The A’s are struggling and depression is overtaking even loyal fans, so I haven’t been moved to write a blog post in some time. The A’s are losing to the Reds as I write, and are in danger of being swept, so I thought I’d share something much more positive: the story of Eri Yoshida, an 18-year-old knuckleball pitcher, known in Japan as the “Knuckle Princess.”
A few weeks ago, I received an email from the Golden Baseball League, an independent professional baseball league not affiliated with Major League Baseball. The email announced that Eri Yoshida would be making her second start for the GBL’s Chico Outlaws on June 12th. I called my friend Sandy, who is game to do anything involving baseball, and proposed that we drive the 3+ hours from the SF Bay Area to Chico for the game. She said, “Super!” So we headed up I-5 after lunch on that Saturday.
After checking into our hotel, we presented ourselves at Nettleton Stadium on the campus of California State University at Chico (called “Chico State”). The Chico State Wildcats play here during the college baseball season, and the stadium seats 4400 people on very hard aluminum bleacher seats that do have backs to lean against. Had I known, I would have brought seat cushions. Next time, defintely.
Once inside the ballpark and found my friend, Dave Kaval, Founder and President of the GBL.
Dave gave some info on the Outlaw season and the ballpark, and then pointed into the dugout. Eri Yoshida had just set down her gear bags on the bench and was preparing for the game. She looked so tiny, but completely at home.
To give you some perspective, Eri’s appearance in a men’s professional baseball league is historic. She is the first woman to play professional hardball since Ila Borders, who pitched in the Northern League and other independent leagues from 1997-2000. But Eri is the only woman to pitch professionally in 2 countries–her home country of Japan and the US.
But can she pitch, you are wondering. The answer is yes, but first, a little background. Eri has played baseball since she was in the 2nd grade in Yokohama, Japan. She played on the Kawasaki Senior High School men’s baseball team until she was drafted at the age of 16 by the Kobe Cruise 9 to play in a Japanese independent professional baseball league. This year she came to America to play for the Chico Outlaws.
She has always dreamed of playing professional baseball, and wanted to emulate Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, her idol. She is very serious about her baseball career, and hopes that her efforts will help pave the way for other women to start playing hardball professionally.
Like any 18-year-old teenager, she enjoys watching cartoons, listening to music and eating “Natto” (a traditional Japanese food made from soybeans that looks like string cheese). She wears a wide smile and has a twinkle in her eye, except when she is atop the mound, where she’s all business.
So the umpire calls” batter up,” and the team erupts from the dugout to take the field, eight typical baseball bodies (tall, muscular, handsome) and last but not least, Eri, all 5’1″ and 115 pounds of her.
Eri pitched 4 innings, facing 18 batters, yielded 4 hits, gave up 2 runs (only one earned), walked 2 and struck out1 (her first). Her ERA for the game was 2.25. So yes, she can pitch.
It was comical watching these grown men made to look silly, as they flailed away at her knuckleball traveling about 50 mph, and looking equally inept when she threw one of her 70+ mph fastballs.
She struck out in her one trip to the plate. But in her debut outing on May 29th, she got a hit and and drove in a run in her only at bat. So she’s actually batting .500 on the year!
It’s hard to tell what her teammates think of her. She doesn’t speak English, so she’s at a big disadvantage. But she seems to have won the admiration of her manager, the crowd and many of her teammates for her perseverance. Chico Manager Garry Templeton, the former All-Star shortstop, said, “With all the hype, all the attention, she went out there and did her job. To me, she’s got some thick skin.”
She’s still looking for a win, which she would have earned if she had pitched one more inning. Apparently, she will be working with the team coaching staff to develop her strength and conditioning so she can pitch later into her games. Her next start will be in Chico when the team returns from it’s current road trip.
After the game, which the Outlaws won 8-4 over Yuma (AZ) Scorpions, we lingerered near the dugout watching her deal with the press through her interpreter. After the media left, Sandy and I walked out onto the field where Eri was talking to my friend Dave Kaval and a couple of members of the Outlaws organization. Eri caught my eye and and came over to shake my hand. I signaled in sign language that I wanted to get a picture of her with me and handed my camera to Dave. She put her right arm around me, looked at the camera and gave the thumbs up sign.
She signed the bat I am holding and I thanked her with an “Arigato.” She smiled and bowed, and made her way up the ramp to exit the stadium.
For me it was awe-inspiring. An 18-year-old in a foreign country where she doesn’t speak the language, playing a man’s game, and playing it well. And lest you think “well, it’s only independent ball,” that night she faced players with major league experience (more on that in another article) and others with quite a few years in the MLB-affiliated minor leagues. And the caliber of baseball was really good. So she’s the real deal.
I felt honored to be part of Eri’s professional baseball journey, albeit in a very small way. And she is making history.
Heck, even the NY Times covered her first game and reported on it, not to mention a gazillion guys from the Japanese media outlets. She has also been contacted by the Baseball Hall of Fame. They have a spot reserved for her in the Women in Baseball wing. Eri, you go girl!