Maycock joined because “I didn’t know anybody in the community. I found the league on the Pride Center Website and called up and asked to be put on a team.” And even though she had never played before, “they were super-happy to have me.” She’s now been in the league 14 years, has served as league chairman, and has developed a love of the game to the point where she plays in leagues almost every night of the week.
And what’s the difference between those other rec leagues on weeknights and Sunday afternoons at the Pride League? “It’s community—that’s it,” she says. “It’s fun. Everybody knows everybody.”