At Age 18, Eri Yoshida Doesn't Knuckle Under in Her Pro Debut
Let alone an 18-year-old girl.
Say this about Eri Yoshida: she likes a challenge. With the spotlight of the media from both sides of the Pacific, Yoshida made her debut with the independent Chico Outlaws on Saturday night, becoming the first woman to pitch in a professional league in the U.S. since Ila Borders in 2000.
It didn't go that well, although you would never have known that by the throng of adoring fans cheering and begging for her autograph after the game.
Facing a Tijuana Cimarrones lineup that included three former major leaguers, Yoshida gave up four runs in three innings. After a scoreless first, the Tijuana hitters discovered that her sidearm knuckleball wasn't knuckling that much, so they simply waited for some of her 65-mph fastballs and they whacked them. Her highlight was that she actually got an RBI single in her only trip to the plate.
"I'm sure she was nervous," said Tijuana's Kit Pellow, who played briefly in the majors with Colorado and Kansas City. "If she throws more strikes, she'll get more outs. The thing is, her fastball and slider are so slow, there is no surprise factor. With other knuckleball pitchers, they'll zip in an 80 mph fastball and it looks like it's 100. Well, she doesn't have that. She needs to throw strikes with that knuckleball or she's going to get in trouble."
Consider that a lesson learned. Just 5-foot-1, 115 pounds, Yoshida faced reporters from about 30 media outlets from around the world after the game. She was smiling about the "unbelievable" experience, but disappointed in the results. "The Knuckle Princess," as she's been dubbed, rated her performance "20 out of 100."
When asked what she'd say to Tim Wakefield, who was her role model when she began throwing the knuckler, Yoshida said: "I realize how hard it is to throw a good knuckleball, so I have more respect for him."
Chico manager Garry Templeton, a former major leaguer, said he told Yoshida after the game that she needed to throw more knuckleballs. The two-run homer she allowed in the second inning came on a fastball to Juan Velasquez.
"I told her she should throw the knuckleball because she's a knuckleball pitcher," Templeton said. "She's learning. It's a good learning experience for her."
The Tijuana lineup featured not only Pellow, but Juan Melo and Ivan Ochoa, a couple infielders who played briefly in the majors. (Ochoa led off the game by bunting for a hit, which didn't sit well with the Chico crowd.) Tijuana's cleanup hitter was Jackson Melian, a former top prospect who the Yankees signed for $1.6 million in 1996.
That lineup had scored five runs in four innings the day before against Wayne Franklin, who pitched in 143 major league games over parts of seven seasons. Franklin, 36, is a pitcher and pitching coach for Chico.
"When I was 18, I was worried about where I was going to go to college, and she's worried about pitching in another country," Franklin said. "She's been really mature about it, and she's handled it great."
Yoshida started to gain attention when she was drafted at age 17 by a Japanese independent team. She pitched briefly there last season, and this winter she pitched in the Arizona Winter League, a developmental league not affiliated with major league baseball. That's where Chico general manager Mike Marshall, a former big leaguer, and Templeton, first got a look at her.
"I'm not gonna sit here and tell you I wasn't (skeptical)," Templeton said. "Her first outing she was a little shaky. It was her nerves. Then she settled in and threw some pretty good games down there. She did pretty well."
Is it a gimmick? Of course it is. Whether or not Marshall would admit it, there is no doubt that the Outlaws and the Golden League are getting more attention than they have had in years because of Yoshida. Nettleton Stadium, on the campus of Cal State Chico, was filled nearly to its capacity of 4,000 for Yoshida's debut. That's about double a normal crowd. Many of them were wearing Outlaws shirts with "Yoshida" over her No. 3 on the back.
Reporters representing media outlets from across the U.S. and Japan descended upon this remote college town (population 60,000) halfway between San Francisco and the Oregon border.
As Yoshida came out to the field for what seemed like an hour of pregame stretching and running, a dozen cameras were pointed at her. As she warmed up in the bullpen just before the game, scores of fans came by, gawking and snapping photos.
That pregame routine was just an example of the work ethic that helped Yoshida win over her teammates. Catcher Mike Rose, a former big leaguer, said the rest of the Chico players first learned that she was serious the day that she ran for nearly two hours following an outing in a spring training game.
Franklin added: "During spring training she was everywhere. Stretching. Running. She didn't stop working till we said go home. I can't say enough about her."
Yoshida lives with a Japanese host family in Chico. She has a private dressing room on the other side of the ballpark from the cramped clubhouse where her teammates dress. Otherwise, though, they treat her like one of the guys.
"They're very protective of her," Templeton said. "She blends in well. She's just a ballplayer. They see her as a ballplayer, not as a girl."
Yoshida will remain in the Outlaws rotation as long as she can be effective, Templeton said. She threw just 47 pitches on Saturday, so they'll have another starter ready to back her up while they build up her endurance.
"The more times she's out there, the better she'll get," Templeton said. "It's not going to be easy. It's going to be tough, but she looks like she can handle herself."