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Ruthless Babes

Christopher Gardner

Stand and Deliver: Jill Schenk, Alicia Macer, Brenda Wasinger, Melanie Perez and Victoria Ruelas doff their caps for the national anthem.

After 43 years, women's baseball is back in San Jose. Can the Spitfires' dreams come true on a diamond?

By Michael Learmonth

IN THE BOTTOM OF THE FINAL inning, the second game of a Sunday afternoon double-header at Municipal Stadium, San Jose clings to a precarious 6-5 lead over Los Angeles. L.A. has two outs, a runner at first and their best hitter, Gina Satriano, at the plate. Manager John Oldham pulls his reliever, Caroline Martinez, and calls up hard-throwing starting pitcher Nancy Bronson to try to put the game away.

She adjusts her cap and takes a last look at a quote from Dante's Inferno that she's written under the sweat-stained bill.

"One ought to be afraid of nothing other than those possessed of power."

"Pitchers also have power," she says to me later. "It's power of the mind. I have to be smart. Most hitters hit mistakes."

The batter takes a strike, a ball and fouls a pitch up into the stands. A half-dozen kids and a few shameless adults vault bleachers for it.

Then, through that eye that all good right-handers seem to have in the back of their heads, Nancy spies the base runner taking a saucy lead at first.

She guns the ball to first and picks the runner off base. The runner takes off and collides with shortstop Victoria Ruelas, who is trying to make the tag. Ruelas hits the dirt, and the ball rolls out of her glove. "I have never, ever dropped one of those," she says, still angry after the game.

On the next pitch, the runner steals third. Catcher Alex Sickinger pulls off her mask, springs to her feet and fires a throw to third baseman Rochelle "Rocky" McCann, who gets steamrolled as she tries to make the tag.

Ponytails swing and bodies collide. The players are women, but there are no fat balls or shortened fields here. The pitcher's mound is 90 feet from home plate, center field is 410 feet deep, and the ball is hard. This is baseball: Ladies League Baseball to be precise, the first women's professional baseball league in 43 years. The inaugural season began its 30-game run last month in San Jose, with four teams--the San Jose Spitfires, the Los Angeles Legends, the Long Beach Aces and the Phoenix Peppers--playing in their city's minor league and collegiate ballparks.

In this game, the last of a three-game home stand, the San Jose Spitfires are poised to sweep L.A., breaking tie records of 14-4 and taking sole possession of first place.

Nancy delivers a curveball that dips low and away. Satriano cracks a speeding grounder up the middle. Ruelas collects it on a one-hop and throws Satriano out at first.

The San Jose Spitfires leap into the air--another victory. And soon, throngs of kids, parents, friends and husbands lean over the dugout, thrusting balls, hats and scraps of paper at the players.

"God, it's a trip," says Melanie Perez, a Spitfire infielder from Saratoga. "You have all these kids hanging over the dugout--boys and girls."

AFTER THE GAME, Nancy Bronson emerges from the Spitfires' dressing room, a giant icebag on her shoulder and a huge smile on her face. "Nancy is the athlete of the family," says father Fred Bronson, who flew down from Seattle to watch his 26-year-old daughter play.

Six months ago she and most of the other players on the team were playing in softball and amateur men's baseball leagues around the West Coast.

Then, an advertisement appeared in major newspapers in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Phoenix. "Ladies, You're on Deck," it said. "Ladies League Baseball--a professional league exclusively for women--has arrived. Try out. Make a team. Go down in history."

League president Michael Ribant, a 40-year-old stockbroker from San Diego, says the idea for Ladies League Baseball came to him nine months ago. Ribant has made a fortune forecasting trends in financial markets. Now he sees a trend that he says makes women's professional baseball "inevitable." First, it was the 1996 Olympics--dubbed the "Women's Olympics" because of the growing popularity of women's events. Then it was the success of the American Basketball League (ABL), a women's pro league with a team in San Jose (the Lasers). After that, the NBA launched the WNBA, a sister league with deep pockets and a very marketable star, Sheryl Swoopes. The other big factor, Ribant says, is his 6-year-old daughter Lauren, who plays in a t-ball league, but who also, to her father's dismay, has expressed interest in becoming a cheerleader.

"I think I may win on this baseball thing," Ribant says. "I think I may win over the cheerleader."

She's Outta There: Nancy Bronson makes the tag at second base.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

IN SAN JOSE INTERNATIONAL Airport, the Spitfires cause a stir. They stand in line waiting for their orange plastic Southwest Airlines boarding passes for a 10:24am flight to Phoenix to take on the Phoenix Peppers. Spitfires manager John Oldham and two coaches, Jeff Perry, 21, and Tony Johnston, 19, stand at the head of the line. Young, boisterous and clad in blue-and-white sweats, the Spitfires are soon the center of attention. Business travelers feel free to stop and chat. Some promise to make a game in Phoenix. Nancy Bronson plays with a little boy in the terminal waiting area. Relief pitcher Alicia Macer, 25, sits on the carpeted floor and deals tarot cards to reserve shortstop Cheryl Windsor, 26.

