STORMING THE OUTFIELD WALLS

Niekro says the knuckler is no prerequisite for his pitchers, although no one will be surprised if it pops up on his staff. Meanwhile, he and Jones have noticed some other things they like. For one, physicists speculate that a 100-mile-an-hour fastball released 60 feet, six inches from home plate is no harder to hit than a 65-mile-an-hour softball let loose 40 feet away--the kind of thing the Silver Bullets-to-be have seen all their lives. Jones raves about one Lisa Martinez, a sure thing from Stockton, California, with a swing as sweet as Will Clark's, and everybody's talking about Alicia Bittinger, who's spent years catching heaters from her husband, Triple A hurler Steve Bittinger.

In other words, those Northern League clubs in places like Duluth and Sioux Falls and Thunder Bay had better watch out. Niekro hasn't put the radar gun on his pitchers yet, but he says some of them are throwing 80, and he promises the Bullets will "hit-and-run and double-steal and squeeze when we have to; we'll probably kick and scratch for our runs until we can find someone who can knock in runs with the long ball. They don't want no favors. They don't want nothin' except to play nose-to-nose with these guys."

Despite A League of Their Own, Coors' two million bucks and the explosion of women's sports, it won't be easy. The Northern League may be pro baseball's bottom rung, but it's stocked with hungry, undrafted college stars, and ex-major leaguers like Leon Durham and Pedro Guerrero have finished their careers there.

"We all realize it will be a tough road," says general manager Samonds, one of the few female baseball executives at any level. "Everyone is starting from scratch, and the women may have to listen to a lot of things as they go park to park. But we'll get there. From a minor-league operator's standpoint, I'd like to see the team become self-sustaining so we won't always need a sponsor as generous as Coors. Minor-league teams wouldn't be calling if they didn't think the novelty would help them make money. And who knows? This could be the start of a women's league. Or the open door to the major leagues. Who knows?"
No one. But there won't be any salary disputes or contract holdouts on the Colorado Silver Bullets. Every player will get a flat $20,000. And for some, that won't even be the point.

"My feet are still off the ground," admits spring-training invitee Dallas Jorgenson, a five-foot-ten-inch, 23-year-old first baseperson-turned-catcher from a Vancouver suburb. "I haven't grasped all of this completely. Just to have this opportunity, to try my guts out, just for the experience, I'd give anything."
For the last two seasons, Jorgenson's White Rock Renegades have been national champions of Canada's top fast-pitch women's softball division, and in 1996 she'll try out for the Olympic team. But making the Silver Bullets is the greatest challenge of all.

"I'll give my best, and they'll make the call," Jorgenson says. "That's all I can do...But I would do it for nothing. To visit those ballparks, to play for Phil Niekro, to be a part of history, that means everything. The pay is just a bonus. Over the generations things have changed, and here's another avenue opening to us. Baseball started as a men's game, but maybe it doesn't have to end as a men's game. We're just happy to have the chance."
On Opening Day, the shadow of Eleanor Engle will be standing in the outfield.

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