THE STATE OF WOMEN'S BASEBALL FOUND IN THE WASHINGTON METRO LEAGUE
By Al Mattei
Ever since the All-American Girls' Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) folded in the mid-1950s, the presence of women in baseball has been extremely limited.
This changed with the release of the 1992 movie A League Of Their Own, loosely based on one AAGPBL team. Since then, attempts to provide women with more opportunities to play baseball have grown tremendously.
Beginning in 1995, a barnstorming women's baseball team, the Colorado Silver Bullets, played against men's professional and semipro teams for three years. One of the Bullets' former players, Ila Borders, not only tried out for a professional men's team, but has managed to remain for more than two seasons.
However, as the attempts to provide women with opportunities to play baseball have increased, so have the opportunities to play baseball's twin, fastpitch softball. Six teams form the Women's Professional Softball League (WPSL), have played amongst some fanfare and have had some of their games televised nationally.
There are, however, those across the country who have chosen not to play the bat-and-ball sport that society has reserved for women, and have taken to the baseball diamond instead of a softball sandlot. Since the folding of the Silver Bullets, some semi-pro women's baseball leagues have opened and closed within one season.
There is, however, one amateur league that has flourished at the close of the 20th century in the Baltimore-Washington corridor: the Washington Metropolitan Women's Baseball League (WMWBL).
The league's four teams -- the Stars, the Barncats, the Boxers, and the Flames -- contest a schedule of some 30 games, including interleague play with a New Jersey-based team which is looking to sprout two or three other teams in order to form a league up the coast.
The word about women's baseball has spread beyond the New York-Washington corridor. Some pick-up leagues have sprouted in the United States, and the Women's New England Baseball League played its inaugural championship game in 1999 just outside of Boston.
The teams in the WMWBL play at seven locations between Baltimore and northern Virginia. Some high schools, some elementary schools, and a public park near the University of Maryland are among the sites.
On this night, the umpire is late. Striding over the top of a hill at Oakton (Va.) High School is the man in blue, while two groups of women with slightly mismatched uniforms (the tops match, but the caps, pants, and shoes are of kaleidoscopic variety) are completing their pregame warmups.
The field is neat, but very dusty: the worst drought of the century has baked the nearby football practice field to such a degree that large cracks appear in the earth like an empty desert lake bed.
The two small aluminum bleachers behind the backstop are wanting for fans, though admission is free. However, it does take a special kind of person to attend a game in this amateur league: in the second inning of one game, three fans found a baby squirrel behind the first-base dugout, rejected by its mother. After a few minutes of discussion, a group of fans decided that the young life took precedence, even over a game with such a purchase on the national soul.
Carrying the crying squirrel in a piece of newspaper, they head off for the nearest veterenarian and check whom amongst them may have an eyedropper -- or a used straw -- to feed it. At last check, the squirrel was doing well at the local animal hospital.
As the teams take the field, and it is hard to tell that this is a "women's baseball game" per se except for individual quirks -- the pony tails, the softball-style shorts on some players, the special batting helmet with a hole cut in the back to let long hair through. There is a catcher who does not wear the conventional catcher's mask: she recycles an ice hockey helmet (complete with clear plastic face shield) for catching duties. Every time she has to take the mask off to chase a popup, the fans can see a kerchief on her head that resembles a Canadian flag.
When play begins, however, a style develops. When women play amateur baseball, it is clear that teams making the fewest mistakes will win the contest. All of the participants have the skills -- throwing, hitting, catching. Many are honed from softball, however, meaning that their baseball skills are in the process of development.
To understand what the average WMWBL player -- the average female baseball player -- has to go through, imagine yourself having to familiarize yourself with different equipment, different angles, different strategies. The game is still a bat-and-ball game, trying to be safe at home. However, the baseball is smaller, the typical infielder has a much longer throw, and the runner takes about five seconds to get from home to first, rather than the 2.9 seconds the fastest softball player takes.
The adjustments are roughly those of the Little Leaguer trying to play 13-year-old Babe Ruth baseball on a regulation field. The dimensions are longer, especially from home to second. Aggressive runners can outrun even the most seasoned woman behind the plate.
Late in one 1999 contest, a batter struck out, only to have the ball skip behind the opposing catcher. The batter beat the throw to first base. Within one at-bat, the runner stole second and third on extremely close plays. The runner eventually scored on a single.
The cunning, hustling runner knew intimately exactly the kinds of tribulation and adjustment a softball catcher has to make to baseball: she played catcher for the other team.
There are many who believe that baseball is not just an activity reserved for men and boys. Just ask Kristin Guidace, who played Little League baseball as a youth. The player/manager of the Boxers of the WMWBA, she is a veteran of many days playing baseball for Annandale (Va.) Little League before playing softball at Shippensburg (Pa.) University.
"I just go out and have a good time," Guidace says, "even if you're not getting paid."
To say Guidace is a baseball junkie is an understatement. She plays in a local men's over-30 league. She invites a complete stranger into the dugout to talk baseball and women's sports for more than an hour. She also takes the opportunity to preach the virtues of the game.
"This league used to be just for adults, but we think this is a great opportunity for young women 14, 15 years old to have a place to play," she says. "It's hard to spread women's baseball in the schools, but we're trying."
She pitched three innings on the evening, but these were not ordinary innings. She broke a bone in her left hand in the first week of the 1999 season and wore a substantial tape job to cover the scars.
As a result, she pitched with a right-hand glove, a la Jim Abbott. And just like the major-league pitcher, she had to make the adjustments. In the second inning, an opponent lays down a drag bunt which Guidace fields easily and throws the runner out at first.
One inning later, a member of the Barncats smacks a liner through the box. Ever alert, she leaped to her left and threw out the runner with her glove hand.
It becomes clear that it takes a special kind of player to even suit up for an amateur women's baseball league. On the on-deck circle, one player says to an intrepid journalist, "You know when you are a real baseball player when you start spitting."
League commissioner JoAnn Milliken has immersed herself in baseball culture for the last six years, having started her team, the Flames, out of part of her co-ed softball team. However, she has noticed that the acceptance of women playing baseball is a multi-pronged process.
"When women start playing softball, they form social networks, and they don't want to give it up," Milliken said. "Some women who play in the (WMWBL) play both baseball and softball. The other reason we have trouble getting women to come out is that there are no opportunities to go beyond this in school. They can't get scholarships; the reason women who are good at 'ball' play softball is because they can get scholarships."
These days, Milliken sees the WMWBL as a possible catalyst for the institution of organizing baseball for young female players. The league can accept players as young as 16, but she wants to see something as organized as the nationwide quilt of youth baseball leagues.
"We're considering -- but we need more money and more time -- is to establish a league for 14- to 16-year olds, to build kind of a farm system for the league," she says. "But that requires a lot of time, and most of us players want just to play and to prove ourselves. Many of us are torn between wanting to help the sport and wanting to play."
Milliken knows that there are not many more seasons left in her fortysomething body, and that the contributions that she can give on the field will be eventually outweighed by her administrative duties. Still, she is beginning to realize exactly what her role is as commissioner of one of the few American leagues for women's baseball.
"It's changing, and it's getting better all the time," Milliken says. "I wish I was younger: there's going to be a lot of women's baseball."