Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011 | 6:32 p.m.
Tom “Baby T” Leng makes a habit of doing things people don’t expect. The 110-pound, self-proclaimed “diva” once broke a steel bat on a good swing. He has rounded the bases in butterfly knee socks and jingle bell cleats. And on September 3 in Chicago, he helped the Las Vegas Rat Pack clinch the Division C title in the 35th Gay Softball World Series, recognized as the largest annual gay sports event in the world.
“In past World Series, I’ve always been a bridesmaid. This year I was the bride!” gushes Leng, who shared the joyful moment with teammates Joel “Chikita” Sanchez (who’s also the coach), Eddie Miranda, Gary Winn, Jacob Berg, John Newton, Josh Pasene, Randy Sharp, Bill Chambers, Ryan Teschner, Greg Ochoa, Kamu Brede, Patrick Skorkowsky and Brian Pollack. The win was even sweeter because the Pack, along with the Las Vegas Gay Softball League, has only been sanctioned by the NAGAAA (North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance) for two seasons, and they came back from the brink of defeat to beat the very team that put them there.
- Beyond the Weekly
That team was Boston’s 5 Star Diablos, one of 53 in Division C and among 150 total teams (the best of about 900 throughout the U.S. and Canada) to participate in the series over a fiercely competitive week. Leng says the Diablos sent the Pack to the loser’s bracket with a 30-12 blowout earlier in the tournament.
“As we fought our way to the top we met our nemesis, and in order to clench the championship, we had to beat them twice in a row,” he says.
For Sanchez, the win was cathartic, not to mention a golden ticket into Division B.
“I hold one of the records for going consecutively to the World Series with three cities on six or seven different teams. I’ve never won any till now,” Sanchez says. “Finally I can get the monkey off my back. It was very, very emotional.”
Sanchez once dreamed of a career in pro soccer. Growing up in Mexico, he was a star in the under-17 league. That’s where he got the nickname.
“I used to always cramp out on my legs and eat bananas. The guys would take the sticker off the banana and put it on my jersey or my forehead. I ran with it,” he says, laughing. “When I came to the states I had a lot of promise. As soon as I came into high school I was the prodigy of the school. It was great. It was overwhelming. And at that age I started finding out I was a little different.”
He came out to his family senior year, when he was 17. Their staunch Catholic beliefs made it even harder for them to accept, and Sanchez felt lost.
“It was a difficult year. I kind of gave up on everything, on school, and secluded myself. Everything went down the drain. But I wouldn’t change anything,” he says, explaining that getting back on the field helped him learn about himself and real toughness. “That’s the reason why I’m so, so strong about sports. It changed my life in a positive way.”
Although he never went pro, Sanchez found his niche in the sports world. He started playing softball in LA’s gay league, which is one of the most established in the NAGAAA. He also played in New York before moving to Las Vegas, where he helped get the Las Vegas Gay Softball League off the ground.
The league website states that Las Vegas Athletics’ Arts and Activities Foundation was asked by some enthusiastic community members to facilitate the formation of a gay softball league in 2008. The first season kicked off in February 2009. From the beginning, the goal was to become sanctioned by NAGAAA, which requires two years of establishment before new leagues are considered. The Vegas league was so ready to rock it was accepted after just one.
NAGAAA players are grouped into four divisions, from beginner (D) to elite (A, which only 10 teams competed in at this year’s World Series). Sanchez recruits at social events, and he insists the only requirements are a sense of fun and the desire to build community.
“What made it very successful here in Vegas is that I knew the people were here. We live in the capital of entertainment—not to stereotype, but gay people work on shows, in restaurants and retail. We’re here,” he says.
The four founding teams in the Las Vegas Gay Softball League have grown to 13. For those who have never watched a gay league game, Sanchez says softball is softball.
“Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I’m any less,” he says.
When you can play ball ...
The first time John Newton saw Baby T Leng on the softball field, he wasn’t sure what to make of the skin-tight jersey, pink batting gloves and matching gear bag. He was even less sure when Leng cheerfully called out to a friend, ‘Hey, hooker!’
“At that point I was like, whoa,” Newton laughs, adding that it still took him two weeks to realize he’d joined a gay team. “When you can play ball, you can play ball.”
The team’s other straight player recruited Newton. Their participation is allowed by NAGAAA’s 80/20 rule, that as long as 80 percent of the players are gay or transgender, 20 percent can be straight. Outsiders often assume that the straight players are like ringers, bringing the real muscle to the fight. Newton, a former semi-pro baseball player who lives on the softball field four nights a week, says that’s bunk.
“I don’t like to play on teams where you have to play with a bunch of jackasses. If I have a chance to play with a great group of guys, I’m all for it. And these guys can play,” he says of his Rat Pack teammates.
He mentions Leng’s running catch in particular. But when Leng joined LA’s gay league in 2007, he couldn’t even catch standing still. His initial interest in softball was social, but by the time he moved to Vegas a year later, he was playing well enough to make the cut for the fledgling Rat Pack. Now, he’s one of its most beloved players, partly because of his outrageous “uniforms.”
“During the season, I’ve sported outfits such as a two-piece bikini, a tutu and even a wedding gown,” he says. “Most of the time, I have to tailor the uniforms to fit my girlish figure … at least when I’m allowed to. Last but not least, it’s all about accessorizing!”
Whatever he’s wearing, Leng loves the game. At one point he was playing three days a week—one in the gay league and two in the straight league. What does he make of the mixed sexuality dynamic?
“There’s never a dull moment, that’s for sure. At the end of the day, it’s not about being straight or gay; it’s about playing softball,” he says. “I may have some festive outfits, but this diva is a strong ass bitch!”
We are family
Sanchez remembers the first time Leng took the field for the Pack. Despite his audacious personality, he seemed a little nervous.
“I said, ‘Do me a favor: Be yourself.’ Sure enough he was,” Sanchez says.
Being yourself is a core principle of the Las Vegas Gay Softball League. If softball isn’t your thing, there are local gay leagues for basketball and bowling, and Sanchez is working on starting a soccer group as well as a women’s league (with three teams on deck for the first season). But he’ll have his hands full getting the Rat Pack on track for its first season in Division B.
The Pack got its perfect Vegas handle thanks to a documentary about the iconic performance troupe of the same name. Sanchez was struck by the way Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Frank Sinatra stuck up for Sammy Davis, Jr. when clubs tried to bar him because he was black.
“They would always have his back. That hit home for me. It shouldn’t matter what race, what color, what sexuality you are,” Sanchez says.
Yet that last one matters to NAGAAA and its assurance of fairness. That’s why new recruits must state their “playing status,” also known as their sexuality. If a team believes another team is stacked with straight players, they can formally protest.
Such a protest was almost launched against the Pack at the World Series when its first baseman (who Sanchez says is one of the more overtly gay players) got into a scuffle with a runner. NAGAAA has been to court over sexuality issues, and Sanchez holds out hope that the emphasis will eventually shift to appropriate skill levels rather than lifestyle preferences. After all, that’s why gay softball came to be—so Leng could wear a sequined headband to the World Series; so Sanchez could blast pop music across the diamond; and so Newton could drink a few post-game beers with a bona fide diva.
“Some of my straight friends who come to play in our league, they really feel like there’s no chip on your shoulder—you can just be yourself,” Sanchez says. “It’s acceptance.”