The knuckleball has a secure place in the history of Major League Baseball. Hall of Famers Hoyt Wilhelm and Phi Niekro played long careers on the strength of sidearm and curving knuckleballs, which confuse opponents not with speed, but with direction and timing.
At Maui's Na Koa Ikaika ("strong warriors") of the North American Baseball League (NABL), independent minor league baseball players have faced the first women to play minor league baseball in nearly 15 years.
Eri Yoshida is the 19 year old whose wild ride in the independent leagues started at age 16, when she was drafted by Japan's independent league Kobe 9 Cruisers. According to Wikipedia sources, Yoshida, a sidearm knuckleballer, has been clocked at 63 mph, while her knuckleball measures around 50 mph. Not surprisingly, her baseball idol is the Boston Red Sox' knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, still pitching after 23 years in the major leagues.
Yoshida was making her 10th start of the 2011 season in front of 1,350 fans. The odds of her winning this game were daunting: she faced seven players with Triple A and Double A experience, as well as a former Triple A pitcher. They could have all been her (much) older brothers. She ignored all these factors to earn her first professional US victory in the United States with a 4-1 win over the the powerhouse Edmonton Capitals (48-29).
Yoshida held the Capitals off balance during her five innings (tying her personal high in innings pitched) while allowing 4 hits, and three walks. She struck out Edmonton second baseman Matt Rogelstad (a former MLB Minor Leaguer with Seattle and Washington).
Maui manager Garry Templeton left her in long enough to qualify for the win after throwing 81 pitches. She was lifted after 5 innings and replaced by Hawaiian pitcher John Holley Jr.
Her line for the night: 5 IP, 19 BF, 81-43 NP-S: 4 H 1 R, 1 ER, 3BB, 1 SO.
Yoshida's victory was the first by a female pitcher in the minor leagues since 1998, when Ila Borders made history by becoming the first female pitcher to win a minor league baseball game for the former Duluth-Superior Dukes independent league team.
"I’m very happy for the win," Yoshida told me via email. "I struggled to control my knuckle ball before. However, I was able to throw my pitches aggressively."
Her previous win came in the Arizona Winter League, while she was being managed by former LA Dodger and Libertyville, Illinois native Mike Marshall, who now manages the Chico (CA) Outlaws of the NABL.
How did Yoshida get to this point, when it's pretty much taken as fact that women cannot play professional baseball because of their perceived weaker arm strength? Short answer: her ever-developing knuckleball.
Why? Strength and pitch speed are not factors as in other pitches. The knuckleball, as described in Wikipedia, is a softly thrown, deceptive pitch that appears to flutter unpredictably when it crosses the plate, making it difficult to make contact with and even more difficult to center cleanly for a solid hit.
The knuckleball has been good for many major leaguers, including the Mets' R.A. Dickey, Niekro, Wilhelm (who robbed the Yankees' Roger Maris of the his 61st homer during MLB's Commissioner Ford Frick's imposed 154-game regulation on September 20, 1961 thanks to the knuckleball) and Tom Candiotti. They have all perfected confusing knucklers, sidearmers and knucklecurves. Yoshida's idol, however, is Wakefield, who has built long career in the majors due to the lack of strain the pitch puts on his arm and body.
This might just be Yoshida's ticket to playing major league baseball. Though she admits she is not "strong enough" yet for major league baseball. she has developed some pretty powerful allies and amassed a wealth of experience in a very short time. At the Red Sox' spring training facility in March 2010, she got a firsthand look from her idol, Wakefield.
"I'm impressed," Wakefield told ESPN Boston.com and the Associated Press at the time. "She spun a couple, but for the most part it was very good. She was able to take the spin out of a lot of them and they had quite a lot of movement on them."
Yoshida became Japan's first female pro baseball player in 2008 when she pitched for the Kobe Cruise 9 in the Kansai Independent League. She was 0-2 in 11 appearances with a 4.03 ERA.
In 2009, she went to the Arizona Winter League, where her manager on the Yuma Scorpions was former Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder and Libertyville, Illinois native Mike Marshall. She went 1-1 with a 4.79 ERA in Arizona and impressed Marshall enough to get a shot in Chico, where Marshall is the president and general manager.
