BY AJ TRAGER
ROCHESTER HILLS – Fifteen years ago when Robert Hellar joined the Metro Detroit Softball League (MDSL), the 10-team league was largely a group for men — gay men to be precise — to get together and play ball. After expanding the group to include more than 500 members in 2015, Hellar expects this year to be one of the most active the organization has seen to date.
“When I first joined it was mostly male populated. Now it’s a nice mixture of men and women. The league has grown,” said Hellar, who serves as commissioner for MDSL. “For over 30 years we have made ourselves known in the LGBT community as the softball league but have grown in the larger tri-county area to be established as the LGBT softball league. We’ve opened up the eyes of the community as a whole to an LGBT league.”
MDSL consists of 28 teams each sporting roughly 20 players. Each team is assigned a team manager who is responsible for determining how often practices are held, picking out which type of jersey the team will wear and picking a mascot based off of the style and personality of the sponsor of the team.
Each team is assigned a different sponsor. This year, Hellar’s team is sponsored by O’Hara’s Irish Pub. Whereas years in the past he has been able to easily choose a mascot that corresponds with the sponsor, he’s having some trouble this year figuring out which image would be best to represent O’Haras. However, he has chosen green, white and black as the team colors.
The league begins their season the first Sunday in May and will run virtually every weekend until just before labor day. The teams break for national holidays such as Memorial Day and are off for two weeks around the Fourth of July but continue to play on Mother’s and Father’s Day.
This year’s kick off party will be hosted April 29 at Pronto beginning at 6 p.m. A special wrist band will be handed out to MDSL guests which will provide them with drink specials, a chance to meet MDSL team members and sponsors, and a chance to hang out and support one another.
“I love the sport in general. I grew up playing sports. Since I’m in my 40s now, I know it’s a sport I know I can play. I know I can play it without getting injured. I like that there are three divisions. If I get older and feel like I’m not as strong, I can bump down. I like the camaraderie that you get with people — the bonds and relationships that you make — it’s an overall fun sport. Some of these people eat, live and drink softball and that’s how it is,” Hellar said
Members are split into three skill levels ranging from novice to advanced. This year Between The Lines is an advanced level, or competitive team sponsor for a team whose sponsor discontinued their financial support of the league. Hellar told BTL that their team is rip, roaring and ready to go for the 2016 season.
Of the 500 members, Hellar says that 85 percent of the league is LGBT. He knows every single one of them, even the members who consider themselves “retired” from the game, and even met his partner at an MDSL kick-off party six years ago.
“A lot of people have found friends and partners through softball — it happens,” he said. This year Hellar and his partner will play on the same team.
Knowing that it’s hard to get all 500 MDSL members together, the league holds events, games and fundraisers all year round including a holiday party in December, drag shows and “Sunday bar of the week,” where the chosen bar will offer cheap drink specials equipped with hat and karaoke contests as well as 50/50 raffles.
Hellar says that there are other LGBT softball leagues on the west side of the state, based out of Grand Rapids, but the MDSL far outshines the west Michigan group from sheer member numbers alone.
“We’re one of the largest leagues in the country,” Hellar said. “Detroit is a baseball city. People get hooked into the game. I’m amazed some of my players are in two or three different leagues. I’m down to two leagues.”
Every three years Detroit is home to the Midwest Invitational Softball Tournament which travels between Cincinnati, Cleveland and Detroit. Detroit will host the 2017 MIST.
There is still time to sign up and be a part of the MDSL tournaments. MDSL does not follow “men’s rules” and does host co-ed softball teams. Those interested need only be 18 years of age or older and be willing to pay the $40 annual membership fee and cover team jersey costs.
There is still time to sign up and be a part of the MDSL 2016 experience. To learn more about MDSL, or to sign up and play, visit their website at http://mdsl.org/.