Japan's female phenom thrills startup U.S. league

By Braden Reddall

CHICO, California (Reuters) - The hot-selling item at Chico Outlaws baseball games this year, apart from the standard food and beer, is the T-shirt version of a jersey worn by an 18-year-old Japanese woman, Eri Yoshida.

The 5-feet, 1-inch (1.55-meter) knuckleballer, part of an otherwise-all-male pitching staff averaging over 6 feet, has brought unprecedented media attention to her baseball franchise in rural Northern California.

Appearances of the "knuckle princess" on the mound helps boost attendance at Nettleton Stadium, a 4,200-capacity stadium in Chico where the Outlaws play.

She has helped merchandise sales too. A young woman selling T-shirts at "the Nett" said Yoshida's arrival this year set off a wave of purchases of the number three shirts by young girls thrilled to see her on the field with men.

"Everyone I talk to is really excited and interested to hear that she really has become this draw for people in the community," said Emily Westphal, executive director of the Northern Sacramento Valley chapter of Girls Inc, a charity that helps girls and sponsors the Outlaws because of Yoshida.

The excitement is not universally shared, however. Larry Anderson, a retiree and regular at Outlaw games, compared the novelty of a woman pitching to that of a carnival act.

"But the owners have to do that," he conceded, pointing to Yoshida's picture on the cover of the 2010 souvenir program for the Outlaws, who compete in the Golden Baseball League (GBL).

The knuckleball itself has a carnival-like quality since command of the pitch is rare and it is incredibly tough to hit when thrown right.

The name is derived from the half-fisted grip that allows the ball to be pushed toward the plate with hardly any spin, so that it floats in a slow, erratic motion that some liken to the flight of a fluttering butterfly.

Two prominent knuckleballers now pitching in Major League Baseball (MLB) are Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox and R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets.

Mastery of this dark art has been a great leveler in the sport, opening up the game to pitchers lacking the strength needed to hurl a ball 90 miles per hour.

Hall-of-Fame knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro played at the top level until he was 48 and holds an MLB record for winning 121 games after turning 40.

STILL SEEKING A WIN

Yoshida is still looking for her first win as an Outlaw, struggling in her past few starts against the GBL's Canadian franchises in Victoria and Calgary.

The GBL is unparalleled in its geographic reach, having this year added teams in Tijuana, Mexico, and the Hawaiian island of Maui. The league has a salary cap to keep its games competitive, and the 10 teams rely on central funding, since they are unaffiliated with the MLB like the minor leagues.

The GBL's level of play is generally deemed to be about that of AA minor-league ball, two rungs down from MLB.

Steve Swinford, father of Victoria Seals infielder Dale Swinford, said Golden Baseball players "didn't make a killing," but were well looked after, staying in nice hotels on the road and with home-town accommodation arranged for them.

The proud father drove from his home outside San Francisco to see his son play on a sweltering summer night at the Nett, where it was 100 degrees (38 Celsius) at 6 p.m. (2200 GMT).

Swinford later got a phone call from a friend who told him the CBS Evening News had just run a piece on TV about Yoshida, national attention that should only help generate interest in the GBL and more advertising dollars.

Certainly, sponsorship is everywhere at Outlaws games, from the Safeway logo on the shirt of their raccoon mascot, Rascal, to a local dentist sponsoring the number-four batter -- known in the sport as the "clean-up" hitter in hopes he will regularly clear the bases by knocking in runs.

But advertising helps keep costs down for fans. Tickets can be had for $7, and beer costs what it does in a bar, instead of twice as much like it does in most big league parks.

The GBL was always supposed to be about value for money. Its two Stanford-educated founders wanted it to stand out from the big leagues when they started it in 2005, backed by Silicon Valley money and game show host Pat Sajak.

Outlaws General Manager Mike Marshall, a ex-big leaguer who spent most of his career with the L.A. Dodgers, said there was only a sprinkling of major talent in independent ball a decade ago.

"You were trying to find the hidden gem," said Marshall, whereas now he feels like five or six of the current Outlaws could play in the Major League.

As for Yoshida, who played Japanese independent ball for the Kobe Cruise 9 last year, she says in the Outlaws program that she hopes more women will follow in her footsteps, both in Japan and the United States.

"I'm excited to see how many join me."

(Editing by Frank Pingue)