Clicking over the marble floors of the Sheraton, I felt strange in my new, too-shiny cleats. But I felt far stranger on that late-winter morning when I stepped outside the hotel and into a sea of middle-aged men in windbreakers and polyester pants, spread across the Sheraton's front lawn, metal detectors in hand. As it turned out, they too were guests—members of the Gold Prospectors Association of America, testing the latest in prospecting gear. No doubt they were in Mesa, Ariz., hoping to hit pay dirt. So was I.
At baseball's winter meetings in Atlanta last December, it was announced that an all-female baseball team, the Colorado Silver Bullets, sponsored by Coors Brewing Co., would be sanctioned to play in the short-season Double A Northern League. Tryouts would be held all over the country, and a team of 24 women would be picked to start play in the spring. (Alas, after a disastrous opening-day loss of 19-0, it was decided that the women will play only semipro and college teams.) Suddenly, women of all ages and varying talents were reaching for ancient cans of Glovolium and one last chance to show their stuff. Would anyone be interested in my stuff? I wondered. True, I was 39, overweight and had not exercised in the past two decades. But I had the desire. I had the drive. And I had my managing editor's permission to take the week off.
Upon arriving at Fitch Park, I took my place in a long line of hopefuls standing by the registration table. Each of us was handed a piece of paper with the words READ CAREFULLY printed at the top. I did, but I didn't believe what I was reading: "This is a free-agent waiver," it said. The rest of the fine print became an inky blur. It didn't matter that I was being asked to sign an agreement forgoing my right to sue the Silver Bullets in case of injury or death. What mattered was that I was about to become that most authentic-sounding of sports figures: a free agent.
Struggling to pin my number (435) to my shirt, I took a seat in the bleachers and began checking out the women around me. There were 34 of them. Their cleats were well worn, and the lettering on all their jerseys seemed to end in the words ALL-STARS. I swallowed hard and tried to concentrate on the instructions being given by Tom Jones, the Silver Bullets' director of player development, who was running the Phoenix-area tryout. "There are five categories you'll be tested on: speed, fielding, arm strength, throwing accuracy and hitting," Jones told us. "If you're not good in one, you'd better be very good in two. If you're not good in two, you'd better be excellent in three. And if you're not good in three, you'd better be exceptional in something."
At the first station Jones and a half dozen other major league scouts and coaches lined us up in twos so they could time us in the 40-yard dash. I was paired with a 21-year-old from Indianapolis. She beat me by 120 yards. I guessed that meant I'd better show my stuff in the infield drill. No such luck. Of the four balls hit to me at shortstop, I booted two, overran one and fielded cleanly only the last. My throws to first base averaged 2.3 bounces. We moved to the batting area, where we were each asked to hit five balls off a tee. I took five powerful hacks, pounding the ball each time into a metal fence a few feet away. Steve Murray, a scout with the Colorado Rockies, took notes. Once I had finished, he offered encouragement. "You may not have the prettiest swing," he said, "but you're the hardest hitter out here." My heart leaped.
It was only 11:15 a.m., but the first try-out was over. The scouts and coaches conferred along the first base line. After an agonizing 10 minutes Jones was ready to announce the numbers of the players who would be invited back for a longer tryout. Thirteen numbers were read off. Number 435 was not among them.
Back at the Sheraton I decided to spend my last night in the pros doing what pros traditionally do after a bad day—I would hit a bar. The Yellow Pages listed 45 sports bars in the greater Phoenix area. I decided against the Group Therapy Lounge, though it was probably what I needed, and opted for the less prepossessing Stagger Inn Bar and Grill. After downing a Diet Rite (O.K., so I don't drink like a pro) and watching a few minutes of the Cleveland Cavaliers beating up on the Atlanta Hawks, I wasn't feeling quite so bad. I felt even better after racking up 9,200,000 points on the Twilight Zone pinball machine. And two more Diet Rites later, I could even smile and nod in agreement with the sign over the bar that read NO SNIVELING.
Hitting wasn't all; players were also judged on speed, fielding, throwing and arm strength.