BEFORE an unimaginable sports opportunity knocked, Lee Anne Ketcham was headed to graduate school to study biomechanical engineering. Instead, she is completing the summer as one of 20 intrepid young women who put their own and their gender's athletic reputation on the line.
``Some people think you're an idiot for doing it,'' she says of her adventures on the Colorado Silver Bullets, the first all-female professional baseball team sanctioned by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues.
``There have been a lot of times we looked pretty silly out there, but you've got to take that in stride,'' Ketcham said during the Bullets' visit to Boston's fabled Fenway Park to play the Boston Park League All-Stars. The All-Stars prevailed, 6-0. ``We're still learning the game, so we don't have a lot of the instincts of the guys who have been playing the game for 20 years, nor the size or strength,'' Ketcham says.
The Bullets have played nothing but men's teams, from park leaguers to semi-pros to college squads on a national tour that packed many minor league parks. The games have averaged 6,646 spectators. With only a Sept. 3 game in Atlanta left, the Bullets' record is 6-36. On the surface, that's the stuff of Charlie Brown's hapless team, but this is no group of bunglers in the eyes of manager Phil Niekro, a 300-game-winning major league pitcher who retired in 1987.
Niekro is impressed with the defensive skills of his players, survivors of tryouts that lured 1,300 hopefuls last winter. The main problem is at the plate, where hitting overhand pitches has been a new and often frustrating experience. ``They can't catch up with some of the fastballs and curveballs,'' Niekro says. ``They just need time.''
Time is something Whittle Communications, the large media and marketing company that owns the Bullets, is committed to providing. Whittle has made a name for itself with Channel One, an in-school daily television news report, and now Bob Hope, president of Whittle's Sport Properties, has brought a missionary zeal to developing women's sports.
This is reflected in a mission statement formulated for the Bullets, which states in part that the team was founded to ``provide a nurturing environment for top women athletes to learn and play professional baseball against existing men's teams.'' Furthermore, the brewery-sponsored Bullets want ``to inspire girls and women to play the game of baseball at all levels ... and to encourage all forms of organized baseball to accept women athletes as players.''
Buttonholed in the Fen-way Park press box, Hope, a past vice-president of the Atlanta Braves, was asked why Whittle was focusing on baseball when softball has historically been the sport women play and are more proficient in.
Hope recalled what Donna Lopiano had said to him: ``No little girl dreams of growing up to become a softball player.'' Lopiano, a former All-American college softball player and now executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation, added, ``Like little boys, they had baseball players as their heroes, too.''
Hope's youngest daughter had to play softball in Little League because softball was for girls. ``I worked for the Braves, and she went to Braves games since she was a week old,'' he says. ``She didn't want to play softball.''
Hope is pleased by what he sees happening with women's baseball, including the visibility it has received since the 1992 movie, ``A League of Their Own,'' in which Geena Davis and Madonna portraded World War II-era players in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. Numerous women's amateur baseball leagues are now starting up around the United States, Hope says, and USA Baseball, the national governing body, has gotten on board with $50,000 in seed money to start teams for teenage girls.
Perhaps the most significant development is a plan to create a European farm league to feed players into the Bullets next season. The six-team Mediterranean Baseball League is selling franchises from Barcelona to Genoa for $1 million apiece. A number of investors are interested.
Europe was chosen, Hope says, because baseball is emerging there, new stadiums are looking for occupants, there's less competition for the sports dollar, and Europeans are known for being more supportive of women's professional sports.