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  Windy City Times

Chicago sports league CMSA marks 35 years
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

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Gary Vien was given an off-white jacket, with red lettering, back in the mid-1980s after an all-star softball game of local gay players. He got it from Sam Molinaro who, in 1979, was named the first president when the Gay Athletic Association ( GAA ) was incorporated.

Vien, now 62, still has the jacket and countless memories from games decades ago—and he wears the jacket annually in the spring on opening day of the Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association ( CMSA ) open division softball season, or if he attends the annual Gay Softball World Series.

The jacket truly is a link to history, connecting generations of Chicago's LGBT community through sports.

GAA started in 1978 with a 16-inch softball league, and was re-named the Metropolitan Sports Association ( MSA ) in 1985. In the late 1990s, MSA became the Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association ( CMSA ), and even was the first organization inducted into the City of Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame ( in 1992 ).

CMSA formally celebrates its 35th anniversary on Nov. 9, with a three-hour party, dubbed, Come Out and Play, at The Sports Corner Bar & Grille in Wrigleyville ( 956 W. Addison ), starting at 7 p.m.

"The thing with CMSA is, it's like a family, and I think almost anyone [in the association] would say that. If you ask any player now, on any team, in any sport, 'Name your 10 best friends and how you met them?' They'd probably say, through CMSA," said David Bartnick, 59 who lives in Lakeview, is a senior vice-president at Zurich, and met his partner, Jack Hazard, through CMSA—which Bartnick boasts as is his favorite memory of 34-years in CMSA sports, including his participation in softball, bowling, volleyball and tennis.

Bartnick played in the 2013 softball season. Bartnick and Hazard also sponsored a separate team in the CMSA open division softball league, filled mostly with first-year players.

Vien pitched this past season, and plans to return to the CMSA softball fields—at Clarendon and Margate parks on the city's north side—in 2014. And his all-star jacket from the 1980s will be back, again, without question, he said.

Bobby Nicholson, 64, lives in Lakeview, is retired, and has a partner, David Liechty. Nicholson also is a 34-year member of CMSA, who has participated in softball, bowling, basketball, flag football and kickball. He is one of the co-founders of the annual Senior Cup softball tournament, launched in 2000, and boasts a unique trifecta on his gay sports resume: he won a Gay Softball World Series title, umpired the Gay Softball World Series, and then returned to play, and win, the Master's Division at the Gay Softball World Series in 2011.

"So many laughs, so many good times, so many good friends … that's how I think of CMSA," Nicholson said. "What I take away most from CMSA is: having fun, meeting people, seeing the country, doing what you love, and all of the laughs and good times."

Marcia Hill, 55, who lives in Albany Park and works as an account manager, has spent more years in CMSA than any other woman. She's been a player, official, board member and league commissioner—and for multiple sports in each realm.

No one may know more about CMSA than Hill, truly a walking encyclopedia of Chicago's gay sports scene.

Hill was inducted into the City of Chicago Gay & Lesbian Hall of Fame in 2011, based on her CMSA involved—and that's her prized CMSA memory.

"The last 10 years have flown by," said Hill, who couldn't meet to be interviewed for this story until, naturally, after a full day of CMSA sports.

"For the first 20 years, it basically was a four-sport organization, plus Proud To Run," which was founded and hosted by the GAA in 1982. The annual Proud To Run, held in late June, became an event run by the Frontrunners & Frontwalkers Chicago in 1992.

GAA started with about 30 people playing softball, and a Tuesday afternoon bowling league was added next, in 1979. GAA added the Tuesday afternoon league so bar owners and employees could bowl, and then go to their jobs that night, Hill said.

There were four softball teams in 1979, and Nicholson still remembers the player who, in one of the association's first few years, showed up wearing women's evening gloves on his arms, "because they told him to bring gloves," he said, laughing.

Bartnick was asked to join the league by a bartender and admitted, "I had no idea what gay softball was going to be like."

As the softball league grew, expanded and improved, Nicholson said, "There were some of the best players I ever played with and against; it was very competitive."

