Ladies room

The latest Japanese import into U.S. professional baseball isn’t who you might expect — in a lot of ways.

The fact that this righty is an 18-year-old sidearm knuckleballer that watched video of Tim Wakefield to learn to throw the confounding specialty pitch could be interesting enough — if the pitcher wasn’t a 5-foot-1, 114-pound girl.

18-year-old knuckleballer Eri Yoshida will play for the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League. Their season begins Friday.

Eri Yoshida has been reported to be the first female to attempt to play professionally in this country since lefthander Ila Borders retired in 2000 after signing with the Chico Outlaws of the independent Golden Baseball League. But in fact she wasn’t the first female baseball player to sign an American professional contract this century, or even this year.

Spokane, Washington’s Tiffany Brooks signed a deal with the Big Bend Cowboys (Alpine, Texas) of the Continental Baseball League March 4 as a pitcher and first baseman.

She asked for her release May 8 because she was behind other players at her positions and unlikely to see much if any playing time. The latest seems to be that she’s trying to catch on with a team in another independent league.

While there was a press release regarding Brooks’ signing, it got almost no national recognition versus that of Yoshida, who was Japan’s first female professional last year at 17 when she threw for the Kobe Cruise 9 of the independent Kansai League.

Yoshida’s link with Wakefield, whom she got to meet and work with briefly at spring training, may have something to do with why her story got more digital ink. There are similarities between the pair, however; the biggest was that both played in the 2010 Arizona Winter League, an instructional league affiliated with the Golden Baseball League, earlier this year.

Both pitched during the league’s 21-game season, and Yoshida collected her first professional win with four shutout innings Feb. 12. Brooks also hit, but didn’t see a lot of success in either activity.

Eri Yoshida YUMA 1 1 4.79 10 4 19 27 6 4
Tiffany Brooks WCAN 0 1 18.39 3 1 5.1 12 7 0
Tiffany Brooks WCAN 13 .185 27 3 5 1 3 3 9

Brooks is very different from Yoshida in that she stands 6 feet tall, just turned 33 years old and has played for years for women’s professional teams and in men’s tournaments. On one baseball networking Website, she says her fastball has been clocked at 82 and says she aspires to be a Jamie Moyer-like pitcher. By contrast, Yoshida’s sidearm delivery apparently tops out in the 50s.

Tiffany Brooks, 33, signed to pitch and play first base for the Big Bend Cowboys of the Continental Baseball League but never did.

Maybe Brooks’ age, and the subsequent unlikeliness that she could translate an opportunity into a chance with a Minor League Baseball team and eventually a shot at the majors no matter how well she plays, could be why her story has been somewhat ignored. Yoshida being 15 years younger seems to make her future far more intriguing.

Just how intriguing remains to be seen; after all, no woman has ever pitched in the major leagues. Jackie Mitchell fanned Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig pitching for the Chattanooga Lookouts in an exhibition game with the Yankees in 1931, but famed progressive commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided her contract some 20 years before baseball would officially ban the signing of women.

A trio of women played in the Negro Leagues, but since Mitchell no woman has ever pitched for an affiliated minor league team. Carey Schueler, daughter of Chicago White Sox GM Ron Schueler, was drafted in the 43rd round by the Sox in 1993 in what many considered a joke or publicity stunt, a year after MLB’s ban on signing women was lifted. She was an 18-year-old basketball player at the time, and went on to play hoops at DePaul and St. Mary’s (Calif.) instead of signing.

What is this history lesson all about? I think Yoshida’s road will be hard, partly because there will be some who will not accept her but moreso because she’ll need pretty amazing command of a 50-something mile-per-hour pitch to find repeated, long-term success with it. She did pitch two scoreless innings Tuesday against a semi-pro team with no strikeouts, and the Outlaws’ season begins today in Tijuana, Mexico.

But I do believe that the culture surrounding major sports in the U.S. has not progressed far enough to enable her to avoid ridicule, comtempt and hatred from some quarters. I see it quite often covering high school sports, and know that it could get worse at higher levels. At lower levels, girls might have to fight to get the same opportunities to hone their craft if it doesn’t involve a bigger ball that comes in day-glo colors.

