TOKYO – Eri Yoshida, a 16-year-old high school girl, will be taking her knuckle ball to the pros.
Yoshida was drafted this week to be Japan's first female professional baseball player, taking the field with the Kobe 9 Cruise in an independent league that starts its inaugural season in April.
The Cruise are a far cry from the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants. Making the grade for the Cruise is more like earning a tentative slot on a farm team than warming up in the bullpen for the Red Sox.
Even so, the 5-foot-tall, 114 pound Yoshida has broken a barrier in baseball-crazy Japan, where women are normally relegated to amateur, company-sponsored teams or to the sport of softball.
"I'm really happy I stuck with baseball," Yoshida said in a news conference Monday after she was chosen with 32 others in the new league's draft. "I want to pitch against men."
Yoshida is to play in the fledgling Japanese League, which is based in western Japan and is hoping to find enough success to one day challenge the likes of the long-established Central and Pacific leagues, home to the best and brightest Japanese players and increasingly a fertile ground for talent headed to the major leagues in the United States.
Yoshida said she wants to emulate Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, who has built a successful major league career throwing a knuckle ball.
The news of Yoshida's signing — she was chosen in the seventh round — was met with some skepticism that the league might be trying to grab headlines by naming a woman. In that, they certainly succeeded — Yoshida's photo was all over the morning news Tuesday, and she was featured in a profile in the prestigious Asahi, a major national newspaper.
"I think her recruitment is in part for the publicity," said Toshihiko Kasuga, the director of the Women's Baseball Association of Japan. "It would be extremely hard for women to squarely compete against men in any sport."
But Kasuga said Yoshida's success could encourage other women ball players, whose population has surged since little league teams opened their doors to girls about 10 years ago.
Until then, softball was the only possibility for female players.
Yoshida started playing baseball when she was in second grade, tagging along with her elder brother, now 19, and played first baseman — on a boy's team — in junior high school. She also joined her high school baseball club, but quit because the training was too tough. Then she joined a private club.
"She must be doing something right," said Dave DeFrietas, a scout in Japan for the Cleveland Indians. "She got signed. I hope it's because of the way she plays, and I wish her success."
According to media reports, Yoshida was inspired to throw knuckle balls when her father, Isamu, showed her a video of Wakefield. She thought that she could do it, too.
Her manager agrees. "Her sidearm knuckle balls dip and sway, and could be an effective weapon for us," said Yoshihiro Nakata.
Asked by reporters to show them how she holds the ball, Yoshida was coy.
"It's a secret," she said.