The Phillies are facing off with the Diamondbacks this week for a chance to compete in the World Series. But they aren’t the first batters and pitchers to represent the city in hopes of earning a national tournament berth this year.
Just over a month ago, players from Philadelphia gathered around a baseball diamond for the Gay Softball World Series.
Andre Dionne of Delaware has pitched in the tournament 19 times. This year he brought a new fan: his toddler.
“I’d go up to bat and he’d be right there at the fence, and I’d put my fingers through to touch his,” said Dionne, who plays for the City of Brotherly Softball League (CBLSL). “He was like my little good luck charm.”
Dionne met his husband, Evangelos “Andy” Kostoulas, through the league in 2010 and now the pair are teammates on CBLSL’s Tasty Cakes, one of four teams that represented Philadelphia at this year’s World Series. It was the couple’s first time returning to the event since becoming parents, and Dionne was excited to be with friends he only sees at this annual gathering.
“They mean a great deal to me,” he said. “It’s one of my priorities to be there because of the friendships and memories and experiences I’ve been blessed with over the years.”
The event, which wrapped up over Labor Day weekend, was hosted by NAGAAA (the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance) in Minneapolis, Minnesota, welcoming 225 teams from 54 North American cities.
Philly’s other teams were eliminated in early rounds, but the Tasty Cakes — though seeded 37th in their division — persisted through multiple close games and comebacks. During their fourth matchup, the Norfolk Gunners were up four runs in the final inning, but the Tasty Cakes tied the game during their last at-bat and won in extra innings. That earned them a primetime showdown under the lights on Friday night where they shutout Orlando’s Outlaws, 7-0. They beat the Seattle Revolution during their semifinal game, scoring seven runs in the last inning for a surprising one-run victory.
The team suffered a narrow loss in the division’s last championship game against Ft. Lauderdale’s Riptide, the No. 1 seed. After beating out 62 teams, the Tasty Cakes came home with a second place trophy.
“We were so not expecting that,” said Dionne, who manages the team. “That’s what made it such a magical run.”
It was the first World Series for most of their players, including Jeff Henry, an outfielder who started playing softball just three years ago. His daughters, who he previously coached in youth programs, watched games and gave him pointers during the regular season.
As someone who came out later in life, he worried he might not be accepted by the community, but he now calls the team a “found family.” When his partner, who introduced him to the league, passed away unexpectedly, Henry said his teammates showed up for him. “They’re always there no matter what.”
Dionne described the league as unique in its ability to cultivate such a strong sense of fellowship. “I’ve played in non-LGBTQ+ leagues in the past. I just find that you don’t necessarily feel as free to be yourself,” he said. He said CBLSL appreciates players for their “authentic self,” a contrast to the stereotyping or otherizing players have experienced elsewhere.
A space to connect and be yourself
CBLSL was formed by and for gay men in 1983, but now it has almost 700 players across 32 teams in open and women’s+ divisions.
“Gay men needed that safe space, especially when it came to sports,” said Jen Brown, the league’s current commissioner, alluding to the AIDS crisis and the stigma queer men faced during the late 20th century. “There was a lot of misinformation and fear that they had to overcome.”
The league is now in its 40th year, and the Tasty Cakes play in an open division, which welcomes and affirms people of all genders, though many are cisgender men.
Women’s+ teams, which include any players who are not binary-cisgender men, competed in their own World Series in San Diego a week after NAGAAA’s. Their governing body, ASANA (Amateur Sports Alliance of North America), was born out of NAGAAA in 2007 with a specific intention to create a space that focuses on trans, cis, and nonbinary women. In 2019, an amendment was passed to include trans and nonbinary men and people who are agender or otherwise gender expansive.
Brown, who was on the board of ASANA when the changes took place, championed the measure because players exploring their gender identities worried that coming out would make them ineligible to participate in the league and tournaments..
Adjusting the language even helped Brown navigate her own self-discovery. “While I didn’t identify as genderqueer at the time we presented these motions, it gave me room to be myself later,” she said.
Brown noted that she’s still reminding and educating people about the importance of inclusion and affirmation, adding that ASANA has work to do to ensure inclusive policies translate to affirming experiences. “It’s one thing to put it in the rules that you’re ‘allowed’ here,” she said. “But it’s another to say that someone is really welcome here.”
Philadelphia sent eight teams to compete in the ASANA Softball World Series, which hosted 85 teams from 25 cities this year.
Philadelphia’s Tailgators were brand new to the tournament. They won two out of six games but were ultimately eliminated. Players enjoyed the trip anyway — cheering on other teams, attending parties hosted by ASANA, and planning excursions to theme parks and a Padres game.
“Not everyone who comes to the league comes for softball,” said Erin Kane, the team’s manager, who underlined that NAGAAA and ASANA draws those seeking to spend time with people who share similar values and lived experiences.
Destiny “Batman” Acevedo, CBLSL’s director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, has been to five World Series tournaments, and believes they bolster mental health as queerphobia and transphobia are more visible and on the rise.
“I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere,” Acevedo said. “I’ve seen growth, not just in myself, but in other players who started off feeling just like I did. Now we’re screaming, ‘This is who I am! This is me!’”