The rate at which progress has been made in this area makes me think that Yoshida will never get beyond the stage of being a publicity stunt for independent teams struggling to find an audience. Whether it disillusions her and forces her to quit or go back to Japan even sooner I can’t say.

What I can say is that, based on the current level of talent out there, a woman could very well play professional affiliated baseball someday. It just probably won’t be any time soon.


A win for the asylum

So there’s this kid down in Miami who’s a pretty good baseball player. His name is Hanley, and in fact, many consider him one of the best players in the game. That’s very good for this Florida baseball team, which doesn’t have a huge payroll but does have a young manager named Fredi who’s enjoyed some success in his relatively short career and demonstrated some ability to get a lot out of the team.

But there’s a problem with this star player, a shortstop. Hanley makes a lot of money, more than anyone else on the team. He’s been dubbed the face, the cornerstone of the franchise, the man they’re trying to build a winner around. With that seems to have come a sense of entitlement.

Hanley fouled a ball off his leg in the first inning of Monday’s game, something which is obviously painful but which he said he could play through after taking a few minutes to compose himself. But he then hit into a double play on the next pitch, and wasn’t exactly tearing down the baseline to beat it out. But that was only the beginning.

Three batters into the top of the second, an opposing player blooped a single just out of Hanley’s reach. As his left fielder charged the ball to field it, Hanley continued out and accidentally kicked the ball into the left-field corner. While opponents rounded the bases like they were kids after a game, Hanley jogged out to get the ball. Two runs scored, and the batter wound up on third with a single and error and would score later in the inning.

(Associated Press) Florida's Hanley Ramirez boots a bloop single into the left-field corner for a two-base error during a game against Arizona Monday.

When the Florida players came in from the field, Fredi was obviously concerned about his star player. Whatever was said during the exchange between Fredi and Hanley wasn’t to the manager’s liking, so Fredi took Hanley out. This obviously was not to Hanley’s liking, so he left without talking to the media that night and by the next day had built up enough steam to openly rip a manager who “never played in the big leagues” and his teammates who are also “dogging it after ground balls, and they don’t apologize.”

Hanley earned himself a benching for that game, which his lazy teammates won without him, 8-0. The benching was termed “indefinite” by many media outlets and it seemed like the stalemate between Fredi and Hanley could go on awhile with both sides unwilling to compromise — the manager wanting an apology from the player to him and his teammates, and the player defiantly insisiting he’d done nothing wrong.

Then something amazing happened. The players leapt to the defense — of their manager. Nearly everyone sided with the manager who never played in the big leagues, including a pair of Hall of Fame players within Florida’s front office who spoke to Hanley and told him, in no uncertain terms, just how wrong he was and what he needed to do to fix things.

And something even more amazing happened. Hanley listened, and by the next day had spoken to every team member individually after talking things out with his manager. He was back in the lineup Wednesday and went 3-for-5 in a 5-1 win.

Did the star player truly learn his lesson and feel remorseful? Only time will tell. But the good thing is that Fredi Gonzalez stood his ground when he was right against Hanley Ramirez, one of the top players in the game, and he actually won.

The 26-year-old shortstop is in his fifth full season in the league, but is well-known for behaving like someone half his age when he doesn’t get everything his way. His teammates don’t always have good things to say about his demeanor off the field and how he treats them and the game at times both on and off of it.

Ramirez’s reputation, combined with that of Gonzalez, who was NL Manager of the Year just two years ago with the Marlins, probably helped the opinions mount against the star. The fact that he’s in the third year of a six-year, $70 million contract doesn’t help Ramirez’s case much either.

Some have questioned Gonzalez’s tactics, embarrassing Ramirez in the media and essentially calling him out. If it was a first offense, maybe there would be grounds. But knowing how important Ramirez is to the long-term success of the team and feeling a more drastic step needed to be taken to drive the point home, I have no problem with what Gonzalez did — and obviously neither do the other Marlins.

Oddly, this incident might have united a clubhouse behind its manager. But in the end, I’m just thrilled that in this instance the inmate was not allowed to run the asylum, no matter how talented he is. Precedent has now been set for the next time a superstar decides he doesn’t want to do the job for which he’s being paid a hell of a lot of money.

