story for the AIDS Garden Chicago
“Dearheart, would you like to play on my new gay softball team?” The “heart” part sounded like it was a 5-syllable word when asked by Jack, also known as Irene, a doughy, bleach-blonde, middle-aged guy who wore his gay identity like it was a Kaftan. There was no possible way to mistake this self-absorbed and charming man for straight. He called everyone “Dearheart” so that he never had to remember a name. He told me that he was starting a team comprised of gay men who were new to the sport. He planned on coaching them to a winning season.
The year was 1983 and I was a thin, naïve guy who appeared as I was, young, innocent, and just starting to come out. The prospect of making a commitment to be part of anything gay was exciting and frightening. Not only did I know zero gay people until this time in my life, but I also rarely saw a gay character in the media. It seemed like a dangerous and veiled world that offered excitement, intrigue, and naughtiness. It was oxymoronic that I felt like I both belonged there due to my desires yet didn’t belong because it was outside anything I knew. Being a proper suburban boy, I didn’t know if I would or even could fit into this subculture.
I was never a good athlete, but I enjoyed playing sports when I was young. However, I only liked playing with my friends and neighbors. As soon as adults became involved, it ruined the fun. I hated little league. I was one of many guys who only played a couple innings a game and was always catcher or in right field where it was unlikely that I would touch the ball. I might bat once a game. I just wanted to play and have fun, but the parents yelled a lot. I enjoyed playing intramural and pick-up games with my neighbors. Many in my family are big sports fans and I went to a college with a huge sports program. I was comfortable in a sports culture. Though not skilled, I enjoyed the camaraderie and connection that came with playing on a team.
So, when Irene approached me in the gay bar Sidetrack and asked me to play on a team they would sponsor, I agreed to join. Irene put a lot of energy into filling a roster and coaching every game. Along with the ego went a lot of actual work. I am grateful to Irene for noticing this quiet, lost, and isolated young man and making the effort to include me in his project. I never would have asked to play on the team.
One of the players on our team was named Doug. He was around 5’6” and rarely smiled. He was 26 years old, had medium brown hair with a conservative cut, a fit build, and a thick mustache. His life partner was a Chicago cop who exuded masculine dominant energy. Doug was soft-spoken, reliable, and polite. He was a utility player who would quietly do what was asked on the field. On and off the field, he was a supportive person, all about being there for his teammates. I remember seeing him at various events. He always made a point to be friendly to me, even when it meant leaving his group of friends and going out of his way to greet me. We were both shy, so I appreciated the extra effort he was willing to muster. Another player with whom I became close was Jeff. Jeff had thick, wavy, nearly black hair. He always had an even 5 O’clock shadow, thick eyebrows, and chest hair curling out of his collar. Jeff was around my age. His coordination was off because he was a lefty and, growing up, the nuns would tie his left hand behind his back to force him to use his right hand. Jeff looked tough but was a sweetheart with a gentle soul. Jeff made eye contact and smiled broadly every time we met. I enjoyed running into Jeff in Chicago for many years. He always seemed happy to see me. I think he made everyone feel like they mattered, but I always felt special to him. I thought of him as a polite work horse. He had a happy go lucky demeanor but worked hard at the same time. However, my best friend on the team was Joe.
Joe had graduated from Stanford and was attending med school at Northwestern. Along with Jeff, he and I were the youngest on the team. We hit it off immediately and became friends for life. When we met, I was 23 and Joe was 24. Like me, Joe grew up in a suburb of a large city. I lived outside of Chicago and Joe grew up outside of Cleveland. One of my college friends was two years behind him in high school and said he was extremely popular. Joe had served as student council president both his junior and senior years and was known by everyone. He was unusual in that he went out of his way to treat everyone well, including younger people like my friend. In contrast to Joe, I was not so popular, losing my bid for student council vice-president as a senior. Though I was nowhere near as cool as Joe, he and I were on similar paths coming out. Neither of us knew gay people and we were navigating the social waters at the same pace. We both had our first relationships around the same time. Both of us made poor early choices in those pioneering days of dating men. Joe and I would regularly pick up a free publication called Gay Chicago and find a gay bar neither of us had visited. We would set a date to go there to explore. We also went to Saugatuck, Michigan and to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin for weekends together. Joe and I enjoyed having little adventures. We shared friends and many core values. I even became friends with many of his med school classmates. Although we were new to each other’s lives, it felt like we had grown up together. And then, through our 20s, and much of our 30s, we did grow up together.
The team where Joe and I met was called The Rookies. That season, we won every game including the championship. Unfortunately, the experience was much like Little League. The team was filled with skilled athletes and the few of us who were not so good, like me and Jeff, barely got to play. We alternated playing right field and catcher and rarely got to bat. However, the team was a cohesive social network. Going out with my team after every game were high points of the summer. I made some of my first gay friends, and I was able to connect with gay men in a non-sexual environment. My teammates and I could hang out and have fun and I would feel safe and relatively relaxed. There was also a bartender at Sidetrack who played on the national championship softball team and became protective over me. Johnny would tell people that I was his brother and to be cool with me. Gay sports became a place where being gay didn’t make me an outsider. Or perhaps I was one of many outsiders who formed our own cocoon. The Rookies only lasted one year before spitting up. I played for a team sponsored by the bar Berlin for a season and, from then on, played for a new Sidetrack team, whose core players stayed together for many fun years.
In the early 2000s, around 20 years after my first softball season, I decided to try and locate my teammates. Originally, there were twelve players in their 20s and a coach in his 40s. I found out that only four of us were still living. Four out of thirteen, less than a third. Only twenty years after this story started. AIDS was not as prevalent in Chicago as it was in many other cities, but it devastated my world. By the time I was 30, I had lost far more friends than my parents in their late 50s had lost combined.
Everyone I mentioned in this story has passed.
I think of AIDS as anti-Darwinian. It has been the demise of the fittest. The most athletic, handsome, funny, smart, charming, wealthy, and popular guys seemed to go first. Irene was charming. Doug was handsome. Jeff was funny. Joe was brilliant. Along with my original teammates passing during this window of time, so did many others-subsequent teammates, friends who played for other teams in the league, many of the staff of the sponsoring businesses, and several of my friends also passed in those twenty years. Early on, I would go through all their names in my head during my nightly prayers, but soon there were too many names for that.
Now I can look back on the days when I started playing softball before AIDS had changed our lives. When I could count on my teammates to be there for me, as I was there for them. I appreciate the gift of having lived before AIDS changed us all.