Making My Pitch: A Woman's Baseball Odyssey

Making My Pitch: A Woman's Baseball Odyssey

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Overview

Making My Pitch tells the story of Ila Jane Borders, who despite formidable obstacles became a Little League prodigy, MVP of her otherwise all-male middle school and high school teams, the first woman awarded a college baseball scholarship, and the first to pitch and win a complete men’s collegiate game. After Mike Veeck signed Borders in May 1997 to pitch for his St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League, she accomplished what no woman had done since the Negro Leagues era: play men’s professional baseball. Borders played four professional seasons and in 1998 became the first woman in the modern era to win a professional ball game.

Borders had to find ways to fit in with her teammates, reassure their wives and girlfriends, work with the media, and fend off groupies. But these weren’t the toughest challenges. She had a troubled family life, a difficult adolescence as she struggled with her sexual orientation, and an emotionally fraught college experience as a closeted gay athlete at a Christian university. 
Making My Pitch shows what it’s like to be the only woman on the team bus, in the clubhouse, and on the field. Raw, open, and funny at times, her story encompasses the loneliness of a groundbreaking pioneer who experienced grave personal loss. Borders ultimately relates how she achieved self-acceptance and created a life as a firefighter and paramedic and as a coach and goodwill ambassador for the game of baseball.
 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496214058
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska
Publication date: 04/01/2019
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 1,225,725
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Ila Jane Borders is the first woman to win a men’s professional baseball game. She has been honored twice at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and was inducted in 2003 into the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals. Jean Hastings Ardell is the author of Breaking into Baseball: Women and the National PastimeMike Veeck is a baseball executive and part owner of five teams, including the St. Paul Saints and the Charleston RiverDogs.
 

Read an Excerpt

Making My Pitch

A Woman's Baseball Odyssey


By Ila Jane Borders, Jean Hastings Ardell

UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS

Copyright © 2017 Ila Jane Borders and Jean Hastings Ardell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4962-0020-4



CHAPTER 1

Beginnings

Little League


Game Day: First Inning. Warming up in the bullpen, I look out at Newman Outdoor Field. Good, everyone on the RedHawks is at his normal position — no pitchers in the outfield, as their manager, Doug Simunic, had threatened. But the lineup card shows that Darryl Motley isn't playing. This is the guy who said on the radio he would not play against me. Motley, who used to play in the majors, is on a six-game hitting streak, and I wish he were in. I want to compete against the best they have.

I'm glad to be pitching against the RedHawks' number one starter, Blaise Isley, tied for most wins in the league. The game is sold out, and the stands are filled with five thousand fans in home-team red T-shirts. It's pennant night, so the fans are waving RedHawks flags. Newman Field reminds me of the diamond in the movie Field of Dreams, as if it emerged in some magical way out of the North Dakota prairie. Actually it's on the edge of the campus of North Dakota State University and is a beautiful new brick ballpark: the ironwork and seats are painted forest green, and the field kind of sits up instead of being sunk down. Unlike Midway Stadium in St. Paul last year, Newman is more of a pitcher's ballpark, because it has lots of foul ground and the prevailing winds don't turn fly balls into home runs, so I feel free to pitch the way I want to. Funny, the dimensions are the same as those of Yankee Stadium — a tribute to a Fargo native named Roger Maris, who broke Babe Ruth's home run record in 1961.

By the time I finish throwing, the sweat is dripping off me. And then comes the announcement, "Ladies and gentlemen, please stand and remove your hats for the singing of our national anthem."

I take off my cap, which I vainly hate to do because when I sweat my hair turns pouffy, wipe the salt from my eyes, stand tall, and place the cap over my heart. I can feel my heartbeat through my jersey. As the music begins, the words fill my heart and send a thrill throughout my body. I love this moment. "Land of the free and the home of the brave." The words remind me that this is where I belong, on the field. After the closing notes I head for the dugout, where everything begins to blur. Players and coaches are moving around me but in slow motion. Fans are yelling and pointing at me, smiling, waving, but I just hear my breathing. They are talking to me, their lips are moving, but I don't really hear them, focused as I am on the game.


