By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
At bat for the Angels, number 44, Chrissy Sears, the 22-year-old youngster out of New Jersey. Pitching for the Firebirds, number 10, Lexee Emineth.
It's a beautiful night for baseball here at Cholla Park in north Scottsdale. The baselines are newly chalked, the grass grows green under the lights. Silhouettes of the McDowell Mountains frame the outfield.
Sears is the dominant hitter in the Phoenix league of the National Women's Baseball Association. Last week, she knocked the pill over the center-field fence, the first out-of-the-park homer of the year (partly because the fence had only been erected just days before).
She's got her baseball face on, brows pinched, lips tight, a complement to a serious stance in the batter's box.
A pitch, a swing. A high foul ball, straight up and over the backstop; it hangs over the park for a long moment. There's a white Honda waiting to pull out of the parking lot onto Via Linda, and before it can navigate the turn, the foul ball finds it, landing on its roof with a muffled thunk.
"That'll teach 'em to leave the game early," quips one of the women in the dugout.
Sears takes a few angry practice swings.
"C'mon, Jersey," they call from the bench.
The next pitch is high, but Sears impatiently takes a chop at it and with a hard bounce sends it into left field. Before the outfielder gets a glove on the ball, Sears is already rounding first base and eyeing second.
Every Sunday evening from August to December and mid-March through mid-June, the two-year-old National Women's Baseball Association fields two games here at Cholla Park. There are about 50 women in the league; some of them, like Sears, are lean and strong and move like ballplayers. Last year's best pitcher is now at spring training, trying to make the Colorado Silver Bullets, the women's professional baseball squad that barnstorms the country playing minor league and semipro men's teams. Other NWBA players are out-of-condition weekend warriors who played in boys' Little Leagues when they were kids, still others are raw recruits, trying to cross over from softball, just for the hell of it.
The NWBA is Lexee Emineth's love child, a set of teams that she plain abducted from a larger national men's league that treated them as a women's auxiliary. The men didn't love the women's game the way she did, and so she built her own league.
Emineth is a big-boned beauty with long, dark hair and darker eyes, and though she has a charming giggle, she hides it beneath a businesslike veneer. She gives the impression of being older and more mature and (Lord knows) more organized than her 24 years.
Lexee just took a job as a new-car salesperson, partly so she could have a day off during the week and mornings free to conduct business for the NWBA, which she serves as president and co-founder.
Like many of the women she competes against, she started her baseball career as the only girl in a boys' Little League and, like those other women, she still hasn't gotten over being forced to quit.
"You'll hear this from every girl who played Little League," she says. "Once you turn about 12 years old, you can't play anymore."
Girls are shunted off to softball, a girlie sport, the only baseball-like endeavor available for junior-high and high-school-age girls.
"When you go from that baseball to softball thing, your father treats you different," she continues. "To him, baseball is a game; softball is just recreation."
That seriousness seems to permeate the league. Oh, sure, they yuk it up in the dugout--ragging and badmouthing are big parts of the game, after all. But unlike the company bowling team, this ball game is not an excuse to hang out with friends or something to do while drinking beer.
"We come and play ball," says Cari Morrison, center fielder for the Firebirds. "That's what we do. We don't really hang out. People have their own lives."
These women never played ball with their friends. They played with the boys, the only girls on their teams at an age when boys are the enemy, so it's no wonder they don't bond with their teammates.
The NWBA is not about making feminist statements, not an attention-getting novelty act. The women just want to play baseball; they were hooked as kids and then spent half a lifetime banished from the baseball field.
And maybe they do harbor gender-barrier grudges.
Chrissy Sears played Little League in and around Atlantic City, New Jersey, and, like most girls, started playing softball (which she pronounces "sawfbawl") when she was 12. Unlike most women, however, she was able to keep playing baseball right through her sophomore year in high school. But when she made the high school varsity softball squad, she switched over completely so that she could score a softball scholarship to college. She hopes to play for ASU next year, and coaches a high school softball team with her roommate, Meg O'Neil, 25, who is an elementary school physical education teacher.
Cari Morrison, 32, is a stay-at-home mother of three. She was the only girl in her hometown Little League near Minneapolis, and she made the switch to softball at age 12 so that she could play with other girls. She was good enough at it to play varsity ball all through high school and then played on a traveling Army softball team while she was stationed in Korea. Now she plays in three different softball leagues in the East Valley in addition to her women's baseball team.