Athletics/Sports

Japan's 'Knuckleball Princess' Mulls U.S. Offer

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Eri Yoshida, the first woman to play professional baseball in Japan, is mulling over a chance to play professional league baseball in the United States for the Chico Outlaws, based in Chico, Calif.

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(WOMENSENEWS)--Eri Yoshida, a pitcher known for her sidearm knuckleball, has an offer to play professional baseball in the United States for the independent Golden Baseball League's Chico Outlaws.

Kevin Outcalt, commissioner for the Golden Baseball League, told Women's eNews if all goes well they expect Yoshida will sign with the Chico Outlaws and that they're planning a public signing ceremony some time in April. The Golden Baseball League's season opens May 19 and runs through Sept. 6, followed by the division playoffs.

If Yoshida, age 18, does join the team, she'll be the first woman to play in the Golden Baseball League, following Ila Borders of La Mirada, Calif., who pitched for the St. Paul Saints in the Northern League in 1997. She'll also be the first Japanese woman to play professional baseball in the United States and the third to play in any of the seven male-dominated independent leagues in North America.

The gender barrier remains unbroken in Major League Baseball.

Today's professional independent leagues were founded as unaffiliated alternatives to Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball. The Golden Baseball League was founded in 1994 by Silicon Valley magnates, among them Kevin Outcalt.

There are no rules barring women from playing professional baseball with--or against--men in the independent leagues. A ban on women in the Major and Minor Leagues has been in effect since June 1952, initiated by then-Commissioner Ford Frick. The ban was briefly overlooked in 1993 when Carey Schueler was drafted to play for the Chicago White Sox by her father, then-General Manager Ron Schueler. She never signed with the team.

Mum About Outlaws' Offer

So far, Yoshida's been mum about the Outlaws' offer and Outcalt said her agents in Japan are making it hard for the press to reach her.

After wrapping up the Arizona Winter League season pitching for the Yuma Scorpions, Yoshida was spotted in early March when she traveled to Fort Myers, Fla., to meet--and throw knuckleballs with--Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, there for spring training. Yoshida has described Wakefield as her idol in many press interviews and has said she taught herself how to pitch a knuckleball by watching video footage of Wakefield in action.

Since appearing with Wakefield, Yoshida has gone back to Japan to visit friends and family and to mull over the Chico Outlaws' offer, according to various press reports.

When the 5-foot, 1-inch teenager was drafted by the Yuma Scorpions last winter, many sports writers and commentators wondered if this wasn't just a move by Yuma to grab media attention and increase ticket sales for the Arizona Winter League, a professional independent instructional league where only one other woman has ever played. Tiffany Brooks of Spokane, Wash., played for Yuma and has signed a contract with the Big Bend Cowboys of Alpine, Texas, a franchise of Continental Baseball, one of the seven independent leagues.

"The media always says it's all about publicity whenever a woman is successful in baseball," Jennifer Ring, author of "Stolen Bases, Why American Girls Don't Play Baseball," said in a recent interview. "Besides just being a woman, Yoshida is very small and she doesn't pitch a fastball. So people question her prospects based on her strength and size. But baseball has always had a place for smaller men who can throw opponents off their game."

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"If Yoshida, age 18, does join the team, she'll be the first woman to play in the Golden Baseball League, following Ila Borders of La Mirada, Calif., who pitched for the St. Paul Saints in the Northern League in 1997. She'll also be the first Japanese woman to play professional baseball in the United States and the third to play in any of the seven male-dominated independent leagues in North America."

Eri Yoshida won't be "following" Ila Borders; she'll be following Tiffany Brooks, who will be playing for the Big Bend Cowboys of the independent Continental Baseball League this summer. The Continental League's season begins on May 6th and the Golden League's on May 16th, so the chronology of your article is misleading.

And is it too much to ask of womensenews or Regina Varolli to list the names of the three women to play "in any of the seven male-dominated independent leagues in North America" in the same sentence in which they're referenced? The omission of their names following the author's allusion to them is confusing. I think it's great that Eri Yoshida's progress through the Arizona Winter League, where Tiffany Brooks also played this past February, is highlighted here, but why ignore and minimize Tiffany's standing as the second woman in the past half century, after Ila Borders and before Eri, to play baseball in the U.S. for a professional men's league? With so few women who have penetrated the barriers of pro ball in America since Eleanor Engle's contract with the minor league Harrisburg Senators was summarily canceled in 1952, why not name them all so we know who they are?

Ila Borders. Tiffany Brooks. Eri Yoshida. That's the correct chronology, and the very short list of women pro players, other than the ones on the Silver Bullets, who have cracked open baseball's stained grass window in this country and made it through to the other side. Women playing and umpiring professional baseball will one day be so routine it won't even merit a mention on the nightly news or the internet. Until then, let's at least honor the very few who have led the way by being accurate about their accomplishments.

Actually, umpireplb is incorrect and inaccurate on a number of counts. First of all, he/she totally overlooks Kendall Burnham who played for the San Angelo Colts of the Central League in 2003 as an infielder. Secondly, the Continental Baseball League is most definitely not recognized as a professional league -- they are not recognized by either Minor League Baseball or the Independent Professional Baseball Federation. Primarily because they use the lure of a "pro contract" to entice many of their young players to pay a "development fee" to play. At best it is semi-pro, at worst it is summer camp, but it's certainly not a professional baseball league.

I not only "overlooked" Kendall Burnham, I'd never even heard of her until now. Perhaps it's because her career with the Colts was so brief; she came to bat fewer than ten times during her four weeks with the league and didn't get so much as a single. So thanks, baseballgal, for updating my "women who have played pro ball on a men's team" database; I stand corrected.

As far as the Continental not being recognized as "professional," it's no more or less professional than the league for which Eri Yoshida will be playing. The players get paid for their services; that makes the league professional by any definition, whether or not the IPBF recognizes it as such. At the time Kendall Burnham played for the Colts, the Central League was not recognized as a legitimate independent circuit by the IPBF either, and neither is its immediate descendant, the United League. My quibble is with the coverage womensenews has been giving Eri Yoshida in proportion to the lack thereof devoted to Tiffany Brooks.

Tiffany is a legitimate ballplayer with skills equal to those of any she'll be playing with or against, and I just want to see her get her props too, is all. The list of women who have cracked open baseball's stained grass window is still way too short to eliminate anyone who has payed for play alongside the men, so celebrating Eri Yoshida's signing or Kendall Burnham's brief career, but not Tiffany's, strikes me as shortsighted and worthy of mention.

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