The Dukes score a run in the top of the first, thanks to an RBI double by Big Papa, also known as Anthony Lewis, one of my biggest supporters. With the third out, I get ready to run to the mound when Dave Glick grabs my arm. He knows that's the only way to get my attention when I'm about to pitch. He looks me in the eye and says, "You've got this, Ila."

I grin at him and think to myself, Just do what you did last week when you notched that win. As I jog to the mound, the crowd erupts with cheers and boos. I see the lips of my catcher, Javier Rodriguez, move as he calls my name, but the noise from the stands is so loud that I can't hear his voice. Great to hear the love, but it's the boos that will drive me now. I grab the ball from behind the mound, rubbing it to get the last bit of gloss off and get the feel of the ball. I take my place on the rubber. The mound feels right, and I feel comfortable. Mounds are subject to regulation, but there are nuances. From mound to mound, the rubber doesn't always sit in the exact same place; in Fargo the dirt has more clay in it and feels more stable. After my eighth warmup pitch, I bend low as Javier throws the ball to second, who underhands it to Luis Brito, our shortstop, who throws it back to me. Luis points his mitt at me, as if to say, "Let's go." I scrape the dirt off my cleats on the edge of the rubber, take a deep breath, and push it out.

The RedHawks are intimidating, not just because they're in first place but because they're so damned big. They're also damned good: three of the first four hitters I'll face are batting more than .350 against us. All we have for big is our first baseman, Ozzie Canseco, six feet two inches tall, 220 pounds — and he's not even playing today because he's serving a three-game suspension from last night's game against the Winnipeg Goldeyes. That's because umpires don't like to be spit on. It's true that Ozzie has a temper, but despite his machismo he's always been respectful toward me and goes out of his way to offer tips.

Everyone on the RedHawks seems as big as Ozzie. No surprise, then, that they are a fastball hitting team. So I'll have to pitch backwards — get ahead with off-speed pitches for strikes, place the two-seam fastball on the outside corner of the plate running away, and spot the four-seamer high and tight to keep them from sitting on the outside pitches. I plan to hit the corners, frustrate them with junk, put a lot of movement on the ball, and put the ball in play. For that I need good defense behind me. Because I'm not a strikeout pitcher, the guys know they are going to be busy in the field.

"Song 2" by Blur is playing over the public address system. First up is shortstop Chad Akers, a right-handed batter with wheels. He's a first-pitch hitter, so I start him off with a screwball on the outside corner. He begins to move on it but decides to lay off. Strike one. To keep Akers honest and make my fastball look faster than it is, I throw the next pitch inside and straight. But it's high and tight. He takes it for ball one. Baseball's a game not just of inches but also of microseconds, and pitchers vary their speed to keep batters off balance. I figure he's a little anxious and looking for a fastball away. My next pitch is a slower screwball away. Akers bites and hits a slow nubber to third base. Briller is slow to get to the ball but fields it cleanly and fires to first. Too late. Akers's speed gets him an infield single. Shit, I say to myself. Off the field I don't cuss much, but when I pitch I am as foul-mouthed as they come. I grab the toss from Lewis, our first baseman, and think, Don't panic, just throw adouble play ball and keep this guy close. As I wait for the next batter, I can feel the first base coach and Akers watching me. I don't have to look into the RedHawks dugout to feel Simunic staring my way. I'm aware that there are four people in the league who despise my presence: Hal Lanier, the manager of the Winnipeg Goldeyes; Ed Nottle, the manager of the Sioux City Explorers (who called me "that thing" in a radio interview last year); Larry See, who is playing out his minor league career with the Thunder Bay Whiskey Jacks; and Simunic, who likes to spit on the ground whenever he catches my eye.

As Steve Hine comes to the plate, Ozzie Osborne's "Crazy Train" plays. Always liked that song. Hine doesn't bother to look down to third for a sign but gets in the batter's box like he owns the plate. Maybe he does — he's hitting .385 against us this season. Last night, with two out in the bottom of the ninth, he hit a walk-off double to beat the Madison Black Wolf. Digging in, spraying lots of dirt around, making holes, Hine reminds me of a dog that just took a crap and now he's trying to cover it. I say to myself, Fuck you, asshole, you are going down.

