Women's Baseball Makes a Pitch For Major League Recognition

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT'S been five years since the women's baseball movie, "A League of Their Own" opened, and eight years since the war-era athletes portrayed in the movie and other female trailblazers were honored with an exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

So what happened to any momentum these developments generated for creating a women's professional baseball league?

For the answer, attention naturally turns to the Colorado Silver Bullets. Since 1994, they have been playing against mostly amateur men's squads, relighting the torch carried by the old All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (1943-54).

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At times, the Bullets (14-20 with 11 games to go) have seemed a faint blip on baseball's radar screen.

Whereas once they played 13 games in big-league parks, they now appear in only Boston's Fenway Park and Denver's Coors Field. No 1997 games have been televised.

Ironically, it took a bizarre incident earlier this summer - a brawl - to remind some people of the Bullets' existence. Kim Braatz-Voisard, who last year hit the first-ever home run by a Silver Bullets player, charged the mound when provoked during a game against a high school-age, championship team from Americus, Ga. The ensuing melee made newscasts around the country.

Attendance, which averages 3,000, shot up at various stops thereafter, but even before that the Silver Bullets were confident that girls were paying attention. Girls' participation in entry-level T-ball leagues and in high school has been on the rise.

Bob Hope, president of the Silver Bullets, says that he sees regular signs of increased acceptance, including the fact that "guys aren't as nervous about losing to women as they used to be."

Hope even believes the brawl may have sent a message: that the Bullets "are a real baseball team that cares about the game.... They take pride in what they do and they're coming after you if you don't treat them right."

One well-respected backer of women's baseball is former knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro, the Bullets' first manager and now the club's general manager. He invited the entire team to his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday.

"Their attitude [about learning baseball] is absolutely the best I've ever seen," Niekro said before a recent game in Boston. "Cutting players is the toughest thing I've ever had to do in my life, because they have nowhere else to go." Actually, last month a four-team Western women's league began play and another unrelated Eastern circuit is planned for '98.

Still, there's probably no team comparable to the Silver Bullets, who were selected as the national team last year by USA Baseball. One possible scenario has them joining a rookie minor league within a few years. Once the league absorbs enough other women's teams, a separate women's league would be formed.

In the meantime, the Bullets keep trying to improve their roster with players like Jenny Dalton-Hill, who set eight college softball records playing at the University of Arizona. Until now, she never played baseball, "a totally different sport," in which "everything is spread out." Drawing on her pure athleticism, however, she is the Bullets' third-best hitter with a .273 average despite seldom facing the same pitcher in consecutive turns at bat.

Softball has traditionally been the ball-and-bat sport of choice for women, but Hope believes they have the right to play what he calls a harder game. Increased support, he says, will flow from several factors: Major League Baseball needs women fans, equipment manufacturers want them as customers, and youth leagues, hard pressed to justify funding of diamonds over dual-gender soccer fields, are beginning see to the light when it comes to getting women on board - and girls on base.

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