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.
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.
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.
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.