Over at first I see to my surprise that Chad Akers hasn't taken much of a lead. So I slide step toward home and throw the ball hard — chin music. I don't want to hit Hine and give him first base, but I want to send a message: You better fucking not dig in on me. The fastball also gives my catcher a chance of throwing Akers out if he tries to steal second and, if it's a hit-and-run, doesn't give Hine much chance to get a solid piece of the ball. Hine returns the message with a glare. Ball one. I keep the same cadence on the next pitch but throw to first, not a great pick-off move but just to say, I know you're there. When I get the ball back, I hold it until Hine steps out of the box. Baseball is considered a slow game, but there is so much going on that most spectators don't see — trying to break the batter's rhythm and timing, get his legs heavy, and not letting a runner get a good jump.

At the plate, Hine hasn't dug in, and I know he'll be anxious. I slide step fast just after coming to a complete stop and throw one fine screwball. It's a bit faster than the others, and the bottom falls out of it, like it's a sinker, but it's also moving away. He swings and lofts a fly ball to right for thefirst out. The path he takes back to the dugout brings him right by the mound — maybe he's testing me to see if I'll talk crap to him. I do not.

Third baseman Johnny Knott is up. He's hitting .412 against us, but he's kept his mouth shut during the pregame hollering and shouting about me pitching. He comes across as quiet and all business. I'm still hoping for a ground ball, a quick double play, and getting out of the inning on the fewest pitches possible. I turn and point my glove to Brito at short, the message being, If I get a comebacker, get ready for the throw. Brito points back: We're good. Akins hasn't budged from first, and I concentrate on Knott, who strikes out on a screwball away. Holy crap, I think. My stuff is really breaking today. Two down.

Metallica's "Enter Sandman" blares as Marc Fink strolls to the plate. Well, he can afford to stroll — he's hitting .421 against us. At six feet three, 220 pounds, Fink is another of the RedHawks' power hitters, a lefty. He's a loudmouthed, in-your-face type of guy. With two out and the number four hitter up, Akers is likely to try to steal second. If he gets thrown out, no big deal because the RedHawks get to start off the next inning with Fink's power. And better yet, if Akers steals second, Fink has a chance to even the score with a base hit. I think about keeping Akers close and not giving anything good to Fink. I throw to first base twice in a row, both better pick-off moves but not my best. I hold the ball as long as I can before testing Fink with a straight change-up. He swings so hard I'm surprised the bat doesn't break when it hits the ball. He catches only a piece of the ball — if he had connected, it would have landed on the highway behind the stadium. Instead he skies a deep fly ball, and I turn and watch our center fielder glove it. Cool. So far, no drama. No runs, one hit, no errors, one left on base.

As we head for the dugout, the guys coming in behind me slap my back instead of my butt because people are looking, though I wouldn't care if they treated me just like any other player. They're saying, "Good job." I find a place far down the bench, put on my jacket, and focus on the game. Fans wonder why pitchers sit alone, unlike the position players, who interact on the bench. I have a bias about this: A hitter can go three-for-ten and be a success. But if a pitcher makes a costly mistake on two out of a hundred pitches, that can mean failure. To get a better edge, while I'm on the bench I analyze the batters for any clue to their weaknesses. When I'm pitching I am on the verge of insanity, taking the stress and converting it into energy and a laser focus. I've been honing these habits since age eleven in the Little League playoffs, but in truth I have been this way ever since I first played ball in my family's front yard. I look down at the splinter that's worked its way into my thigh through my uniform. It reminds me that you always have to watch your moves, a smart choice when your first diamond's second base was a lemon tree, with its thorny trunk.


1980, La Mirada, California. Beginnings. The first time I left home for baseball, I was about five years old. It was a short trip. When you walked into our front yard you saw that where other families had a garden, Dad had staked out a baseball diamond. First base was a tree with an old tire hanging from a branch, where we liked to swing when we weren't playing ball. Second base was the lemon tree; and another tree served as third. To be safe you had to grab the tree trunks and hold on (like the stakes used in the nineteenth-century game of town ball). But home plate was real — I don't know where Dad found it — with six-inch metal spikes that he hammered into the ground, like he meant it to stay there forever.

We lived in La Mirada, a hilly suburb southeast of Los Angeles that was paradise for kids' sports. All the kids in the neighborhood showed up to play ball in our yard. We'd play until it was dark, and sometimes the next morning you would see aluminum bats and leather mitts scattered on our grass, left out from yesterday's game. If we got hungry we grabbed an instant snack: the best tangerines you've ever tasted from one of the trees in our yard. In our family, we kids were not allowed to stay indoors unless it was raining — and hey, it hardly ever rains in Southern California.

