Whatever happens to their league in the months and years to
come, whichever of their far-reaching dreams are realized or
dashed, the organizers of Women's Professional Fastpitch (WPF)
softball will always recall opening night in Durham, a balmy and
breezeless evening when all was as right as a perfect game.
There was the overflow crowd at 2,006-seat Durham Athletic Park,
the gaggles of glove-clutching girls, the letter of good wishes
from President Clinton and the tautly played softball that kept
onlookers riveted to the end. "It's a great night for women,"
said Virginia Roadsters coach Lynn O'Linski after her team beat
the Durham Dragons 2-1 with a run in the seventh inning. "We're
proud to represent the multitude of women who have waited so
long for this."
Though the last attempt at a women's pro fast pitch league
sputtered to an end in 1979, after four desultory seasons,
nothing could dampen the headiness of this night. The WPF has a
$3 million sponsorship deal with AT&T, and ESPN2 will televise
six games. As the league opened its inaugural season--the
Dragons, Roadsters, Carolina Diamondbacks, Georgia Pride,
Orlando Wahoos and Tampa Bay Fire Stix will each play 72
games--those involved felt they held the future of more than
softball in their hands. "The responsibility is overwhelming,"
said WPF president Mitzi Swentzell, watching the Dragons stretch
before the game. "You start realizing the social significance
the league could have if we succeed."
The impact was already manifest in the bleachers of Durham
Athletic Park, where members of a 16-and-under Raleigh
rec-league girls' softball team sat in uniform gazing intently
at the pregame action. "All they talk about is someday playing
here," said their coach, Pat Wright. One player on the team, a
high school dropout, learned that 90% of WPF's players are
college graduates and that the rest are on their way to earning
degrees. She immediately vowed to get a high school equivalency
diploma. "The league," Wright explained, "has given her hope."
Hope--and reverence--were evident among the scores of children
who pressed shyly against a chain-link, field-side fence after
the game for the chance to talk to and get the autographs of
their new heroes. Others in the dispersing crowd were simply
excited by the good ball game. From the moment hard-throwing
Dragons starter Carla Brookbank rallied from a 3-0 count to
retire leadoff batter Priscilla Welch on a pop-up, the fans
roared long and loud. They cheered madly in the third, when
Durham's Julie Sexton slid in headfirst with a triple, and stood
en masse in the fifth, when the Dragons' Toni Rieke completed a
catcher-to-first-to-catcher double play to foil Virginia's
attempt to bunt home a run. Despite Durham's last-inning loss,
the fans, who had paid $4.50 to $6.50 a seat, behaved as if they
had gotten their money's worth. "If they come to see the game
once," said Roadsters third baseman Michelle Carlson-Neveling,
"we're going to make sure they want to come again."
The players, the best among those not on or vying for spots on
the U.S. national squad--which doesn't accept pros--earn an
average of $1,600 a month. Some were selected in WPF's 10-round
draft, others were recruited independently and still others,
like Dragons third baseman Bobbie Paull, who is known as Taz for
the Tasmanian devil-like dust clouds she raises with her
hell-bent defensive dives, made it through one of the league's
open tryouts. "I was in awe at the tryout," said Paull. "It's
still hard to believe I'm here."
The Durham opener was women's night at the ballpark in every
sense, and one woman set the tone when she fell from the sky.
Army paratrooper Shauna Dorsett brought in the game balls by
parachute. Her mark was near second base. She hit it perfectly.
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND [Back view of members of Women's Professional Fastpitch softball team]