PJ Brun hops around Oldham and badgers him about benching her after she sprained her ankle two days earlier.

"You keep fooling around, you're going to make it worse," Oldham says gruffly.

The Spitfires take seats in the back of the plane.

Coach Oldham is an old baseball man who's been just about everywhere in the sport. Well over 6 feet tall and lanky, with darkly tanned skin, he looks a little strange in street clothes without the baseball cap. He takes a seat next to Jeff Perry, who played four years for Oldham at Santa Clara University and helped take the team to three league championships. Oldham retired this year after 13 years as coach of the program.

"Jeff's a smart pitcher," says Oldham of his former student. "He had good control of his pitches and control of his emotions."

When Oldham came out of retirement and signed on to coach a women's baseball team, jaws dropped around the baseball world. At 64, he's had minor league stints as a pitcher with the Cincinnati and Pittsburg organizations and a year in the majors. He's been head coach at San Jose City College, Santa Clara University and the California League minor league affiliate of the San Diego Padres.

But for all of Oldham's experience there's one thing he's never done: teach women to play baseball.

"They require what I term a softer approach than what I'm used to," he says. Part of Oldham's adjustment was to the kind of closeness that develops on women's sports teams.

"There's a more open display of appreciation for the effort I'm putting in," he says.

Displays of affection are more like it. "I love you, coach," is a phrase often heard at practices, even after Oldham's just barked at a player or doled out sit-ups for messing up a hitting drill.

But there have been some frustrations going from coaching college-level baseball to teaching the game to what are for the most part converted softball players.

"It's frustrating sometimes," Oldham says. "Some of the things you expect to happen in the past don't happen."

The future of the sport, he says, is in giving women the chance to develop as baseball players.

"They have to go back and provide the opportunity for women to play baseball at the lower levels," he says. "As long as softball is the outlet, they're not going to have enough quality baseball players to go around."

Asked if he is growing attached to his new players, the old baseball man keeps on his game face. "Sure, you grow attached to any team or people you are in close proximity to for a long period of time."

Oldham can be an intimidating figure, towering over his pitchers when he visits the mound, but he is disarmed by the girlish teasing of his players.

"Why are you always picking on me?" he asks as PJ passes him in the aisle.

"Because you benched me," she says.

IT'S 7PM IN Phoenix, and even though the sun just slipped behind Tempe's red hills, it's still 107 degrees. The eyeball-drying heat radiates off the concrete steps and aluminum seats of Phoenix Municipal Stadium, the Cactus League home of the Oakland A's. The San Jose Spitfires and the Phoenix Peppers stand for the National Anthem.

Michael Ribant circulates through both dugouts. He knows all the players and watched most of them try out. They slap him on the back, call him "boss."

Some are more reverential. "Pleased to meet you, sir," Caroline Martinez says.

"Do not call me 'sir,' " he shoots back. "Ride the bench all year if you call me 'sir.' "

They laugh, but he seems serious.

Ribant turns 40 this week, and it suits him. He's wearing faded jeans, a white oxford and a sports jacket he's been urged to take off several times by the players. He's tan, about 5-foot-9, looks fit and says he swings a bat better in men's league now than he did as a "mediocre" player in high school. He says he's had the silver hair since he was 32.

Since November of last year, he and a few friends have poured in $500,000 to make the women's league happen. To Ribant, every "tink" of an aluminum bat must sound like money. He owns Trinity Capital, a brokerage in San Diego, and freely admits he's in no position to quit his day job. "I gotta trade," he jokes with Peppers coach Dan Hughes. "I can't make a living off you guys." Later he quips to Nancy Bronson: "My Amex bill was $60,000 last month."

Each game, he tells me, costs $750 to rent the venue, $120 for the umpires and $3,000 in airfare and hotel accommodations for the team.

But running the league on a shoestring is part of the strategy.

"We've got to grassroots this thing into existence," he says. "I could have raised and lost $6 million and then come back next year to ask for more."

Instead, he decided to run the league on a small scale, put a good product on the field, prove it can work and fans want to see it, then go find the sponsors. He says he's "in discussions" with potential sponsors, but won't say who they are.

The league will hold another round of tryouts this September, and Ribant is negotiating for venues to expand in such cities as Sacramento, Rochester, Denver and Seattle.

