JULIE CROTEAU knows the price of equality.
In her freshman year playing baseball with men at St. Mary's College in Maryland, opposing pitchers hit her six times. Playing semipro baseball in the Virginia League for the Fredericksburg Giants, a pitcher broke her ankle with one throw.
``I don't know if the pitchers were trying to scare me or hurt me, but I viewed getting hit as a free base and maybe I'd get a chance to score,'' says Croteau, who is the first woman ever to get a hit playing college baseball.
Getting to first base - her position - has been a long road for Croteau, who started playing Little League at five years old and kept at it until she was 17. She tried to play for Osborne Park High School in Manassas, Va., but was cut by the coach. She sued the school board for sexual discrimination, but the case was thrown out. That summer, she made the All Star team in the Babe Ruth League competing against the same players.
After she was shut out of high school play, she started practicing with the Giants and ultimately earned a spot on the team. Her coach, Mike Zitz, remembers her first practice game: Croteau got two hits and tried to score from second on a single to center field. ``She tried to bowl the catcher over - she weighed 120 and he weighed 220. I knew then she had no fear,'' he says.
After high school, Croteau enrolled at St. Mary's College and won a position on that team as well. As a freshman first baseman she hit .222 and committed only five errors while making 83 putouts. As she has played, she's learned. This past summer, she hit .308 with the Giants. ``She has hit 90 mile-per-hour fastballs and driven in runs when other guys were striking out,'' says Zitz, who says Croteau is now the best first baseman in the league.
Hitting that well is the result of hard work on her swing. ``I'm small and I'm not particularly quick,'' she says, ``so I have to do everything right to get a base hit.'' She is studying for her master's degree at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and is an assistant baseball coach at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass.
Her success is also the result of a lot of desire. In her second year on the Giants, a bad hop broke her nose. The next day she was back at first base, diving for balls.
She has also had to maintain her composure when television crews and newspaper reporters arrive to watch her play. In her first game with four television crews on hand, she walked once and hit a line drive that was snared by a diving shortstop.
She's had to face pressure from some teammates, a pitcher and an outfielder in particular, who did not think she should be playing. They quit and joined another team. As it turned out, the Giants met that team in the playoffs. Facing the pitcher who had quit her team, Croteau got the game-winning hit, which dropped in front of the outfielder, the other former Giant.
Her prowess landed her the job of stunt double in the movie ``A League of Their Own.'' Audiences watching the first baseman digging out low throws were watching Croteau, who wore a different wig so she could make spectacular catches in center field as well.
While Hollywood may have ways for women to play big-league ball, Croteau holds no illusions about fighting her way into the minor leagues and swinging at the 95 m.p.h. fastballs that major-leaguers throw. Instead, she hopes to squeeze in one more year with the Giants and then start coaching other female athletes.
This summer she gave a clinic to five young girls. Three of them had ``phenomenal talent,'' she says. ``I looked into their eyes and said, `Keep playing.' ''