By Josh Dubow
The Associated Press
CHICO, California (AP) – Japan’s Eri Yoshida has become the first woman to pitch professionally in the United States in a decade, showing Saturday that she and her sidearm knuckleballs can compete with the men.
The “Knuckle Princess” was unfazed when a former major leaguer opened the game by bunting for a hit. She had a few knucklers that danced almost as much as those of her idol, Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox.
She pitched a scoreless first inning in her debut for the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League. She then struggled a bit by allowing four runs in her final two frames.
She gave herself a tough grade of 20 out of 100, but the adoring fans who cheered her name throughout her news conference felt differently.
“I realize how hard it is to throw a good knuckleball,” she said through an interpreter.
She added an RBI single in her first at-bat against David Rivas of the Tijuana Cimarrones, prompting a standing ovation from the near sellout crowd on “Girl Power Night.” Even her teammates got caught up in the excitement, taking pictures of Yoshida standing on first after her bases-loaded single.
Yoshida is the first woman since Ila Borders in 2000 to play professionally in the United States. The 5-foot-1, 115-pound Yoshida is also the first woman to play professionally in two countries, having pitched last year in an independent league in Japan.
After former San Francisco Giants infielder Ivan Ochoa led off the game by bunting for a single, drawing jeers from the crowd, Yoshida settled down and kept Tijuana off-balance with a sidearm knuckleball.
A foul pop behind home plate, then a double play ended the inning. Yoshida hopped off the mound in excitement after the nine-pitch inning and exchanged high-fives with her teammates in the dugout with a huge smile.
She got former major leaguer Juan Melo to pop out to open the second inning, then another former major leaguer, Kit Pellow, on a fly out to left before hitting a batter and giving up a two-run homer to Juan Velasquez.
She didn’t fare as well her second time through the order as the Tijuana players showed more patience. With two outs and nobody on, she allowed three hits and a walk to her final four hitters. She got out of the inning when Melo was thrown out trying to score from second.
“It wasn’t a very good knuckleball tonight,” said Pellow, who played 99 games in the majors with Colorado and Kansas City. “It was doing a lot of tumbling. It really didn’t have the knuckleball effect.”
Yoshida allowed five hits, four runs, and one walk in three innings, throwing 47 pitches on the night.
Spurred by the interest in Yoshida, the Outlaws are streaming all of their home games live on the Internet this season. About 25 media outlets were credentialed for the game and the team drew a much larger crowd than usual for “Girl Power Night.”
Mika Kuriyama, from San Leandro in the Bay Area, made the three-hour-plus drive to take her 5-year-old daughter Hannah to the game. Hannah was decked out in a kimono and held a sign for the “Knuckle Princess.”
“I admire her,” Kuriyama said of Yoshida. “It takes a lot of guts to come out here and pitch. I really admire her. I wanted my daughter to be able to see that.”
Yoshida learned to throw the knuckleball as a young girl by watching Wakefield. She taught herself the pitch and never had any formal coaching for how to throw the knuckler. She met her idol during spring training in Florida earlier this year. Wakefield gave her a tutorial and was impressed by what he saw.
Yoshida became Japan’s first female pro baseball player last year 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 10 2-3 innings.
She then went to the Arizona Winter League this past off-season, where her manager on the Yuma Scorpions was former Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Mike Marshall. She went 1-1 with a 4.79 ERA in Arizona. She impressed Marshall enough to get a shot in Chico, where Marshall is the president and general manager of the Outlaws.
Marshall said 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.
“There’s going to be a draft here in a couple weeks and there’s probably only a handful of 18-year-old high school kids who are going to get drafted who could come here and play. Men,” Marshall said. “Look at the rosters. You have Double-A, Triple-A, big-league guys. This isn’t affiliated rookie ball, this isn’t affiliated A-ball. This is way up there. These are 25- to 35-year-old men she’s playing against.”
Despite the disparity in age, experience, gender, and cultural upbringing, Yoshida is fitting in well with her new team. Manager Garry Templeton, a skeptic when he first saw her pitch this winter, said the players missed her when she didn’t make a season-opening road trip to Mexico.
He said Yoshida has been taken to kangaroo court, where she was fined a dollar, like all newcomers to the court. The only special treatment she gets is a separate locker room to change in and her own hotel room on the road.
“They’re protective of her,” Templeton said. “She blends in well. She’s just a ballplayer. They see her as a ballplayer, not as a girl.” ♦