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.
Baseball has ruined her softball batting, Morrison complains.
"It's so slow in softball," she says. "I want to swing as soon as the ball is out of the pitcher's hand. In softball you have to slow down. My coach in baseball hates that I play softball, but hey!"
Her inflection says "too bad." She'll play as much ball as she can fit into a week. In fact, she says she's so busy playing that she hasn't yet had time to sign up her daughters in kid leagues. And besides, that would take away from her play time.
Some of the differences between men's and women's baseball are as subtle as the equipment--women's baseball shoes have decidedly feminine uppers above the same ice-skate-sharp metal cleats that men wear, but the juxtaposition makes them look like they were designed by some sadistic aerobics instructor.
The biggest discernible difference is in the pitching, not so much in the speed of the pitch, but in its delivery. Because of anatomical differences between men's and women's shoulders, the women cannot always make the full overhand circle while throwing. Instead, the throw comes out sidearm or cuts the circle short in a vaguely shot-putting motion.
Less discernible is the difference in coaching.
The Firebirds manager's job fell to Steve Emineth, Lexee's husband. He's a big, friendly man, but when the game gets started, he falls into ultracompetitive mode.
"You can't yell at them the way you can yell at men," he says, his fingers hooked into the chain-link fence of the backstop, his eyes fixed on the field as he speaks.
Whereas males are dumb enough to be bullied into motivation, females take offense and shut down, as if to say, "Motivate this, brother."
Lexee describes evenings after the game as Steve--doing what comes naturally to men--goes through the postgame analysis:
"I have to say, 'Is this practice? No? Then SHUT UP!' It really takes an effort to say, 'Today I'm a player and not a wife. I'll talk to you later about this, dear.'"
Back in the game, Chrissy Sears has already made it to second base when Meg O'Neil comes up to bat. Red hair cascades from under her batting helmet.
A swing, and a miss.
"That's not yours, Meg, don't reach," one of her teammates calls out.
But on the next pitch, she reaches anyway and pops up, a high and easy fly ball into the infield. The pitcher, the first baseman, the second baseman all move to make the catch, but no one calls it, and as they all look at one another, the ball drops between them and bounces into center field.
This painfully bad play is followed by one that is strikingly good. As the infielders hover, Cari Morrison, the center fielder, scoops up the ball and wings it to second base in time for the force out, and the second baseman whips it to the catcher with the smack of glove leather, just a millisecond too slow to catch the runner crossing the plate.
Lexee Emineth strides back to the mound. It's her first day there. One of the regular pitchers had her hand chewed up by a dog and can't throw; the other had to work, and so Lexee's trying to keep her nerves--and her fastball--down.
But the next pitch gets away from her and, as the catcher digs for it in the dirt by the backstop, Chrissy Sears, who is on third, sees her chance to advance.
Lexee runs to cover the plate; the catcher flips her the ball and, as she twirls to make the tag, Sears slides into home plate, taking Lexee's legs out from under her. The two women land hard in a dust cloud of arms and legs and knees and elbows.
Since the 1992 release of the film A League of Their Own, and the subsequent 1994 debut of the Colorado Silver Bullets, women's baseball leagues have sprung up like toadstools on a rain-soaked infield.
USA Baseball, the organization chartered by Congress and the U.S. Olympic Committee to oversee baseball in this country, from Little League through the pros, estimates that there are women's baseball leagues in 20 cities with a total of about 2,000 players. If this seems a large number, consider that the U.S. has at least 16 million amateur male players of the game.
There are women's leagues in Washington, D.C., several in Florida and California, upstarts in Colorado and Tennessee. There's a fledgling women's pro league in Florida, another trying to get a footing in the mid-Atlantic states. But they are largely disparate ventures--for the most part ignorant of one another.
The National Adult Baseball Association (from which the NWBA broke away) claims women's leagues in 12 or 13 cities, but it is so close-mouthed about its operations that USA Baseball doesn't know much about it. And even the Colorado Silver Bullets, whose survival depends on finding feeder leagues for its team, largely keeps track of women's baseball through newspaper-clipping services.
