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The haters will surely try to have their day again, but it seems easier to be blasé about being gay these days. Shows with “queer” in their titles have made it to TV with no controversy and big ratings. The highest court in the land has thrown your father’s sodomy laws off the books. Folks claiming to speak for an even higher power have OK’d a nonhetero bishop in the Anglican church.

So the 2003 Gay Softball World Series, which will bring an estimated 5,000 folks to the D.C. area this week, is less about the gay and more about the softball than at any point in the event’s 27-year history.

“Every year, this becomes more of a mainstream sporting event than, well, some sort of rally,” says Rick Maas, a third baseman for the L.A. Stray Cats, the Series’ morning-line favorite. “There was a time when maybe we would be here to represent and compete. Now we’re just here to compete.”

And if it’s about the softball, it’s about the Stray Cats. Maas’ squad is to gay softball what the Yankees once were to Major League Baseball. Or what the Canadiens were to hockey. Or what Greg Louganis was to Olympic diving.

They don’t lose.

The Cats, in fact, have come out on top in the last nine World Series. And they fully expect to win a 10th here in D.C., where 127 teams will go for titles in seven open and women’s divisions through the weekend. The Cats compete in the A bracket of the Open Division, which is limited to the top 11 teams in the field.

“If we don’t win, I’ll be questioning my preparation of this team,” says L.A. manager Mark Springer. “We came here to win.”

Other teams come to the World Series to have fun. Happy hours are scheduled each night at designated D.C. bars. A talent show open to all players has become a staple of the event. (A player for the D.C. Gamecocks made a splash at the 2001 talent show in San Francisco with his crooning of “Take Me Home From the Ballgame.”)

Springer says nobody on his squad has entered this year’s talent show. And he tells players not to take advantage of the drink specials if they attend a happy hour.

“We get everything out of our system before the tournament starts,” he says. “Then, it’s all about softball. No partying, get to bed early, get a good night’s sleep, be ready to practice or play.”

A typical slow-pitch softball manager has but two duties: (1) Make sure enough folks show up to fill out the lineup card, and (2) make sure one of them brings a cooler of beer. But the Cats’ skipper takes his job seriously. And in truth, his team is good enough that they actually need some managing. Because bat technology has made the home run accessible to the common man, softball leagues have instituted home run quotas; for the World Series, a six-home-run-per-game ceiling will be in place.

That means that once a team hits its sixth homer, any additional home runs it slugs will be called outs. So Springer spends a good portion of every team meeting telling players they better not swing for the fences. Pitcher Guy Haberman and second baseman Jim Caverly usually have the green light to go deep, Springer says.

“You’ve got to know your role, and our players do,” he says. “Most guys, their role is to get on base and fill them up with singles, and to leave the home runs for the big guns, Guy and Jim. We don’t want to waste our home runs.”

The strategy has worked well on the playing fields, as evidenced by the winning skein. The run almost ended three years ago at the Toronto World Series. Former Major League Baseball player Billy Bean assembled a Fort Lauderdale team that came within three outs of knocking off the champs. But the Stray Cats scored seven runs in the bottom of the last inning on their way to another title.

But the Stray Cats’ focus on X’s and O’s has caused some friction. “Beat L.A.!” chants have been heard during recent competitions, and two years ago, Cyd Ziegler, a columnist for OutSports.com, a Web site that covers gay sports, complained that the team’s focus come World Series time wasn’t in the spirit of the event.

“While the rest of the teams are having fun, enjoying the games and enjoying each other, the Stray Cats find their worth in winning year after year,” Ziegler wrote. “If this was the Major League Baseball World Series, I could understand that. But it’s not. It seems to me the Stray Cats, with all of their trophies, just don’t get it.”

The columnist also criticized the Stray Cats for their limited use of out-of-town and nongay players; men’s teams are allowed two of each under the rules of the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance, the sanctioning body for the series.

While proof of residency is easy enough to establish—a driver’s license, canceled check or utility bill would suffice—sexual orientation is a trickier matter. In the NAGAAA rule book, “gay” is defined as “A predominant sexual interest in a member of the same gender.” Tournament organizers take a participant’s word when it comes to meeting that requirement.

“There’s not going to be any police force that will make you prove your sexual orientation,” Bruce Sprague, an official with the host league, the D.C.-based Chesapeake and Potomac Softball, says while chuckling. “That’s an exciting thought, but it doesn’t work that way.”

Women’s teams in the World Series had the same two-straight-players rule until voting to do away with it in 2001. Now, anybody who self-identifies as a woman is eligible. The men, however, voted to keep the limit in place. Manager Springer says the Stray Cats brought one straight player to this year’s series.

Keeping the rule on the books left World Series organizers open to criticism from some players that they were promoting the very type of exclusionary practice used for so long against the gay community. But Sprague defends the two-player limit.

“We just wanted one event where you could identify the best gay softball team in the world,” he says.

Over the last decade, the series has indeed done that. —Dave McKenna