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Teenage girl throws Japan’s pro baseball league a knuckle ball

Pitcher Eri Yoshida becomes the first female drafted into Japan’s all-male pro league – unwittingly helping to break the country’s ‘iron’ ceiling for women.

By Rena SingerContributor / January 13, 2009

New Era: Clad in her high school uniform, Eri Yoshida posed for the media during a press conference in November announcing her drafting as the first female professional baseball player in Japan.

AFP/JIJI Press/Newscom

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The latest sensation on the baseball diamond here is a five-foot-tall, 114-pound, dimpled high school girl who throws a nasty knuckle ball.

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Eri Yoshida, who left a line of male batters hitless in tryouts in November, recently signed on to become the first woman to play in professional baseball in Japan. Her drafting into pro ball has catapulted her from little-known high school jock to media darling, with camera crews following her daily rounds from calligraphy class to the dugout. Clips of her quirky side-armed pitch seem to be stock footage on nightly sports and news programs.

Yoshida’s spot on the bench of the new team, the Kobe 9 Cruise in the Kansai Independent League, which launches its inaugural season in April, has many women here hoping that she is more pioneer than token.

“She is a symbol of the changing status of women in Japan,” says Machiko Osawa, an economist at Japan Women’s University and an expert on women in the workplace. “She’s been accepted in sports, a very conservative world.”

Indeed, the United Nations’ Development Fund consistently ranks Japan as the most unequal of the world’s richest countries when it comes to gender equality. Women are not only barred from participating in Japan’s national sport, sumo wrestling, they can’t even step foot into the sumo ring, which is considered sacred and, therefore, off limits. Japan’s other national pastime, Kabuki theater, also remains an exclusively male domain.

Little leagues didn’t open their benches to girls until a decade ago – about the time Yoshida first picked up a ball. Even in schools, women face significant hurdles. Men outnumber women at Japan’s top universities by 4 to 1.

Yuriko Koike, a former cabinet minister and scion of a famous political family, who last year made an unsuccessful bid to become Japan’s first female prime minister, has complained that Americans talk about a glass ceiling, but women in Japan must contend with an “iron plate.”

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Yoshida is no Gloria Steinem – at least not yet. Although her knuckle ball has helped the nation break through an iron plate, or, in this case, home plate, the diminutive hurler seems bewildered by all the talk about her effect on gender equality. Yoshida likes to sing karaoke with her friends and is known among her teammates for her funny impersonations of Japanese celebrities.

“I don’t know much about the status of women in Japan,” Yoshida said in a recent telephone interview. “But with regard to baseball, it is not easy for women to find the opportunity to play baseball.”

With the optimism that belongs to youth the world over, Yoshida had not yet had cause to question her childhood dream – to become a professional baseball player. Even though she had retired her bat and glove a few times, it was never because of discrimination. She dallied in golf and other sports – some of them more accommodating to women. But the excitement of the diamond always drew her back.

“I could never give up baseball for long,” she explained. “Because I love it.”

Yoshida began developing her signature pitch, the knuckle ball, a few years ago after her father showed her a video of Tim Wakefield, the longtime knuckle-baller for the Boston Red Sox. Her father thought she should develop a special skill to distinguish herself. She hoped the knuckle ball, which requires technique instead of power, would allow her to succeed in baseball despite her tiny frame. Her fluttering pitches top out at about 60 m.p.h., but are elusive to hit.

“She is a very strong player on our team,” says Yukari Naganum, who was a teammate on her all-girls squad. “We will miss her.”

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