One of the main goals of the National Women's Baseball Association is to try to open communication among the various leagues, if for no other reason than to help it find new competition.
Though it has only four teams in the Phoenix area, the NWBA has made its presence felt in the national ballpark, with established leagues in Florida, Washington state and Michigan, and at least four new leagues in the works. Anyone who calls the Colorado Silver Bullets for information on how to start a women's league is referred to NWBA officials in Phoenix. And this summer, USA Baseball, along with the American Amateur Baseball Congress, will be investing time and money in a pilot women's league under NWBA leadership that will span six Midwestern cities and then pull together teams from California, Pennsylvania, Florida, Phoenix and the Midwest for a national tournament.
Much of the burgeoning interest in women's baseball stems from the last era when women played the game.
In 1943, Phillip K. Wrigley, who owned the Chicago Cubs, started up the All American Girls Professional Baseball League to help keep baseball parks filled in the Midwest while the best male players were away fighting WWII. At its peak, the league had ten teams, but then the novelty waned and the league fizzled in the mid-'50s--all of which was nostalgically portrayed in the 1992 release A League of Their Own.
Except for those tomboy Little Leaguers, no women ventured off the softball diamond for another 30 years.
In 1988, a Chicagoan named Darlene Mehrer attended a baseball fantasy camp--one of those events where civilians get to pretend they're at pro-ball spring training--and she came away determined to play baseball.
Mehrer quit her job and started the American Women's Baseball Association and a baseball newsletter called Basewoman. She hustled together two teams and then built the league to six teams. As the press coverage of the league spread, calls came in from all over the country from women who wanted to start their own teams. Mehrer even managed to get an exhibit about her league into the baseball hall of fame in Cooperstown, New York. She intended to build a national women's baseball association, but she ran out of time. In 1990, Mehrer died of cancer. Although her league is still playing (six of its players got baseball parts in the 1992 movie), it lost a lot of its steam.
But it was a start. One of the AWBA players moved to Florida and started a women's league in the Miami area. And a Michigan attorney named Jim Glennie read about the Chicago league, got in touch with it, and figured out how to start up his own league.
"I just saw where my daughters weren't getting the coaching in softball that we got when we were growing up playing baseball," he says.
"When my daughter suggested we play baseball and start a league," he says, "I went at it with a passion."
In 1992, Glennie started up a four-team women's league, with three teams in Lansing, Michigan, and one in nearby Grand Rapids. When his daughter moved away to take a job, Glennie stayed at it. He traveled to California with his players and staged a game in Cooperstown, New York, with a Philadelphia women's team. But he was looking for a larger sorority.
In 1994, following the media fanfare created by the Colorado Silver Bullets, the National Adult Baseball Association, which is a for-profit recreational baseball association headquartered in San Diego, started up an auxiliary women's association and built leagues in 25 cities across the country, including Phoenix. The association claims it still has leagues in San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Denver, Seattle, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, among others--totaling 13 cities.
The league's shrinkage, to hear the Phoenix and Michigan players tell it, was in the association's treatment of the women players as an afterthought.
"They weren't doing anything for the women," says Phoenix player Cari Morrison. "It was all men, men, men. Women? Who cares?
"The men got the good stuff. Their fields were chalked and lined. We played at noon in the middle of summer--it's 115 degrees!"
Lexee Emineth was the commissioner of the Phoenix league, and she wanted to start a league of her own.
"I took over because I was tired of being unorganized and I'm not the type of person, when I see something that needs fixing, who can sit back and not do something about it."
She met Jim Glennie at the annual NABA national tournament in Phoenix in 1994 (NABA continues to have this tournament each October), and they decided to start their league along with a Scottsdale benefactor named Christina Paine.
Christina Paine is a fortysomething blonde with Hollywood good looks, an actress with a resume full of TV roles and modeling gigs. And although she wound up in a wheelchair more than 20 years ago after a horseback-riding accident, she continues to work and continues to ride.
