4 Min Read
CHICO, California (Reuters Life!) - She's petite and just 18 but Japanese baseballer Eri Yoshida throws a mean ball, winning her an army of fans at the Chico Outlaws baseball games in northern California and fueling girls' interest in the game.
Standing 5 ft 1 in tall and weighing 114 pounds, Yoshida is the first Japanese woman to play professional baseball in a U.S. men's league and the first woman to pitch in a professional U.S. league since Ila Borders retired 10 years ago.
Yoshida made headlines and impressed the baseball world last year when she became Japan's first female pro player, pitching for the Kobe Cruise 9 in the Kansai Independent League. She also pitched for the Yuma Scorpions in the Arizona Winter League.
Yoshida, nicknamed the "knuckle princess" for using a skilful, unpredictable baseball pitch known as a knuckleball, has won unprecedented media attention for the Outlaws and the independent minor Golden Baseball League founded in 2004.
Her arrival has also helped boost sales of merchandise at the Chico Outlaws, particularly among young fans.
A woman selling T-shirts at the stadium said Yoshida's arrival had set off a wave of purchases of her No. 3 shirt by "mostly little girls" thrilled to see a female on the field alongside the men.
Her appearances on the mound have also swollen the ranks of the few hundred faithful at Nettleton, a 4,200-capacity stadium attached to the Chico State University.
"Everyone I talk to is really excited and interested to hear that she really has become this draw for people in the community," said Emily Westphal, an executive director of the charity Girls Inc, which has sponsored the Outlaws because of Yoshida.
Not everyone is so enthused by the young Japanese star who started playing baseball in second grade and says she learned to throw a knuckleball by watching videos of Boston Red Sox pitcher of Tim Wakefield, one of only two prominent knuckleballers in the top U.S. league. (The other is R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets).
Larry Anderson, a retiree and regular at Outlaw games, compared the novelty of a woman pitching to a carnival act.
"But the owners have to do that to bring in fans," he conceded, pointing to Yoshida's picture on the cover of the Outlaws 2010 official souvenir program.
Yoshida, however, is still looking for her first win, struggling in her past few starts as the Outlaws visited some of the Golden Baseball League's Canadian franchises.
The League, which is not affiliated with Major League Baseball or the Minor League Baseball system, has 10 teams spread across the United States, Canada and Mexico.
It was set up to help give professional baseball players the chance to play at a professional level even if they were not under contract with a Major or Minor league organization.
Golden Baseball League enthusiasts hope the media focus on Yoshida will generate more interest in the minor league's games -- and more advertising dollars.
Yoshida said in an interview in the Outlaws program that she hoped more women would follow in her footsteps into baseball, both in Japan and the United States.
"I'm excited to see how many join me," she said.
Reporting by Braden Reddall, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith