The Taunts are vicious and vulgar, laced with profanity and sexual innuendo. And when some of her opponents and their fans tire of berating Ila Borders, they take on her coach, who, they say, is ruining the game by putting a woman on the mound. In sum, ignorance surrounds 19-year-old Borders, the first woman to pitch on a men's college baseball team.
"Are you a lesbian?" one New York radio interviewer asked her last week.
"No," replied the 5'10", 160-pound freshman, brushing the guy back with the same poise she shows while facing opposing batters. "I like men and I love baseball. I'm not here to prove anything about women. This has nothing to do with women's rights. I love the game, nothing else."
And so she tunes out the insults and the media distractions that surround her and throws the ball. And she wins. Pitching for Southern California College, a tiny NAIA institution in Costa Mesa, Borders has won her first two starts this season, 12-1 over Claremont-Mudd and 10-1 over Concordia University, giving up only one earned run in 15⅖ innings of work. A lefthander, she throws five pitches—cut fastball, fastball (clocked at 78 mph), curve, split-finger and a sort of sinker screwball.
"People think I took her for the publicity—I don't need all this," her coach, Charlie Phillips, said last week, glancing at a Japanese TV crew that was filming Borders's every move. "I took her because she can pitch and she can help this team."
Growing up in La Mirada, Calif., Borders was the only girl on her Little League team. She began pitching overhand when she was 10, schooled by her father, Phil. Last year Ila was named team MVP and first-team all-league as a senior pitcher on the boys' team at Whittier Christian High, where she had a four-year record of 16-7 with a 2.37 ERA and 165 strikeouts in 147 innings. "College has definitely been hard to adjust to," says Borders, who is attending school on a baseball scholarship. "Everybody tells me I don't belong out here. Sometimes it gets to me, but no one's going to run me off."
Rest assured, they're trying. As Borders pitched against Concordia last Friday, a woman spectator, typical of Borders's detractors, said, "She won't last the season. She's not that good. There are lots of guys better than her."
But Borders is proving otherwise and winning the respect of her teammates, who see in her a gritty performer with a lot of guts. In the third inning of the Concordia game, Borders faced a batter with the bases loaded and two outs. As most of the Concordia players stood outside their dugout, yelling and cursing her, Borders threw three balls and then got the hitter to ground out. She found herself in another jam in the fourth inning. With one out, having loaded the bases once more, she again forced a batter to ground out and then got the third out herself, after the batter tapped the ball back to the mound.
"She pitched on sheer will today," said Phillips afterward. "A lot of pitchers win throwing their best stuff. Only a few win throwing less than that. She showed that she belongs."
With two victories in as many starts, the freshman pitcher is proving she belongs in college ball.