Many teams in the 1980s had large rosters, perhaps 17 or 18 players, which is not common nowadays, Bartnick said.

In 1981, GAA added men's volleyball to the league's roster of sports, and the association's membership passed 440.

Women's volleyball was added in 1982.

Tennis and basketball leagues formed shortly thereafter.

When MSA celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1988, the membership was about 1,200.

"I remember 1988 … we had scorekeepers, standings, league batting champs [for softball] and more. We even had sit-down banquets; we would all get dolled up to go to the banquets," Hill said. "Remember, this was [an era] before cell phones, before FAX machines, before social media. Heck, we'd have to call the [gay] newspapers every Sunday by 6 p.m., leaving standing on the [phone] message, so they would get in the newspaper that upcoming week.

"Also back then, there was a league rule that you could not video tape a game. And many team photos weren't full team photos, or a player would be facing away from the camera," so as to not be outed in the photo.

CMSA also battled the HIV/AIDS onslaught in the 1980s and 1990s, which Bartnick tagged as "horrible."

"It was really tough to be the pallbearer for your old drinking buddy," Bartnick said.

"It's still so tough to talk about that [HIV/AIDS era]. I had so many friends pass away," Vien said.

Nicholson said he still remembers going to three or four funerals, or memorial services, in a week. And there were many weeks like that.

David Sosa, 23, who lives in Wicker Park, played his first CMSA sport ( flag football ) this fall. He said simply hearing their tales of the HIV/AIDS era is "devastating."

"It's even hard to just sit and listen to their stories," said Sosa, who joined Bartnick, Hill, Vien and Nicholson for a late October roundtable discussion on CMSA 35-year history.

Sosa does not know anyone personally who has died from HIV/AIDS. Nicholson, meanwhile, said, "I don't think there was one team in any [CMSA] sport that did not lose someone [from HIV/AIDS]."

All five were teary-eyed reflecting on the HIV/AIDS era of the 1980s.

In 1987, MSA established Athletes Against AIDS ( AAA ) fund to pay all fees for bowlers impacted by HIV/AIDS. Supporting the fight against AIDS became a regular activity/event, especially among bowlers.

By 1992, more than $30,000 had been raised to help local AIDS-related agencies through bowling.

"There was so much horror in the mid-1980s, and [AIDS-related] funerals continued well into the 1990s," Bartnick said.

Hill in 1988 played on a men's softball team. Today, she's the only one still living from that team.

Despite the heartache of the HIV/AIDS era, the Chicago gay sports scene picked up steam on the national front. In 1987, for instance, MSA joined the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance ( NAGAAA ), a non-profit, international association of gay and lesbian softball leagues.

MSA also was prominent in the late 1980s and early 1990s on the national gay volleyball scene.

"There was steady growth for a while, but the biggest growth [period] was in 2005-2007, around the time of the Gay Games, which were held in Chicago in 2006," Hill said.

CMSA saw its membership total increase by about 900 participants, the biggest jump ever, after the 2006 Games.

Molinaro and Art Johnston, the co-owner of Sidetrack in Lakeview, were named as the two most influential Chicagoans in building GAA-MSA-CMSA in the early years.

Molinaro retired as president after 13 years in 1991.

Johnston attended the 2011 Gay Softball World Series, held in the Chicago area, and certainly leaves his lasting footprint on the sports scene with Sidetrack sponsoring teams in every sport.

"I think it's great that younger people are still coming into CMSA," Bartnick said.

Such as Sosa, the youngest player on his flag football team. He formally met Hill, for instance, for the first time when they got together for the interview for this story.

Hill, ironically, had officiated Sosa's football game 24 hours earlier.

Sosa had no clue on the field that Hill, in her black and white referee jersey, was so prominent in CMSA history.

"Just hearing their stories, listening to what they've gone through, what CMSA has gone through, is an experience unto itself," Sosa said.

All four CMSA veterans each expressed gratitude to Sosa for talking about CMSA and carrying on its rich history. Each encouraged Sosa to play softball in the spring, regardless of his skill level—just as they do to/for all in the gay community.

"Life is short, have fun," Vien said.

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