Claire: Japanese woman set for U.S. debut

Claire: Japanese woman set for U.S. debut

Eri Yoshida is an 18-year-old girl with a dream. She wants to pitch in the Major Leagues.

Yoshida will make her United States professional debut on Saturday, May 29, when she takes the mound for the Chico Outlaws in a home game at Nettleton Stadium in Chico, Calif.

The media requests from throughout the U.S. and Yoshida's native Japan have Dan Hawkins, the Outlaws' director of media relations and broadcasting, shaking his head and wondering how he can possibly accommodate the vast demands.

"We have credential requests from most of the major outlets and every Internet site you can imagine," said Hawkins. "Not to mention requests from seven or eight Japanese stations."

"OK," you say, "nothing more than a novelty," as the Chico team of the independent Golden Baseball League seeks attendance and publicity by bringing in a 5-foot-l woman from Japan to stand on the mound and face experienced professional players.

And to try to get the hitters out by throwing a knuckleball, no less.

Two former Major League standout players -- Mike Marshall and Garry Templeton -- say this has nothing to do with a novelty or gimmick to attract fans and gain national attention.

Marshall, the general manager of the Chico team, said of Yoshida: "She's here to play and to help us. Everybody's in love with her knuckleball, but she's sneaky. She's got a curveball that never gets there and can get a lot of outs with her fastball."

Templeton, the Outlaws' manager, makes it clear Yoshida wouldn't be with the team if he and Marshall didn't believe she could help them win games.

"She brings a lot to the table," said Templeton. "Once you see her on the field, you see immediately that she has a lot of baseball knowledge. I think I was a little shocked the first time I saw her myself. She knows a lot about the game and can really play."

The Outlaws signed Yoshida last month after she had pitched 10 games in the Arizona Winter League, where the players pay to participate in the hopes of signing a contract with a professional team. She compiled a 1-1 record with a 4.79 ERA.

Yoshida is just weeks out of high school in Yokohama, Japan, but she had pitched in 10-plus innings for Kobe 9 Cruise of the Japanese Independent League in 2009.

When Yoshida takes the mound for her Chico team, she will become the first female to play professionally in North America since Ila Borders pitched in the independent Northern League from 1997-99.

Is there really a chance that a teenage female throwing a knuckleball could be on the road to making it to the top level of baseball?

"I do believe at some point we will have a woman get an opportunity with a Major League team," said Jean Hastings Ardell, who is the author of "Breaking Into Baseball: Women and the National Pastime."

Ardell has made an extensive study of women in the game throughout the years, exploring various roles, from players to executives to media members to fans.

"I've often thought that the first woman to reach the Majors might very well come from a non-traditional role," Ardell said. "That is to say, not from the normal youth league to college to professional levels.

"I've thought it might be someone from outside. Just as Jackie Robinson wasn't your typical Negro League player -- he was a college-educated person and athlete.

"I don't know this young lady from Japan, but the fact that she is from another country and throws a knuckleball might be very helpful to her."

Ardell said she saw first-hand how the attention of the media began to wear on Borders as she attempted to advance from an independent league.

"Ila always wanted to be judged on her ability, just like any player," Ardell said. "But there was always the novelty and marketing factors to deal with, as she dealt with the day-to-day life of her career.

Hawkins said Yoshida understands she is an attraction to the media but adds, "She really just wants to do her workouts and pitch.

"Eri has passed up a number of opportunities to make money based on her new-found celebrity."

Of her role and the attention, Yoshida told the Chico Enterprise Record: "I'm really hoping that the way I'm striving for my dreams means a lot of women will start playing baseball, not just in the U.S., but in Japan, too. I'm excited to see how many join me."

With all of the attention on her, Yoshida's heart figures to be fluttering when she takes the mound for her U.S. debut. She can only hope her knuckleball pitches carry that same action.

Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as Executive Vice-President and general manager. He is the author of "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue." This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.