Yoshida remembers that time very well. "Last year, when I came to U.S.A. to play, I was nervous and scared because the players were very powerful," she said. "However, I decided to throw without any hesitation because I didn’t want to regret it if I didn’t play my best."
Marshall told the Associated Press he has no doubt Yoshida has the makeup to handle this historic challenge. He said the biggest factor in determining how far she will be able to take it will be how much stronger she gets in the next few years.
When asked, Yoshida is realistic about her chances to play. I asked her about it. "I am not strong enough to play in the Major League now, " she said through an interpreter. " However, if my knuckle ball becomes more sharp, I believe I have a chance, so I will continue to practice for my future."
Justine Siegal, the intrepid founder of "Baseball for All," which advocates for the inclusion of girls and women in baseball (NO softball. Baseball.) believes the day is coming when a woman will break into the majors. In 2011, she made baseball history by becoming the first woman to throw batting practice in spring training to MLB teams.
Siegal's journey, according to the New York Times and other outlets, began when she made her first pitch in a letter-writing campaign to all 30 major league general managers. They all whiffed.
Her second pitch, a signature fastball presentation to the GMs at the winter meetings in Florida, was a home run for Team Siegal. The Oakland A's Billy Beane was on base with Siegal's first successful pitch. Then, Cleveland's Chris Antonetti, presumably inspired by Beane and possibly influenced by the fact that Siegal's father and grandfather were still Indians season ticket holders, invited her to throw the Cleveland Indians' practice. As spectators from other teams gathered around spring training facilities around Arizona, Siegal got more invitations, along with rave reviews from pro baseball players. The A's and the Indians were followed by the Rays, Cardinals, Astros, and Mets.
Let me be on the record as saying that I am disappointed that no invitation was issued from the Chicago Cubs. Or the White Sox.
"There's no reason why a woman can't be a knuckleball pitcher in major league baseball," Siegel told ESPNw. "I think we'll see it in the next 15 years."
I agree with Siegal. I believe that there is a real opportunity in Yoshida, who continues to improve every year in the independent leagues.
I concede that women may not have the arm strength of men in this lifetime.
However, sports are full of stories of heroes overcoming the odds. From the Cub's beloved Ron Santo, who fought the diabetes that took his life just last year, just as Spud Webb didn't allow his 5'7 height to deter him from finding success in the NBA, nor did Muggsy Bogues at 5'3, nor did Pete Gray, who lost his right arm in a childhood accident, allow the lack of an arm to dissuade him from playing baseball back in the 1940's, peaking when he was signed by the American League's St. Louis Browns in 1945, they found ways to adjust their game to rise to the top of their profession.
Why Yoshida might make the major leagues:
At 19, Yoshida already has three years of independent league experience. She has time to develop her knuckleball, and variations of the knuckleball, as well as her arm strength.
In her knuckleball, she has an advantage over her predecessor, Ila Borders. The lefthanded Borders' best pitch was her curveball, which could, according to Wikipedia sources, break from 1 o'clock to 7 o'clock as it crossed the plate. She also had a screwball, and in the 1999 season she found some success with an occasional sidearm delivery. The problem with Borders was that her pitches, as well as her ongoing battles to play the game she loved, wore down her arm and her inner strength.
Borders' impact on the game of baseball, however, is undeniable. Women could play with the men...and win. That will be Borders' legacy.
2) Knuckleball Pitchers Have Longevity:
Hoyt Wilhelm was 50 when he retired from baseball. Phil Niekro was 45. Yoshida's idol, Wakefield, was born in 1966, which makes him 45 years old. He's still slugging it out, with an ERA around 4.90 and is 11-7 in starts and 12-15 in team appearances.
Should Yoshida continue pitching, she will likely reach full strength in her late 20's and likely be able to continue her career another 10-12 years.
3) Growing Support for Women in Baseball:
Numerous men and women throughout the country, including those involved with baseball, are becoming more supportive of including women. Today, over 100,000 girls in the U.S. play baseball. Recently, Baseball for All launched the Baseball For All Network to provide a forum. This is no "women only" operation. The organization believes that baseball is truly for all people, and co-ed opportunities are encouraged.
Indeed, the times are a-changing. Eri Yoshida would be a great starting role model for young girls trying to achieve a dream.