Monday, May 31, 2010

Eri Yoshida: The Knuckle Princess From Japan

Since landing on American terrain earlier this year, nothing about baseball has fazed 18-year-old Japanese pitching sensation Eri Yoshida much. It's off the field that has been the real challenge. Eri Yoshida has coped with the language barrier, has by all accounts become "one of the guys" in the clubhouse with her Chico Outlaws teammates, and has held her own against some former big-league hitters.

But judging by the awkward gaze she flashed at the gobs of lasagna on her plate in an instructional league clubhouse earlier this year, American eats might just take some getting used to. The moment the lasagna was served was captured on a YouTube video.

"It's cheap, and quantity is much more than we get in Japan," Eri Yoshida said of American food through a translator after making her U.S. debut on Saturday.

But if she has her way, the 5-foot-1, 115-pound Eri Yoshida will be seeing a lot more lasagna. Heralded as the "Knuckle Princess" by the Japanese media, Yoshida became the first female to pitch professionally in two countries when she debuted for the Outlaws in the independent Golden League against the Tijuana Cimmarones

Baseball princess Eri Yoshida made her debut for the Chico Outlaws of the independent Golden League on Saturday night, the first appearance by a woman in American professional baseball since Ila Borders in 2000.

Eri Yoshida allowed four runs in three innings against Los Cimarrones de Tijuana, and she was hit hard at times; one 70-mile-per-hour fastball was crushed for a two-run homer. But she retired 7 of the first 10 batters she faced before tiring. And in her one plate appearance, she drove in a run by bouncing a bases-loaded single to right field

Eri Yoshida got off to a much better debut than Borders did in her first game in 1997, when she failed to retire any of the three batters she faced for the Saint Paul Saints of the Northern League. Borders pitched four years in independent leagues, ending her career in 2000.

After former San Francisco Giants infielder Ivan Ochoa led off the game for the Tijuana Cimarrones by bunting for a single, drawing jeers from the crowd, Eri Yoshida settled down and kept Tijuana off-balance with a sidearm knuckleball that usually registers in the 50 mph range.

It is a world away — and halfway around the globe — from where Eri Yoshida grew up, in Kawasaki, an urban city on the outskirts of Tokyo. Spurred by the interest in Eri Yoshida, the Outlaws are streaming all of their home games live on the Internet this season. About 25 media outlets were credentialed for the game.

While this might seem like a gimmick, it appeared to work as the Outlaws drew 4,400 fans to the game. Eri Yoshida learned to throw the knuckleball as a young girl by watching Wakefield. She taught herself the pitch and never had any formal coaching for how to throw the knuckler until meeting her idol during spring training in Florida earlier this year.

Mike Marshall said he has no doubt Eri Yoshida has the makeup to handle this historic challenge. He said the biggest factor in determining how far she will be able to take it will be how much stronger she gets in the next few years.

"There's going to be a draft here in a couple weeks and there's probably only a handful of 18-year-old high school kids who are going to get drafted who could come here and play. Men, Look at the rosters. You have Double-A, Triple-A, big-league guys. This isn't affiliated rookie ball; this isn't affiliated A-ball. This is way up there. These are 25- to 35-year-old men she's playing against." Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Mike Marshall said.

Despite the disparity in age, experience, gender and cultural upbringing, Eri Yoshida is fitting in well with her new team. Manager Garry Templeton, an admitted skeptic when he first saw her pitch this winter, said the players missed her when she didn't make a season-opening road trip to Mexico.

He said Eri Yoshida has been taken to kangaroo court, where she was fined a dollar, like all newcomers to the court. The only special treatment she gets is separate locker room facilities to change in and her own hotel room on the road.

"They're protective of her," Garry Templeton said. "She blends in well. She's just a ballplayer. They see her as a ballplayer, not as a girl."

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1 comments: on "Eri Yoshida: The Knuckle Princess From Japan"

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