For members of this sports club, winning, losing are secondary

It's all about socializing for players in city league

August 09, 2004|By Scott Waldman | Scott Waldman,SUN STAFF

Mike Cray has helped thousands of adults revisit their grade school gym class. But this time around, they don't have to worry about getting picked last for the kickball team.

That's because competition is a dirty word in Cray's Baltimore Sports and Social Club Inc.

"Nowhere in my format is the word `competitive,'" Cray said.

The BSSC is a six-year-old league made up largely of city and suburban professionals, some as young as 22, others 40 and older, who participate in games such as Wiffle Ball, volleyball and something played on ice called broomball. League players -- more than 7,000 of them last year -- subscribe to sportsmanship rather than focusing on winning.

Unlike recreational leagues run by municipalities or YMCAs, Cray's league is operated as a business.

The former construction contractor declined to say how much he makes from the BSSC, but it has become his full-time job. Entry fees are $550 to $595 for each 12-player team. Additional players are charged $30 to $35 each.

The city is a financial beneficiary by virtue of the rents it collects for municipal facilities that Cray uses.

To rent the fields at Patterson Park, Cray pays $15 to $25 a game. Du Burns Arena, which costs $100 an hour, is used by the club an average of eight to 12 hours a week during Wiffle Ball and volleyball seasons, said Mike Woodard, the arena's facility director.

"It gives us additional revenue in the fall [that] we might not otherwise have," Woodard said.

Cray said he has paid the Department of Recreation and Parks about $300,000 for rental fees in the past six years. In addition, Cray has donated sports equipment and money for special projects to the city Department of Recreation and Parks, Woodard said.

What began as a touch football league with 16 teams in 1998 has grown to more than 600 teams in seven sports. All teams are coed.

Cray said his league format leads to a natural camaraderie on the field between teams, regardless of which has more points. When the game is over, players from both teams gather at a local bar, not only to brag about their home runs, but also to meet people. That is made easier because all of them wear BSSC T-shirts.

"You can go up to anybody with my shirt on and the barrier is broken," Cray said.

The league has blossomed solely by word of mouth. Cray said he has never paid for advertising and doesn't have to because the league is founded on the relatively simple concept of having fun.

BSSC players achieve glory by swinging plastic bats at hollow plastic balls, ripping a flag off an opponent's belt or swatting a ball around an ice rink with a broom. In the fall, when the dodgeball league begins, players will get a chance to make new friends after pelting each other with large rubber balls.

But even in Cray's low-key sports and social club, athleticism is taken into account. Leagues are divided between players with some sports skill and those whose skills are, as Cray puts it, "limited."

To play down competitiveness and promote socialization, the league has coed teams and on-field gender requirements. For example, two-hand touch football rules require that each team field a ratio of five men to three women at all times.

"It's not for reliving your high school or sports glory," said John Paraz, an electrical engineer from Canton who met his fiancee when he was coach of her BSSC volleyball team. They are among about 15 couples who met in the league and later got engaged or married, Cray said.

Paraz said the people he has met in the BSSC encouraged him to travel from Harford County -- where he was living when he joined the club -- for weekly games. He thinks one of the club's positive effects is that it attracts suburban residents to the city.

Bill Larney, a league sponsor who owns Looney's Pub on O'Donnell Street in Canton, said his business has gotten a boost from the BSSC, increasing 50 percent on game days when players congregate at his tavern.

"You get these people when they play their game, and then they come back on other days," Larney said.

At a recent softball game, laughter rather than testosterone-fueled grunts were heard. Some outfielders made diving catches worthy of Orioles outfielder B.J. Surhoff. Others had trouble hitting balls that were pitched directly over the plate.

Although teams were playing their last game of the season -- with playoff berths at stake -- the outcomes didn't seem to weigh heavily on the players.

"Suffering a loss is not resounding," said Becky Ralston, a forester from Baltimore, as she waited in Patterson Park for the rest of her team to arrive for a game. Missing out on the happy hour after the game is much more disappointing.

The prizes for winning a league championship are minimal. Winning teams receive a complimentary bar tab and T-shirts, and their photographs are placed on the group's Web site.

Cray said he has met about 90 percent of his friends through sports and that on-field camaraderie can lead to lasting friendships.

For Cray, tossing a ball around with a few friends dissipates the stress of everyday responsibilities. His organization has given thousands of Baltimoreans that same outlet.

"It's weird," he said, "to hear grown men, after they hit a Wiffle Ball, giggling."

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