The sale price for his baseball franchises is $175,000 apiece--about the price of a one-bedroom condo in San Jose. Ultimately, he'd like them to be locally owned, but he thinks it will be awhile before he's ready to sell.

King of the Hill: Relief pitcher Alicia Macer of Santa Cruz shows her stuff against Phoenix.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

AT SAN JOSE MUNICIPAL Stadium, the midsummer evening weather is perfect, and the stands are dotted with about 100 fans who paid the $5 price of admission. Most are friends and family of the team. Others say they're just sick of major league ticket prices and big-league attitudes. In Ladies League Baseball, the players make $850 a month, or $1,000 a month for two "marquee" players on each team. Ribant says the salaries are the same as the men's independent minor leagues. Some players hold day jobs; some are going into debt just to be there. Ribant says if league attendance grows to a few thousand a game, like the ABL in its first season, the salaries could go up.

At Spitfire home games the fans seem to enjoy the show.

"OK, collision at the plate, here we go!" shouts a fan during a Spitfire game at Municipal Stadium. He's sitting with four grown men, renegade tailgaters swilling beer, wearing ridiculous hats and blowing insidious horns. "Come on! What this game needs is more collisions at the plate!" he shouts as a base runner rounds third.

That's no ordinary fan. That's Ed Sickinger, and his daughter Alex plays behind home plate. Those four guys causing all that racket are his brothers, Augie, Chuck, Mike and Rocko.

"She's tough, she can take it," Ed says.

"I've seen her beat up on her boyfriend," Mike says.

"It's clean baseball, it's not fancy," continues Ed, who played baseball in college and in the Marines.

"It's affordable baseball," says Mike, wearing a visor with blinking lights. "We didn't pay $17 or $29 to get in, either. And I haven't paid $5 for a beer yet!"

The women's game is simple and elegant. When play started, the games were rife with errors, but now the games are clean, fast-paced and exciting. The women's game emphasizes the cutoff player, who catches throws from the outfield and makes plays on defense. The Spitfires are opportunists on offense with base-runners stealing early and often. No fair balls have left the park (yet), so every hit stays in play. The league permits designated hitters, but most of the pitchers are also good hitters and play other positions on the team. The games last seven innings.

"They're playing 90-foot baseball," Ed says, "but you look out there and they look like women."

HERE'S THE SPITFIRE scouting report: Leadoff hitter, Rochelle "Shelley" Uwaine is a 26-year-old civil engineer from Hawaii, a contact hitter with a whip-fast swing. At 5-foot-1, 110 pounds, she's got the smallest strike zone on the team and certainly one of the smallest to play the game since St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck hired Eddie Gaedel, a 3-foot-7, 65-pound midget, as a publicity stunt in 1951. Gaedel had a 11/2-inch strike zone and walked the only time he came to the plate. (Shelley insists Los Angeles has a player who's an inch shorter than she is.)

Shelley's swing starts in her hips, whipping her torso around like a rubber band that's been twisted and released. She's always a threat to get on base, and once she's on, she's sliding head-first into second almost as soon as the pitch hits the catcher's mitt. Size, she says, has its advantages. "The ball fits better in my hands because I have small hands," she says. "I don't think I'll ever play softball again."

Batting second is Theresa MacGregor, 32. She quit a nine-year job at BankOne in Denver and kissed her husband, Dirk, goodbye for three months to come to San Jose to play pro ball. Ladies League came along just in time for Theresa. She had tried out five times for the Silver Bullets--the Denver-based women's pro team--and was becoming resigned to being "the only girl" on men's teams in Denver. She says she would still like to find that Little League coach who wouldn't let her try out for the team in 1972.

Batting third is Victoria Ruelas, 20, from San Jose. She walks with a swagger and wears her pantlegs pushed up like Deion Sanders. But she can back it up. There's a ball with her signature on it in the Little League Hall of Fame in Williamsport, Pa. In 1989 she became the first girl to play in the Little League World Series. On the way there, the 12-year-old hit a 305-foot home run, the longest of any in the Western regionals.

Batting fourth is Patti Jane "PJ" Brun, 26, from San Francisco. PJ is fast. Real fast. And she's having fun playing pro baseball: "I hope I never have to get a real job again," she says. PJ's the kind of base runner that makes catchers consider retirement. She rarely gets caught, and she freaks out pitchers by taking monster leads off base. She plays center field and is also a starting pitcher.

Batting fifth is Nancy Bronson. Yes, she can also hit. Sixth is Rhonda Palmer, 30, of Oakland. Rhonda is a Bay Area softball veteran who brings experience and a sure glove to first base. But just when it all seems too easy she pulls off a juggling circus catch of a foul ball in right field. She's also a starting pitcher.

