Don’t expect to see Jack Neilsen hanging out in Boystown during these warm summer weekend nights.
It’s not that he’s anti-social. But your schedule is a little different when it’s your job to make sure Chicago’s largest LGBT softball league runs smoothly.
“I have to give up my Friday and Saturday nights,” said Neilsen, who is usually up by 4:30 a.m. on weekends in order to attend to his duties as commissioner of the Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association’s Open Sunday Softball League.
The league, which includes both men and women, has been around since 1982 and plays at fields at Margate Park and Clarendon Park on the North Side.
While other recreational leagues may have 15-20 teams and play two or three hours a week, the CMSA league has its 40-plus teams and 700 or so athletes playing games for eight hours on six fields.
“Unfortunately, we’re pretty close to being maxed out,” Neilsen said. “I would absolutely love to expand the league. It’s a matter of finding a field that can accommodate our entire league.”
And that’s not easy in Chicago, which marches to the beat of a different drummer than the rest of the country when it comes to softball. “Everything is geared to 16-inch, not 12-inch softball,” Neilsen said.
All that means getting into the CMSA league is about as easy as squeezing into Roscoe’s or Sidetrack on a busy Saturday night.
“Usually, (even) before registration, we are pretty close to capacity,” Neilsen said. “I think I had the ability to only take three new teams (this season).”
But he believes it’s important to make at least a little room for new players. One club this year is made up of individuals who wanted to play but weren’t part of an existing team. “They’re doing well in the (lower) division,” Neilsen said. “Now they’ve got a taste of the softball experience. They want to do more, to improve their skill set and move up.”
Keeping the league open to players of all skill levels is a point of emphasis for Neilsen, who has been a commissioner for four years. “One of the things I love about CMSA, we have every level out there,” he said. “You have people who have never picked up a ball, and a couple guys who played Triple-A baseball.”
Another thing he likes about the organization is the chance for upward mobility.
Neilsen has been playing CMSA softball since moving here from Detroit in 2004. “It was really my outlet to meet people,” he said. “Eighty percent of the people I know came from sports.”
He also made friends playing softball in his former hometown, but wasn’t able to have the impact on the organization he would have liked.
“Unless you were part of the clique, you pretty much played softball and that was it,” Neilsen said. “You weren’t able to make decisions.”
But he started coaching his second year here before moving up to his current job. The rewards may seem intangible to some but they’re very real to him.
“It was my opportunity to give back to the community,” he said. “People before me have paved the way to make it possible for what we have today.”
And one of those things Neilsen and other LGBT softball players have is the respect of some skeptics.
“I can attest to the regular stereotypes you get,” Neilsen said. “The minute a (a non-LGBT team’s players) find out you’re a gay team, it’s, ‘The fags this, the fags that.’ (Then) they realize these guys know how to play ball. It breaks down the stereotypes, ‘They’re gay, they can’t play sports.’”
The long-running success of CMSA softball shows that, on the contrary, gays can and do play sports in pretty significant numbers.