A league of her own

My 12-year-old puts on a show at the batting cages with line drive upon line drive. People stop to watch and ask about high school baseball, but that will never happen. You see, girls just don't play baseball.

Which is too bad because Clare is a natural who already hits 80 mile-per-hour pitching. Bernard Malamud wrote about a similar player in the person of Roy Hobbs. Only their flaws are different. With Hobbs, it was the corrupting influence of money and fame. With Clare it's gender, a condition for which there are no 12-step programs presently available.

The figures say my daughter should be in good company on the diamond. Women last year were playing in impressive numbers - 354,000 in sanctioned Little League softball programs, and 1.2 million playing under the auspices of the Amateur Softball Association. Little League also reports 100,000 girls play on its baseball teams.

But those numbers also suggest something separate and unequal, in the way of the Negro Leagues before Jackie Robinson. Female athletes swim, play basketball, and run track in the manner of their male counterparts. The basket stays the same height (although in Illinois, rules do allow for a ball one-inch smaller than the boys'), the pool and races are the same length. But when it comes to using a bat and ball, women are transformed into little ladies who need special consideration.

In baseball, a player runs the 90 feet to first base after hitting a ball nine inches in circumference thrown by a pitcher standing 60 feet, 6 inches away. For women's fast-pitch softball, the distances are typically 60 feet between bases and 40 feet from the mound to the plate for a game that uses a 12-inch ball. Call me old-fashioned, but the challenge here would seem to be a function of the greater the distance and the smaller the circumference. At least Rickey Henderson and Babe Ruth always thought so.

By age 11, Clare was already running the 60 feet to first base in Pony-sanctioned Bronco baseball. And, if she wanted to pitch, she stood on a mound 48 feet from the plate. Like everyone else, she throws a league ball over the top rather than with the underhand delivery used in softball. Just how many submariners pitched in the majors last year, by the way? More than two?

The uniforms signal yet another disturbing change. It's caps and pants in baseball, visors and shorts for softball. No one will ever know what kind of legs Ted Williams had when he hit .406 in 1941. And I doubt very much that Williams, the splendid sprinter, would have consented to the bruises that come from sliding into base with thighs exposed.

We live in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn, where 6- to 12-year-olds play together regardless of gender. It is a decision based more on Darwin or tight recreation budgets than Title IX. The game played in Berwyn is blue-collar tough. Hispanic or Italian, kids who get hit by a pitch are taught to shake it off and take their base. The first time it happened to Clare, the ump asked if she wanted a courtesy runner. Without any prompting from me, she said, "No," and trotted down to first.

Clare twice made the All-Star team, and so began our education on the challenges that come for any girl competing with boys.

First, there was the All-Star T-shirt handed out before the game. All the boys changed on the spot, while Clare needed a privacy screen formed by two parents. And the other coaches were not wild about this one All-Star playing the field; they probably had visions of her throwing "like a girl." But she managed to single sharply up the middle on a two-strike pitch in her first at-bat.

Outright misogyny waited until Clare moved up to the 11- and 12-year-old Bronco division. The team consisted mostly of second-year players who had gone to the Berwyn Bronco World Series the summer before. They did not take kindly to newcomers. For her part, Clare did not take well to being frozen out by the rest of the team. The bench can be a lonely place for any player who leaves teammates on base - but for a girl it verges on solitary confinement.

One day she kept missing ground balls during a fielding drill. "I don't know what's wrong with me," she said. "That's because you suck," offered a teammate. This was on a par with the reception she received after one game, when both teams were supposed to line up and shake hands. "Nice game, bitch," an opposing player told her. Tom Hanks was wrong. There is crying in baseball. It just didn't happen with me around to see or hear.

Fortunately, this year Clare is on a team with some friends, and her confidence is back. But at some point sooner rather than later my daughter will be reaching an age when teams hold open tryouts. Without another innovator like a Branch Rickey or a Bill Veeck, her performance will never be judged good enough: Nice try, honey, maybe next year. Why don't you try softball instead?

It all matters because baseball is the great American barometer. Know the demographics in the dugout, and you will know how society works off the field. I truly believe women can play baseball on the Major League level. The National Pro Fastpitch League is the old Negro Leagues by any other name. If it's just as good as baseball, why don't men play, too? When the Major Leagues start drafting players with names like Betty and Clare, that, as much as anything, will be a sign of real equality in this country. Such is my defense for subjecting a child to taunts and doubts.

We were heading home after one of those frustrating afternoons last summer when Clare asked me to stop. There was a fast-pitch softball game across the street from the baseball field. The girls were maybe three or four years older, dressed in those uniforms I dislike and running those bases I still think are too close together. But my daughter saw something, maybe a bond between players that was being denied her; boys have this way of rendering the opposite sex invisible when it suits them. In front of me stood a coach, Comiskey by the name on his shirt.

For a family of White Sox fans, that may have been a sign. I hope there are others.

Douglas Bukowski is the author of 'Pictures of Home,' a forthcoming memoir.

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