Next up is Rocky McCann, 28, from South San Francisco. She played a year with the Silver Bullets when the team was founded in 1994. Her grandmother, who comes to all the Spitfires' home games, says Rocky's first word was "ball." When she was a senior in high school, she had a dream she would one day play at Candlestick. Her mother, Kathleen, said "No way, Rochelle, women don't play at Candlestick." Sure enough, in the spring of 1994, Rocky McCann became the first woman to play third base at Candlestick Park.

Batting last is Spitfire catcher and 17-year-old phenom Alexandra Sickinger. Just last spring Alex was a senior at Pacifica High School playing catcher for the men's varsity team. She has a cannon for an arm and makes pickoff throws to second base look routine. More than any other Spitfire, Alex represents the future of women's baseball. "It's interesting to watch Alex," MacGregor says. "She's so young, and she's never been told she can't play." No one told her "no" when she wanted to play Little League. No one told her she had to play softball to get a college scholarship. And now, no one can tell her she can't be a professional baseball player. She already is.

This is the beauty of women's sports. Every player on the field, on the court or in the dugout, is living an unlikely dream.

"I figured I would see it, but I never thought I would be in a position to play," says 36-year-old second baseman Sal Coats. "I figured I would be too old."

Sure, men's sports has its stories: the walk-on who makes the team, the miraculous comeback from injury or the outstanding individual performance. While sports writers hunt these anecdotes down and polish them like gems, the reality is that most male professional athletes had the carpet laid out in front of them from the pee-wee leagues to the pros. Most kids play some kind of organized sports. Good athletes--male and female--can play in high school, and maybe even college. But it's the male athletes who know that if they are truly great, a professional career is possible. The chances are slim, but at least they are never told not to dream.

Every athlete on the Spitfires team has a story. A coach who told them they couldn't play. Parents who told them to be realistic. Or a career they've left to pursue a future they weren't supposed to have.

How long the league lasts depends on how fast women's baseball catches on over the next few years. Ribant points out that the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (of League of Their Own fame) operated profitably from 1943 to 1954. In 1948, several teams outdrew their male counterparts.

In their first season, the Spitfires draw between 100 and 150 fans--hardly enough to pay the umpires. Ribant says 800 attended opening night in Phoenix, and he expects the numbers to grow, like they did for the ABL. He expects the league to turn a profit in three years.

But the players point out that the so far the league has only gotten word-of-mouth publicity.

"The only advertising I've seen was the tryout ad," Nancy says. "Even a little bit of advertising would make a difference, I think."

Marcetta "Skeets" Edwards, a 28-year-old outfielder from Oakland, spotted the ad while wrapping dishes in her kitchen and packing to move from San Leandro to Oakland.

The budget, Ribant says, simply did not permit media buys in expensive markets like San Jose.

"My concern is that there are fans out there, and not just friends and family members," Ruelas says. "So far it's been a reality check more than anything else."

The women's professional leagues that have emerged over the past year are enjoying their novelty, but the long-term potential is still a question mark. The women's leagues pitch themselves as purists--more traditionally team-oriented--but some of the crowd-pleasing aspects are unique to the men's game.

"In the WNBA, dunking is one thing they can't do," Ruelas says. "If most people knew about us, we'd be getting criticism for not hitting home runs."

TONIGHT, I COUNT 70 Phoenix spectators in the stands rooting for the Peppers. Most seem to be friends, family or just hardcore women's sports fans.

Dianne Post, 50, a Phoenix civil rights attorney, braved the heat to see the women play ball. She's fully accessorized for Phoenix, wearing T-shirt and shorts, a wet handkerchief tied around her neck, and toting an insulated water bottle and an umbrella to shield herself from the sun.

"I like the fact that women can do anything they want to do," she says between bellowing, "Let's get it going Peppers! Sports give us the opportunity to show that women have strong and capable bodies that can do anything."

Meanwhile, on this scorching evening 1,000 miles from home, the Spitfires' 15-game win streak is about to end. The team has fallen into a hitting funk and committed two errors in the field.

Earlier, Oldham confided to Ribant that he knew the streak would have to end sometime. "You know, Mike, this winning streak, the girls are so nervous about it," Oldham said. "I almost wish they'd lose a game."

The Peppers take the game 5 to 1, and the Spitfires head for the locker room. The moon is up, a breeze has kicked in, and it's become a perfect night for baseball. Maybe the league takes off, or maybe it folds after the summer. Maybe this is the first and last time any of the Spitfires play pro baseball. Even if it is, what a summer it was.

See the Spits: Thursday at 7pm and Friday at 7pm vs. the Phoenix Peppers at San Jose Municipal Stadium.

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From the August 21-27, 1997 issue of Metro.

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