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Toward a More Perfect League

By Joe Mathews

Softball is for sissies.

That, in a nutshell, appears to be the founding principle of the Colorado Silver Bullets, a new women's baseball team currently holding tryouts around the country. Their very existence could represent the greatest victory for gender equality since the 19th Amendment.

While baseball leagues for women have come and gone during the past 50 years, the Silver Bullets, sponsored by the Coors beer company, are different. They won't play teams of other women. Their opponents will be men.

Beginning May 14, the Silver Bullets will play more than 30 exhibition games against teams in the Northern League, a league for rookies at the bottom rung of the men's minor leagues.

The team is already attracting widespread media attention. Stories about Silver Bullets tryouts have appeared on all three major networks and in The New York Times. The spotlight has brought more than 100 women to tryouts all around the country.

"It's very exciting to be able to get in on the ground floor of something very special and unique," Shereen Samonds, the Silver Bullets' general manager, told the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel after a tryout in that city. "Since I took this job I have been getting calls from all over the country wanting to know how to get involved."

But the Silver Bullets are more than a novelty. With any luck, they will become a precedent. When the Bullets open up against the St. Paul Saints, men and women will compete on the same playing field. They'll use the same baseball, they'll swing for the same fences.

The team's manager, former major league knuckleballer Phil Niekro who won 300 games in the bigs, has a proper sense of just what's at stake. He told the Sentinel: "I think it's time that everyone saw what females could do if given the chance to compete in professional baseball at the minor league or major league level."

Women and men have competed head-to-head in professional sports before, but the spectacle has always been somewhat less than satisfying. Billy Jean King beat Bobby Riggs on the floor of the Astrodome back in the '60s. And while the victory was gratifying for King and anyone who had had to listen to Riggs' frequently pigheaded and sexist comments, it proved nothing. Riggs was by then an old man. King was in her tennis-playing prime.

In horse racing, jockey Julie Krone has compiled an impressive record, including winning a Triple Crown event, but riding a horse--while grueling--seems a poor test of athletic mettle. The closest thing we've seen to progress has been the story of ice hockey goalie Erin Whitten earlier this year. Whitten, relieving an injured teammate during a game this fall in the all-professional East Coast Hockey League, was credited with the victory for the Toledo Storm. "A barrier is broken," proclaimed Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy.

But goalie is a unique position in hockey, requiring completely different skills than other spots on the ice. It is the Silver Bullets who represent the best opportunity to see hand-to-hand combat between men and women professionals.

Some argue that women can't play a sport like baseball--at least at the same level as men. Women are different, the objection goes, not as strong or athletically gifted as men. Much feminist theory supports this objection. Nancy Chodorow and others argue that girls and boys develop differently and assume different attributes; girls are nurturing and understanding, while boys are aggressive--the primary quality necessary for sports. Deborah Tannen argues similarly that women and men use different languages.

The extension of these thoughts is embodied in the societally-imposed division between how young men and women play with sticks and balls. Baseball for the boys, softball for the kinder, gentler girls.

I've always suspected that "feminists" like Chodorow and Tannen were the pretty, well-made-up girls in the schoolyard who always made fun of the tomboys. Plus, their arguments limit women, and inform stereotypes. Women always seem to end up playing the "soft" games.

The tragedy is that softball, for all its charm, is not as good a sport as baseball. Baseball's longer distances allow for more bizarre plays, more errors, more excitement. There is less grace in softball. With distances so short, speed and timing are all.

If they're betting women, Chodorow and Tannen probably have bets down already against the Silver Bullets. But I suspect that the Bullets may take a few games in their exhibition series.

As a coach in Pasadena (Calif.) Southwest Little League, the last time when girls play baseball before social pressure forces them into softball, I would always draft girls onto my hardball teams. My co-coach, a young Harvey Mansfield with more common sense, liked to draft girls because he thought they "civilized" the boys. I liked to pick girls because I like to win, and the girls were every bit as skilled, strong and tough as boys.

Sarah, an 11-year-old who played second base for one team I coached, was the perfect counterexample to the "fairer sex" stereotype. Sarah would fling her body at ground balls that seemed out of her reach, spit, and power long drives into left-center field for extra-base hits.

She wasn't big or particularly intimidating in appearance, but she scared the boys. When I brought her into pitch an inning once, she struck out the side and got a standing ovation from the mothers in the stands.

During an exhibition game between the Little Leaguers and a squad of parents, Sarah looked like she was going to be forced out at second. But her slide into second base was so vicious that the parent playing second dropped the ball and fell to the ground writhing in pain. X-rays later confirmed it. Sarah had broken his leg in two places.

Hillary, another girl in the league, played first base, batted clean-up and specialized in running over catchers. But when the two headed to area high schools, they were immediately shuffled into softball programs.

Phil Niekro, the Silver Bullets manager, is right, but he understates the situation. American society is systemmatically squandering half of its baseball talent.

But the current emphasis on gender equity is separate but equal. Women athletes at Harvard want the same resources for their teams as men. That's a good impulse. Such equal funding is fair, and the law--Title IX--requires it.

But still better would be to drop the artificial distinction between women's and men's sports. Let's do battle together on the field of play. May the best players win.

This might hurt the level of participation of women in athletics, at least at first. But I don't think it would be women who would put up the greatest resistance to such an idea. Secretly, men have got to be scared to death by the possibility of being beat, defeated--outmanned, if you will--on the field of play by women.

The Silver Bullets represent a good start, but they are far from the ideal. The perfect professional baseball team should have women and men on it.

Give the idea 20 years. It's 2014, and Marion B. Gammill, president of the United North American Free Trading States trots out to the mound at Dodger Stadium to throw the first ball for Game 1 of the World Series between L.A. and the new expansion team from Kuala Luampur.

Gammill hands the ball to the pitcher, a foul-mouthed, hard-sliding former Little Leaguer from Pasadena, Calif., who spits tobacco juice on the president's high heels.

"May the best ballplayer win," she says.

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