There is a voice

Ernie Harwell’s passing and Vin Scully’s commentary on it, combined with Bob Eucker’s heart surgery last week, got me thinking about a lot of things. This is something I’ve thought about before and even mentioned to others, but felt I should put out there for broader consumption.

I’ve been very fortunate in my time working with The Gloucester County Times, getting to do things like go to Richmond, Virginia on my own to do several stories about local minor leaguers and Phillies minor leaguers (including Ryan Howard and Gavin Floyd, giving you an idea of when), and put together a series of stories chronicling the minor league baseball teams in our area (within a couple hours’ drive so we could include Reading) over a summer that helped me meet Cecil Fielder and Tony Franklin (who formerly managed my hometown Birmingham Barons) and see some great minor-league stadiums and baseball.

The biggest thing, though, had to be going as the No. 2 writer covering the Phillies during their 2008 playoff run that resulted in their second World Series championship. I had been the backup guy the previous couple of seasons if we were covering the team and our No. 1 guy, Bill Evans, wasn’t able to be there, but that was usually just once or twice a season. This was being there with Bill for every home game and providing material every night as well as features for between series.

Hopefully this story will have the same impact without me being able to remember precisely which game it was, but it was during the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers (as will become apparent). We had only been able to get one press pass for the NLDS against Milwaukee because even more press outlets were interested then, so this was the first series of the postseason I’d been at.

Our seats (actually my seat; Bill had a reserved spot in the press box, but it was so hard to see from he decided to hang out with me instead since there were free seats around me as outlets reserved 10 spots and only sent one or two people) were in the auxiliary press box, which is in the 200 level of seating down the left field line in foul territory. They were exposed to the elements (which came into play a good amount that postseason, if you’ll remember), but with a good but distant view and monitors all around showing the FOX feed on a slight delay.

Anyhoo, after one of the games of the Dodgers series at Citizens Bank Park, Bill and I were rushing down to the post-game press conference to get a few quick quotes so we could finish our stories for the night for deadline and get the hell out of there (as fun and great as it was to be there, the weather delays, cold and long nights were somewhat draining).

We get off the elevator and rush along the corridor connecting the two clubhouses under the concourse and get to the lobby leading to the press briefing areas. As we’re heading toward the doors of the room, we pass Harry Kalas and Vin Scully — having just concluded their announcing duties for the night — heading out a side door next to the room we’re going into.

Immediately I wanted to skip the press conference and follow two of the sport’s most legendary voices wherever they were going. Scully has been in the business for more than six decades, and Kalas’ work with the Phillies for nearly 40 years as well as with NFL Films was iconic. Just imagine what the two of them could talk about!

Of course, it would be sheer insanity to think they wanted anyone — particularly me — to tag along for any conversation they might have, and just as quickly as it had come the thought passed and I went into the press conference and kept my job … for the time being.

But just six months later Harry was gone, and now Ernie’s passed as well. Hopefully Euck’s surgery will have him fit and back in the booth in a few months, and it’s impossible for anyone of mine or even my parents’ generation to imagine Dodgers baseball without Scully. I was also lucky enough that our cable system in the 80’s carried WGN so I could waste many a summer day watching the Cubbies with Harry Caray and Steve Stone.

I was devastated when Skip Caray passed away suddenly in 2008, as he was the main voice of my youth growing up in Birmingham and watching and listening to the Atlanta Braves. I grew to appreciate Kalas’ unique style and relationship with the Phillies and Philadelphia upon moving to New Jersey (though I wasn’t here long enough to get a good taste of Richie “Whitey” Ashburn), and am too big a baseball fan not to know the likes of Scully, Harwell and Uecker (“I must be in the front row!”).

To hear the likes of Tom McCarthy and Chris Wheeler do Phillies games now just makes you appreciate the great announcers all the more, and they’re slowly disappearing and being replaced with inferior talent. In part, I wonder if it’s a product of the times in which we live, a time when style often wins out over substance and sometimes you wonder what style the people in charge are seeing.

I for one appreciate every day this breed of announcer that is quite literally dying out before us. And every now and then, I wish I had taken a shot at trying to follow Vin and Harry out that door.