Women build hardball league of their own

This summer there is a different pitch from the mound for women's baseball in Western Washington and the Seattle area: women's overhand baseball has returned.

The new league, the Washington Women's Baseball Association (WWBA) is an alternative to what its founders termed the less authentic forms of the sport - softball and underhand fast pitch. However, unlike these successful hybrids, women's overhand baseball has long struggled for legitimacy across the nation.

"I was playing as soon as I could walk because my grandfather and my uncle played semi-pro ball, and I was their first grandkid," said Stephanie Derouin, 30, the league's president and co-founder. "So they had me out there playing since I was a little kid. I moved to Tacoma when I was in the third grade and was told, 'well, girls play softball here,' and I said, 'what are you talking about?' So I played with the boys up until the eighth grade, but when I went to Bellarmine High School I had to switch to softball."

Her story is not unlike that of many young girls across the nation who grew up during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Up until 1974 girls were not allowed to play with boys on Little League teams. Additionally, women were outright banned from attempting to compete with men by Major League Baseball in 1952 - a ban which has never been lifted.

It has not always been this way. The sport can trace its roots back to World War II when a shortage of men in the major leagues due to the military's needs led to the creation of the first women's fast pitch league in 1943. This league, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), despite expectations, continued to grow in popularity even when the men returned home from the war, reaching its zenith in 1949 when it drew just under a million fans. The introduction of television as an alternative form of entertainment for Americans ultimately doomed the league, and in 1954 it folded.

Its legacy lived on, however, and in 1992 Penny Marshall's film on the early years of the AAGPBL, "A League of Their Own," re-introduced the sport to the nation, and reversed its catharsis. In 1994 comedian Bob Hope formed the first women's professional overhand team since the AAGPBL days, the "Silver Bullets" of Colorado, and women's amateur leagues began sprouting across the nation.

Scouting for players

This year the revival has found its way to the Seattle area.

The Seattle league actually originated in Tacoma two years ago when Derouin met her vice president, Jeneane Lesko, a veteran of the old AAGPBL league. Together they formed the Washington Stars, which competed against other teams along the West Coast.

"We had players who were going down to Tacoma from as far north as Canada," said Lesko, 70, who played in the AAGPBL during the 1953 and 1954 seasons. "So we decided to establish teams in different parts of Puget Sound."

Thus was born the WWBA.

Out of the gates, it has not been an easy go for the league, which accepts girls and women ages 14 and up. Despite inundating area high schools, colleges, radio stations and newspapers with flyers and leaflets, the league has had trouble drawing the amount of media attention necessary to fill out the rosters of its original goal of eight teams from Tacoma to Everett. As a result the league formed this year consists of three teams representing regions: Seattle, the areas south of Kent, and the areas north of Renton.

Each team carries up to 15 players, with an average age thus far of 28. The teams play regulation baseball with 90-foot bases and 60-foot pitches.

Derouin blamed the poor response somewhat on tradition, and coaches who are less than enthusiastic about letting their girls play baseball when they're already developing their underhand fast pitch skills. However, of those who have made the leap, most consider it a welcome change from their softball roots.

"It's totally different," said utility player Tracy Sheehy, 46, who played softball for 27 years prior to competing in the overhand league. "The fundamentals, having a ball pitched at you at 60-70 miles an hour compared to a slow-pitched ball, the whole game is totally different. It's intimidating when you first get to see pitches, but when the ball comes at you a couple times you get used to it."

"To me hardball is much more of a challenge," added Derouin. "It is a lot more complex with all the intricacies of the game. There is just a lot more strategy involved. We're playing the real game. The game the way it was meant to be played. Guy, girl, it doesn't matter, this is the original form of baseball."

The quality of play during this inaugural year has been higher than Lesko expected. This despite the fact most of the players have day jobs that prevent them from practicing more than once or twice a week.

No soft play here

The games have been competitive and fun with very few errors. So far, none of the competing teams have been separated by more than six runs during a game, which is when the league officially ends the innings and gives the high-scoring players the win. Lesko's main concern - a lack of pitchers acclimated to the overhand game - seems to have solved itself also.

"We only had a few pitchers to start with, but we've kind of developed pitchers as we've gone along and the girls have just really come through," said Lesko, a pitcher during her playing days. "They get the ball over the plate."

Its founders continue to recruit this season, and are pushing ahead, seeking out new ways to market the team. They plan on attending a Seattle Storm game decked out in their uniforms, will be recruiting players for a national tournament being held in Florida this year, and next year plan to hold at least three clinics through the recreation department for girls ages 10-15.

"We'll be teaching basic fundamentals of baseball," said Lesko. "Hopefully we'll draw some people from softball, and we'll get those people who are playing in the little league boys teams and let them know that we're here so they have some place to go with baseball."

To date the most effective form of advertisement has been word of mouth. The association very much welcomes anyone who has a desire to compete, experienced or not.

The league's website can be found at www.wwba-baseball.org where a registration form and league fees are outlined along with information about upcoming games and e-mail contacts. The season runs through mid-August, and the league is still actively recruiting.[[In-content Ad]]