Female Hardball

In springtime, diamonds can be a girl's best friend.

Hawthorne, now 37, found out about it by accident five years ago. "Like a lot of women, I was looking for a softball team, because that's what women are supposed to play," she recalls. "I used to play baseball with my brother and then in Little League for a year before I was made to start playing softball.

"But then this woman called me up and said, 'How about baseball?' At first I thought, 'She must be saying baseball but meaning softball.' But when it turned out it really was baseball, I thought, 'Cool! I haven't played since I was a kid!'"

The girls of summer: Theresa MacGregor (from left), 
Shari Friant and Wendy Hawthorne limber up.
Mark Manger
The girls of summer: Theresa MacGregor (from left), Shari Friant and Wendy Hawthorne limber up.

What other sport nudges girls into a different version of the game simply because they're girls? Young female tennis players are not quietly told they must now play badminton because they're starting to get zits; girl bowlers are not shuttled to duckpins when they hit puberty. But everybody knows the girls' version of baseball is softball. Sure, the guys down at the sports grill will yell at you between mugs: Softball is its own game, they'll insist, a legitimate sport. But that just makes the point even clearer: It ain't baseball.

The exceptions still prove the rule. Little League Baseball has sponsored baseball and softball leagues for nearly thirty years. And while the organization stresses that boys certainly can play softball and that girls, of course, are welcome to try their luck with the little balls and thick bats on the hardball fields, it's still unusual to see much crossover. Simply: "Baseball is mostly boys, and softball is mostly girls," says Cara Glazer, a representative of the Williamsport, Pennsylvania, organization.

The gap widens as girls grow into young women. Laronica Conway, a spokeswoman for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, says there are no universities that have NCAA women's baseball teams. Nor is the sport even on the organization's list of so-called emerging sports. At the NCAA, the separation is as well defined as a whiffed third strike: Men play baseball; women play softball -- and slow-pitch, to boot!

The division has become such an established feature of the athletic landscape that, like baseball players' stretch socks and managers wearing cleats, the question of 'why' simply doesn't get raised anymore. "Hmm, I don't know why women play softball instead of baseball," Conway ponders. "That's a question for society, I guess."

It's not much of a question at the recently held Colorado Women's Baseball Organization tryouts. On the weekend following the recent storm of the century, twenty or so women showed up at a snow-covered field in Westminster to see if they had what it takes to play real baseball in the region's only available league.

Naturally, the field was layered with enough snow to host the Iditarod, never mind spring training, so the women repaired to the parking lot, which had been more or less plowed. It wasn't a perfect place to practice. Baseballs kept disappearing into snowbanks. "And it's kind of hard to take grounders; the ball takes a different bounce on asphalt than dirt," observes twenty-year-old Linny Sullivan.

Still, what with the games of pepper and fly-ball practice, Sullivan had a kind of fun she'd long since forgotten. "I started playing baseball with my dad -- we were both huge Yankee fans," she recalls. "We used to watch their games together. At around five years old I started T-ball, and I played baseball on a boys' Little League team until I was twelve." By then, however, she was the only girl on the team, so she did what she thought was expected and switched to softball.

Sullivan ended up playing competitive fast-pitch softball in high school, and she played on traveling teams during the summers. But she kept a place in her heart for hardball; she remembers making an effort to catch the Silver Bullets whenever they played on TV. When she decided to attend college in Boulder, Sullivan got on the Internet to look for an adult women's fast-pitch softball league. Unfortunately, the closest one was in Fort Collins. Then she found the Westminster league.

She says she was nervous about playing baseball again; it had been nearly a decade. But on Sunday, Sullivan says it was as if something had reawakened inside her, like finding an old lover at a high school reunion. "I haven't played baseball in so long, and it's by far my favorite sport," she says. "It was so great; I had so much fun. There's nothing like hitting a baseball."

Hawthorne agrees. "Don't get me wrong: I like softball," she says. "It's just not exactly baseball." Nothing else is -- which, after all, is the point.

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