Paine is also a lifelong baseball fan--a friend of Jackie and Gene Autry, majority owners of the California Angels--and when she met Lexee, she was traveling the country, shopping to buy a minor league baseball franchise.
One day in 1994, after attending an Arizona Fall League game at Scottsdale Stadium, she found a flier under the windshield wiper of her silver Jaguar asking for sponsors for a women's team. She called the number on the flier and Lexee answered.
Lexee was still organizing for the WNABA, and Paine signed up as a team sponsor.
"I wasn't really looking to go out and start a national association for women to play baseball," she says. "I was just backing a team. But when I saw the conditions, I thought, 'If we are going to have decent venues to play, then we are going to have to create them.'"
Paine set aside her minor league dreams and threw herself into the considerably less expensive task of founding a women's league.
Paine and Lexee staged the coup with the 1995 season; most of the WNABA players followed them to the newly formed NWBA. Christina Paine set up an advisory board with some impressive baseball names: Jackie Autry; Dusty Baker, who played for the Dodgers and managed the Giants; and John McNamara and Buck Rodgers, who managed the Angels. She got Rod Carew to give hitting clinics to the women. This year she invited 1964 Cy Young Award winner Dean Chance to throw out the first ball of the season. She used her connections with the Angels and the Phoenix Firebirds to get good deals on uniforms and equipment.
Jim Glennie, the Michigan connection, pulled some strings of his own. He approached Jim Cooper of the American Amateur Baseball Congress, who once managed one of the original 1940s teams in the All American Girls Baseball League, and Cooper connected him with USA Baseball.
"I've always wanted to have one highly competitive team to develop skilled players and coaches so that we can reach down to the younger girls and offer baseball from an early age up," says Glennie.
And that thinking fit into goals set by USA Baseball.
"As a governing body, one of the things that's in our bylaws is that we're supposed to provide opportunity for women," says Wanda Rutledge of USA Baseball, "and we haven't done a very good job of that in the past. Our goal is to drop it down below this adult level. We'd like to see girls playing at other levels."
USA Baseball and the American Amateur Baseball Congress then agreed to put up money so that Glennie and the NWBA could establish a competitive pilot league in the Midwest. There will be teams in Chicago; South Bend and Fort Wayne, Indiana; and in Lansing, Battle Creek and Grand Rapids, Michigan. The NWBA will hold tryouts in those cities. In August, the three organizations will host an invitational tournament in Battle Creek with teams from the Midwestern league, Phoenix, California, Pennsylvania and Florida.
USA Baseball is hoping that the pilot program will lead to bigger things.
"My goal is that by next year, there will be at least one open tournament where everybody comes into it and we can really see what everyone is doing," says Wanda Rutledge. "The adult level is where the interest is. If we can get them involved and they become mentors, then we can have programs for younger women. That's the idea."
Things are hotly involved at Cholla Park. After a long and disastrous first inning, the Firebirds are finally beating their way back into the game,
Steve Emineth is pacing the dugout. He wants very badly to win.
The Angels are at bat, and one player bloops a little grounder to the shortstop, who fields it on the hop and fires it to first base for a photo finish.
"Safe!" calls the infield umpire.
Steve kicks the dugout fence in disgust.
"Why would I expect anything different out of you?" he shouts, a little too loudly.
The ump is not pleased. He walks over quietly.
"Coach, the game won't go on until you're in your car and out of the parking lot," he tells Emineth.
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Steve later confides how proud he is at being thrown out of a game for the first time. But he won't let on just yet.
"Get your glasses prescription filled on your way back to first base," he calls out on his own way off the field.
Seconds later, the shortstop catches a pop fly that leaves a runner stranded in a pickle between first and second base. The second baseman runs her down and then flips the ball to the first baseman, a big blonde. The blonde drops her glove like a guillotine into the runner's shoulder, inadvertently crumpling her to the ground with the tag.
The Angels bench erupts.
"Blue, you going to allow that?" the Angels coach shouts.
This is baseball . . .