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American Times: Female pitcher strikes out in a man's world

ALL IS just as it should be on this late summer evening at Wade Stadium in Duluth, a port city in north-eastern Minnesota on the shores of Lake Superior. The local minor league baseball team, the Duluth Dukes, is preparing to take on Thunder Bay from across the border in Ontario, Canada. Fans, with beer and hot dogs, are filling the stands and the sun casts its still-warm rays on the impossibly green infield.

Nowhere could you more easily experience the gentle rituals of the game they still call the national pastime than here. Before the first pitch, we rise for the national anthems of the United States and, on this day, of Canada as well. Then, one by one, the players are introduced, to gentle ripples of applause. But then comes this: "For the Duluth Dukes, please welcome Ila Borders." And the bleachers erupt.

And so it goes for Ms Borders these days. Such is her celebrity that 60 Minutes, this country's most watched television show, has just done a segment on her. Japanese television was here two weeks ago, as were CNN and Newsweek magazine.

The attention does not please her. In fact, she wishes we would all go away. But that, she knows perfectly well, is not going to happen. Because, at just 23 years old, this slim Californian with flowing ponytail is the first woman to play in men's professional baseball.

It has not been an easy road. Ila was 10 when she first revealed her passion to her father. An insurance salesman, Phil Borders encouraged his daughter, practising with her from 6am until noon every free day he had. Slowly her dream materialised. She played in the men's teams at school, then at college and now, at last, in the professional leagues. But always it has been a battle. College, she admits, was "hell on earth". Male team-mates would sometimes throw balls, and even bats, straight at her face.

Never, though, has Ila let go. "My philosophy is you keep going until you know personally that you're done. It's just something that will come to me," she explained in a pre-game interview. It is not a moment that has arrived yet. "You've got to believe in yourself, otherwise they will tear you down."

From her team-mates now, she has won only support. "They see me as another player out on the field, not as a chick."

The team owner, Jim Wadley, bought her from the St Paul franchise - which belongs, like Duluth, to the Northern League - in part because he has a daughter who is set on becoming a wrestler. "I empathise with her," Wadley said, while admitting that not every owner would have bought her.

But even in Duluth, Ila has attracted controversy. Baseball is a boys' game, always has been, if not a good ol' boys' game. There was suspicion that Duluth had picked her as opening pitcher simply to raise ticket sales.

"I would say about three of the managers in the league hate my guts," she admits. With only eight teams in the league, that seems like a bad start. One of them wrote to Wadley at the start of the season to voice his disgust. "He basically said that having a girl demeans the game and he didn't want a girl pitching to his players," Ila remembers. "But after the game he came up to me and said, `great job'."

She has had trouble with some of the fans too, including those who have taken their adoration for her too far. Such as the woman who leaned over the fence one day and snipped a length from her ponytail. And a few have been openly hostile. Always, she says, they are women. "It has been all women. Either they say that I am in this team because I think women's sports aren't good enough or they say that I am going to play badly and let women down."

The politics of her achievement are of no interest to her, however. "I am not doing this to make a statement. I'm out here because I love the game and nothing else."

And Ila is good. While she may not throw terribly fast - she clocks about 80mph against 90mph for the guys - her left-handed balls are foxy. In mid-season she managed two no-score six-inning stretches in a row. Nobody else on the side has done that all year.

What, however, is Ila Border's most formidable weapon? It is her femininity. Quite simply, when guys who are often twice her weight and strength face her with the bat on home plate, they panic. Jay Ward, the coach for Thunder Bay, has seen it over and over again. "It is the macho thing. They go out there terrified. They can't go back to the locker room and tell the guys that a girl struck them out. Some of them have got over that now, but others haven't. And they are the ones she gets out, every time."