In a way, Niekro says, even the women's physical disadvantages turned out to be strengths. Because they can't fire a ball on a line from center field to home, they have to field as most baseball players are taught but seldom do--throwing to the cutoff man behind second base, who then relays the ball home. They have to execute the mechanics of the game, seeing it as a chessboard requiring proper moves, rather than a strength game. And women are easier to coach.
"You show them something and their eyes get big," says Niekro. " 'Teach me!' they say, and they do it right every time. You can't show 'em enough. They have no bad habits, because everything is new to them."
Well, almost no bad habits. Niekro runs a tight ship; his feeling is that his players must act like the pros--which is to say, men--or lose their opponents' respect. He has spent a lot of time trying to instill in them an appropriate sense of cool. Niekro was annoyed in spring training when a player hit her first triple, steamed into third base, leaped into the air and hugged the third base coach. He called time and went out to tell her there's no hugging in baseball.
And no apologizing.
"I'm sorry," a fielder once told Niekro after she made an error.
"Did you make it on purpose?" he asked.
Then what are you apologizing for?"
A female reporter needles Niekro until he nearly loses his own cool. She gestures to where the women are warming up. Isn't it all just a stunt, she suggests.
Niekro bristles. "The game is the game," he replies. "I wouldn't be here if this was a sideshow. If they play the game the way it's supposed to be played, you have to take them seriously." (As he talks, an errant baseball rolls toward the reporters. A man in the group picks it up and tosses it, limp-wristed, to a Bullets pitcher. She catches it and laughs. "Gee," she says, "You throw just like a guy.")
The reporters are still crowding around Niekro and the Bullets when manager Ed Nottle of the Northern League All Stars steps into the visiting team's dugout. He is 57, short, with a paunch. His skin is dark and leathery, his face a map of every 14-hour bus ride he's endured, every case of beer he's drunk during his one season in the majors and 37 years on baseball's outer margins.
Nottle puts a foot on the top dugout step. A smile spreads across his features. He growls out a crude little song of his own creation: "The girls in Thunder Bay," it begins, "are the easiest lay." Behind him, his players shuffle into the dugout. They move stiffly, like a defeated army in retreat. The All Stars are mostly veterans, some ex-big leaguers, men in their 30s, muscular and fat, black and white, in mismatched uniforms, with tattooed biceps and shaved heads and little gold rings in their ears. They all stand and stare at the women in uniforms.
"Check out the third baseman," says one. "Sweeeet. I never thought I'd want to kiss a third baseman."
The other players smile like Nottle--threatening, lascivious smiles--the smiles of a band of pirates who have stumbled across a land of unprotected maidens. They are all thinking the same thing, about doing what it is in the nature of pirates to do: rape, pillage and burn.
"We gonna put a hurtin' on these broads."
DURING THIS PAST WINTER, THE BULLETS HELD 13 TRYOUTS IN 11 CITIES. Candidates paid their own way to these tryouts, some of them held at 6 a.m., the only time the Bullets could rent a diamond. Almost 1,300 women showed up, 55 of whom were invited to the Bullets' spring training camp in Orlando, Fla. Forty-nine showed up, and after eight weeks, the team was trimmed to 24.
The women are between the ages of 22 and 30. Each is unmarried; each gave up a job or school to join the team. All of them have had a love affair with baseball, or sports in general, since they were children. Just like boys--and with them--they played in Little League, Pony League and on co-ed high school teams. Unlike the boys, however, virtually every one was forced to quit baseball in her teens, trading it in for softball or turning to some other sport.