By John Rice
Respect is earned not given. The three softball teams from Iowa invited to play in the 49th Annual No Glove National at Forest Park wouldn't want it any other way.
"We're finally getting respect from the Chicago guys," said Corey Johnson, coach of Chuck's from Grimes, Iowa. His team earned respect this year by finishing in eighth place in the Chicagoland Mount Prospect Tournament.
Along with Chuck's, CJ's and Old Timers will compete in the No Glove National this year.
Iowa softball has become a force in "Chicago's game."
Old Timers, a tavern that has sponsored one of the Iowa teams for many years, is led by 50-year-old pitcher Kirk Huehn. Although he might be considered a senior citizen by softball standards, he remains an effective pitcher and fielder.
"I get an idea of what a batter's strength is and pitch away from it," Huehn said.
After he releases the ball, he immediately backpedals to play defense.
Like any 16-inch No Gloves player he has endured his share of injuries, including pulled muscles and dislocated fingers. A hard shot tore the webbing between his fingers once which called for 6-8 stitches to close it.
Injuries aside, Huehn loves playing in the No Glove National tourney. He was a member of the first Iowa team to play at the Forest Park tournament in 1996.
"We had won the ASA Nationals at Mount Prospect in 1995," Huehn said. "We got invited to the No Gloves."
He recalled a Forest Park team, "Dollhouse," encouraged them and former Park District of Forest Park Director Dave Novak sent the invitation.
"I've been hooked on it ever since," Huehn said. "This is my 6th or 7th year coming to Forest Park."
The annual visit to Forest Park is no easy trek from Huehn, who lives in western Iowa. A seven-hour drive is required so he can attend his favorite tournament.
The Iowa teams prepare for the No Glove National by playing with no gloves against teams that wear them.
"We play in two leagues against teams with gloves," Johnson said, "It makes the games more competitive and the scores closer."
Instead of winning 15-1, Chuck's will settle for an 8-6 win.
"No gloves is 100 percent better than gloves," Johnson said.
During his playing career, Johnson played mostly at second base but a "little bit all over" as well. He batted right-handed in the middle of the order for several teams in Carrol, Iowa and Des Moines. Johnson retired at 41 and then umpired for two years, before becoming coach of Chuck's.
"We have some big-time 12" guys, six of the best in Iowa," Johnson said. "We're seeded 10th for the No Gloves and expect to hammer a few teams. We have a great shot."
As for the tournament experience overall, Johnson said, "It's a blast. I love it."
Mike Sauser, coach of CJ's, believes the three Iowa teams rank among the top 24 teams in the nation. In 2016, CJ's played in the No Glove tournament for the first time.
They finished in the top seven.
"We've wanted to play no gloves for a long time," Sauser said. "We play in a league against teams with gloves and take our lumps. We lost to a few teams we should have beaten."
Unfortunately, softball is declining in Iowa. Tournaments are down to 10-15 teams.
"Teams are combining to compete with Chicago teams," Sauser said.
CJ's strength comes from their hitting.
"We're a hard-hitting team, with line drives and deep drives. We don't do a lot of cutting and dumping it." said Sauser, a power-hitting outfielder in his prime.
He sprays the ball now, aiming for the lines and the gaps. He's also no longer chasing down fly balls.
Now, when Sauser plays defense, he's on the right side of the infield at either first or second base. He wants to give the younger players a chance to sharpen their defensive skills.
Sauser joined CJ's in 1999 and the team's core has stayed together since 2004.
How the Iowa teams fare at this year's No Glove National remains to be seen; however, fielding three respected teams certainly improves their chances for success.