A pitcher defies baseball's gender borders

Ila Borders's jersey is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, honoring her as

"And on the mound for the Madison Black Wolf, No. 6, Ila Borders.

"Now, fans, please rise...."

As the crowd of 2,284 shuffles to its feet for the national anthem, the silence in Sioux Falls (S.D.) Stadium is deafening. There's not a single cheer for the 24-year-old left-hander who is the only woman on the roster of a male professional baseball team.

Cheers or no, Borders already has accomplished something unique: Her jersey hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., honoring her as the first woman to play men's pro baseball.

But her road in the pros has been as bumpy as a bus trip between minor-league cities. Madison, Wis., is her third team in her three seasons in the independent Class A Northern League, although it is a place where she appears to have found a home and a spot in the starting rotation.

"My first year was nothing but survival," Borders says. When she was first signed to the minor league St. Paul (Minn.) Saints by Mike Veeck, son of the legendary sports promoter Bill Veeck, many observers were skeptical of his intentions. After all, the younger Veeck was known for stunts like having a trained pig trot out with baseballs for the home-plate umpire.

Borders's professional debut came against these same Sioux Falls Canaries May 31, 1997. That first night, it seemed she might be nothing but a promotional gimmick. Clayton Isakson, a Canaries season-ticket holder, remembers the atmosphere: "Ila came in from the bullpen, and everybody stood up and cheered. It must have unnerved her, because she plunked the first batter in the shoulder, and the whole time she was in there - maybe three or four hitters - she never got one out. But the next day, they brought her in again, and once again she got a standing ovation. Only this time, she got the side out."

Her second year, Borders says, "was about getting established." As a relief pitcher for the Duluth-Superior Dukes, "I was the left-hander brought in to get a left-handed batter out. Usually, I'd pitch to just one batter.

"But this year is different. For the first time now, I can feel myself growing."

Borders attributes much of her success to the veteran manager of the Madison Black Wolf, "Dirty Al" Gallagher. When his team acquired her this season, Gallagher came up with the idea of using Borders as a three-inning starter, allowing hitters not much more than one look at her menu of pitches before taking her out of the game.

While that routine deprives her of a chance to win a game (which requires that a starter complete five innings), it has enabled her to maintain an outstanding earned run average (1.53) and limit opponents to a .264 batting average. Both stats are the best on her team.

Borders is hoping that her low ERA will garner a contract with a minor-league team that has a major-league affiliation (none of the teams in the Northern League do). Then she hopes to be invited to a major-league spring training camp, possibly next year.

Growing up in La Mirada, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, Borders developed an arsenal of breaking pitches to make up for a less-than-overpowering fastball. "Last year, I was throwing it 83 miles an hour, but it came in straight," she says. "Now, my fastball's down to 77 m.p.h., but it's moving. Over the off-season, I want to try to pick up four miles an hour but keep it moving."

In the off-season, she works out with her father. Phil Borders is a former minor-league player who recognized his daughter's talent as a Little Leaguer and started her on a regimen of conditioning to strengthen the muscles of her shoulders and wrists.

"I have a rubber arm," Borders says. "People look at me and they say, 'You're not so big.' [She is 5 ft. 10 in. and weighs 150 pounds.] But my hands are bigger than my dad's, and I can throw all day."

Once, at age 12, she faced 18 batters in a game and struck out every one.

Borders was playing semi-pro baseball by age 14. She always has preferred baseball to softball, the game traditionally played by women. ("I can't throw underhand, and I love to pitch overhand," she says in an interview on her Web site, www.ilaborders.com.)

In 1993, she became the first woman to be awarded a college baseball scholarship at Southern California College of Costa Mesa. She also pitched for a season for Whittier (Calif.) College. She received a degree in kinesiology, the study of muscular structure and motion, and now works as a substitute teacher in the off-season.

"With all this baseball, finishing my degree was a challenge," she says with a chuckle, "and that's fine with me. I like people telling me I can't do something, and then proving them wrong." She says her major challenges have come not from the players, but from the media and the fans: "I've had people try to follow me home."

Borders faced her share of trials in her three-inning stint against Sioux Falls. In the top of the second inning, her teammates exploded for eight runs. Before the fusillade was over, Borders had been sitting in the dugout for almost half an hour.

Out of sync in the bottom of the second, she gave up a towering home run to the first batter. But the Black Wolf played solid defense behind her, turning in a crisp double play.

When she left, having given up four hits and just the one run in her three innings, her manager gave her a pat on the back. But the crowd paid no attention as she pulled on her warm-up jacket and took a seat after her 12th career start.

"That's the way it is when Ila pitches these days. It's no big deal anymore," says sports writer Mick Garry of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

Borders could be an icon for feminism - if that were her cause. "I'm not out there waving the flag," she mutters, shaking her head with a smile. "I just want to show that you don't have to be huge to compete as a pitcher."

But she also wants to do something no other woman has: "I want to be a major league pitcher. It's what I've wanted ever since I was 10 years old."

*Last in a summer series on Tuesdays. The other parts ran July 6, 13, 20, 27, and Aug. 3, 10, 17, and 24.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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