Our porch was littered with empty Budweiser cans, usually crushed, as if Dad had squeezed out the last drop of brew. When he first courted Mom, he arrived to pick her up in a red Corvette. Dad sat there, waiting for her to come out of the house and jump in. This had concerned Mom's conservative parents, as she was a very naïve seventeen, and so they walked her out to the car. When they looked into the Corvette, I expect that they saw the stuff of a semipro ballplayer: gym bag, sweaty towels, faded baseball caps, and empty beer cans.

Dad was my first and best baseball coach. I think the idea to help me develop my skills began early: when I was an infant, he noticed that I was struggling to feed myself with a spoon — until I picked up the spoon with the other hand, my left hand. Dad said that he immediately thought, Well, left-handed pitchers don't grow on trees. After I broke a few windows batting on our front-yard diamond, he started taking me to Behringer Athletic Park to work on the fundamentals. Could not have cared less that I was a girl — he worked on my pitching and hitting and fielding as if I were headed to the major leagues. So it felt like a natural move from our front-yard field onto an organized team. I began playing Little Miss Softball at age six and did well. In my second season I was invited to play on an all-star traveling team. That meant weekend tournaments and playing year-round. Being on the field became my second home, but something was missing, and I knew what it was.

When I was eight years old, Dad took me to a ball game at Dodger Stadium. I saw one of the African American players — I want to say it was Dusty Baker, the Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder in 1983 — go long, and it sparked something in me. That same summer I was tossing a baseball around in our front yard when I looked — I mean really looked — at the ball in my hand. It was smaller and harder than the one we used in girls' softball. Besides, pitching underhand, like we did in softball, had never felt quite right. I wanted to pitch overhand, like they did in the big leagues. At night I began to dream of playing in the major leagues. And so began my campaign with Dad to put me into baseball so I could pitch. Finally he said, "Okay. But if you're going to play with the boys, you are going to wear your hair long, so everyone knows you're a girl."

I will always be thankful that he was far ahead of his time in his attitudes toward girls on the diamond. The likely reason for his encouragement goes back to his childhood, given this story he liked to tell: When Dad was in grade school he knew a girl named Judy Emmett. She was always his first pick when he was captain of the team, because Judy happened to be an unbelievably good baseball player. "She helped us to win ballgames. That's what it was all about," Dad said. "Winning the game."

So Dad saw nothing wrong with a girl playing baseball. And he didn't care what people thought about my playing ball; he just supported my love for the game. Mom felt the same. When I was ten years old, she and I went down to the La Mirada Little League sign-ups at Behringer Park, where we joined a line of about fifty people. A lady came up to us and said, "This is the baseball line. Softball sign-ups are at Los Coyotes Park."

Mom smiled. "I know," she said. "I'm here to sign my daughter up for baseball."

You should have seen this woman's face. It was like she found a roach in her soup. Then she caught herself, gave a fake smile, and said, "Okay, well, if you come back tomorrow at this time, the line will not be as long."

Mom, being sweet but naïve, said, "Okay, we'll come back tomorrow when you open. Thank you."

That night I slept with my mitt under my pillow. But when we showed up at the park the following day, no one was there. Finally we ran into the vice president of the league, who told us that the last day for sign-ups was yesterday. We explained what happened. He was very sorry, but all the teams were filled. I would have to go on a waiting list. Even though I was young, I knew what they had done. I was pissed, and so was Dad. He said he would fix it. He could be a bulldog when he had a mission.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Making My Pitch by Ila Jane Borders, Jean Hastings Ardell. Copyright © 2017 Ila Jane Borders and Jean Hastings Ardell. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Foreword

Acknowledgments

Note to the Reader

Prologue

1. Beginnings: Little League

2. Lipstick Adolescence

3. College: Pitching through Adversity

4. Mike Veeck and the St. Paul Saints

5. Duluth-Superior Dukes: Being “Babe”

6. The Dukes: Nailing a Win

7. Another Team, Another Town

8. Out of the Game

9. Loss

Epilogue

Notes

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