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Female Hardball

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

This past winter, Wendy Hawthorne stopped by the city of Denver's parks and recreation department, as she does every year. "I'd like to rent a baseball field," she said.

"How old are the boys?" the man asked her.

"It's for women," she replied.

"Then you need a softball field," he corrected her.

"No," Hawthorne insisted. "I need a baseball field." After a couple more back and forths, they finally reached an understanding on this extremely complicated topic: They agreed she needed a baseball field. For women. Who play baseball -- overhand throwing, base-stealing and everything. "Just like the Rockies!" Hawthorne says dryly.

"A woman can say she's an astronaut and no one bats an eye," she adds. "But if you say you play baseball, you still get an incredulous look. Girls are supposed to play softball."

Hawthorne says there's no question that there's a difference between the two, though. "I'm a runner, so I like the running game," she notes. "In softball you can't really steal, because there's no leading off, and in baseball the base paths are much longer. I also love just hitting the ball. It really flies. The first time I played baseball again, I'd forgotten how great it feels to hit one. Plus we get to wear metal cleats."

Theresa MacGregor, who grew up in New Jersey, contracted a torturous case of Mets fandom as a young girl. When Tom Seaver was throwing, she'd set up a two-by-four in front of the television and use it as a pitching rubber, pretending she was the Mets' ace, mowing down batters.

"I loved the game -- always loved it," she says. "My dad and I used to play catch when I was little. I grew up dreaming of being a major-league baseball player. I just always assumed when I grew up that I'd play baseball."

When she was in her teens, MacGregor played with the boys for a few years in the local Apache League. But when she reached the high school level, there wasn't any place to park her baseball jones. Heritage High School had girls' softball, but that wasn't her game. She tried out for the boys' baseball team, didn't make the cut, and quit.

Shari Friant was nudged into the girls' slower, more cautious version of baseball as a child, and she stuck with softball through adulthood. When she heard of a new women's baseball league in her home town of Seattle, Friant quickly signed on. "I'd always played slow-pitch," she says. "It's fun, but it's really kind of a boring game. This just sounded more interesting -- more challenging."

The league lasted only two years, but by then Friant was a convert, and she found her hardball kicks wherever she could. She was one of two women to play in the Boeing employees' baseball league. "Playing with the men was fun," she says, "but I really enjoyed playing with the women."

She became an itinerant pickup player: Women's baseball tournaments are held occasionally across the country, usually two- and three-day affairs in which players converge to share their passion for a game that, like professional modeling, doesn't seem to have room for them once they achieve a certain age. In a space of eight years, Friant flew to Arizona, Florida and Ohio, signing on with any team that needed an extra player.

Two years ago, her boyfriend had an opportunity to move to a better job in Denver. One of the first things Friant did was get on to the Internet to see if she could find a game. She was thrilled with what she discovered.

In the vast region between Chicago and California, there is exactly one women's baseball league. This year, the Colorado Women's Baseball Organization starts its tenth season. For the fifth year, it is being hosted, improbably, by the Westminster Parks and Recreation Department.

"Some of our residents came to me and said they'd like to start a women's baseball league," recalls Viola Duran, a recreation specialist with the city. "We only had women's slow-pitch softball. But I thought, 'What a wonderful idea!' And it's been great. I mean, there's no place for girls to play baseball. There's no all-girls' Little League teams -- once in a while, a girl will play on a boys' team -- and there's no baseball for them in high school. The best a girl can hope for is fast-pitch softball, and there really aren't even that many of those teams around."

MacGregor, the league's unofficial historian, says women's baseball in Colorado actually has its roots in the much-publicized Silver Bullets traveling women's baseball team that was sponsored by Coors. In early 1994, organizers traveled to eleven cities across the country, holding tryouts. Although only one Denver woman made the final cut, those who gathered to play decided that now that they had rediscovered the game, they would prefer not to give it up.

 

So they formed their own league, which, as it turned out, far outlasted its parent. The Silver Bullets folded in 1997, after their first .500 season. Coors, $8 million in the hole, decided to pull its sponsorship. "Maybe they thought the twins campaign was a better way to promote women," guesses Hawthorne. A national women's league sputtered in the Bullets' wake for two more years and then folded. The Denver league, however, persisted. Duran says that for the past several years, enough women have come out to fill four teams, although this year may see five.

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!'"


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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