Pitching Distaff

That oversize place everybody keeps calling BOB and its snaky home team may get all the press, but they ain't the only game in town. For a solid season before the Diamondbacks came along, we have had an unsung team chock-full of local athletes playing pro ball for a small but dedicated group of local fans. The Arizona Peppers are the local representatives from LPB (Ladies Professional Baseball), and they're ready to start year two. The season kicks off in their new home at Scottsdale Stadium on Thursday, July 9, with the start of a five-game series against the defending league champs, the San Jose Spitfires.

If you haven't heard of "your Arizona Peppers," you aren't alone--they may just be the best-kept secret in local sports. Last year all the baseball talk centered on the birth of the D-Backs, while all the women's sports fans had their eyes on the Mercury. The small (four-team) league was easily overlooked during its inaugural season at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. But this year, looking to expand its audience, the league has made some changes.

Now there are six teams, stretching all the way to the East Coast. The local women are joined by the Long Beach Aces, the Buffalo Nighthawks, New Jersey's Diamonds, the Florida Legends and the aforementioned champs, the Spitfires. This year's schedule consists of 56 match-ups, divided into 14 series, usually of four games each. After the season-opening stand against San Jose, the women hit the road until mid-August, when Long Beach comes to town. Games continue through late September, so there are plenty of opportunities to catch the Peppers in action.

Last season was a bit rocky for LPB. Mostly because of a lack of publicity, crowds were sparse. The Peppers actually had the league's highest average attendance, game after game. Opening day drew 750 fans, and subsequent games averaged about 150.

Experienced sports nuts and newbies alike will have a great time. Your humble correspondent, the anti-sports grump of all time, had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the first game. But on opening day, a fan was born. Within 20 minutes I was losing my voice from cheering and yelling "slide" and cursing out the ump. Somehow I found myself back at the stadium a half-dozen times before the season was out. This is a classic cheap date: Ticket prices range from $4 to a whopping $8.75. Even with a hot dog and a Coke, it's still cheaper than a night at the local multiplex.

Don't get the idea that this is some cute little "girly" game played by adorable moppets in skirts. It's real, by-the-books baseball played with skill and enthusiasm. The teammates all have the zeal of true believers, and it's infectious. These players are in it for love of the game, not for the big bucks--the salaries are way below an MLB rookie's starting wages.

Last year saw the team off to a shaky start: nine wins and 19 losses. But as those overpaid Diamondbacks keep pointing out, that's what first years are for. This year's bench includes nine seasoned vets and a bunch of eager new recruits. One of those new faces, All-American Leah Cochrane from the University of Arizona, will be slipping on the catcher's mitt. Last year's crowd favorite, Christina DeLuca, handles the mound chores again. And unlike itinerant big leaguers with no local loyalty, most of the Peppers are actual Valley natives--Phoenix, Gilbert, Tempe, Mesa and Chandler are all represented. For variety, a couple of ringers from California also made it onto the roster. But that oversight can be forgiven.

--David Gofstein

The Arizona Peppers take on the San Jose Spitfires at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 9; and the same time Friday, July 10; Saturday, July 11; Sunday, July 12; and Monday, July 13, at Scottsdale Stadium, 7408 East Osborn in Scottsdale. Tickets range from $4 to $8.75. Call 784-4444.

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David Gofstein