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Female knuckleballer Yoshida plugging away despite the odds

by Wayne Graczyk

I have never met Eri Yoshida, so I do not have her meishi (name card) but wonder if it reads, “Eri Yoshida, Female Knuckleballer.”

That is the way she is identified in just about every news article about her appearing in the media. Or maybe it says, “Knuckle Princess,” since in Japanese media reports she is the “Knuckle Hime.”

While her Jan. 29 debut in the Arizona Winter League was less than spectacular, I have to say I am pulling for the 18-year-old to go as far as she can in trying to make it a career in professional baseball.

The Yuma Scorpions right-hander gave up five runs in two innings of a start against Team Canada, allowing five runs, three hits, walking one and hitting four batters.

The outing did not help silencing critics who have called her trying to crack men’s baseball a joke or a publicity stunt since she made a relief appearance for the Kansai Independent League Kobe Cruise 9 in March 2009.

The odds may be stacked against her because of her gender and her specialty pitch. Impressive, though, is her gutsy attitude and playing with heart.

To her, it is not a joke, and her second stint with the Scorpions was a lot better. On Feb. 1, in relief, she retired the three hitters she faced — one by a strikeout — in helping Yuma to a 9-6 victory.

Japanese pro baseball used to have a stipulation in its rule book that all players must be male, but that restriction was lifted more than a decade ago and, if a female has the ability, the door is open.

Women have participated in free agent tryouts held by Central and Pacific League clubs where there are height, weight and age limits, but the male-only requirement has been dropped.

Regarding the knuckleball, it is a difficult delivery to master for anyone. Few pitchers in Major League Baseball have had success; the most notable being Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, who won 318 MLB games, but he also lost 274. His record includes a 21-20 season in 1979 at age 40 with the Atlanta Braves.

Wilbur Wood, a lefty who threw the floater, won 22 games for the Chicago White Sox in 1971 but, recall when Jim Bouton of “Ball Four” fame tried to make a comeback as a knuckleballer with the Seattle Pilots in 1969 after his arm went out?

He could not come anywhere near the season he enjoyed when he went 21-7 as a young fireballer with the New York Yankees in 1963.

Currently, Tim Wakefield is tossing the butterfly for the Boston Red Sox with the usual mixed results compiled by those who throw the knuckler; great days when the pitch is dancing but horrible times when the ball does nothing and gets ripped, the control is not there, and the batters walk or — as in the case with Yoshida’s first game in Arizona — the hitters get hit.

Inconsistency is the word.

In 34 years of covering Japanese baseball, I can only remember two knuckleballers who pitched in the pro leagues, and both were Americans, hired by their teams with the belief they would be effective in Japan because the Japanese hitters would be completely baffled by the movement of the ball and would not be able to deal with it.

Rob Mattson actually had a couple of winning seasons, going 11-7 and 5-4 in 1998 and 1999, respectively, with the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes. His combined ERA was 4.44.

Jared Fernandez did not fare so well in his one year with the Hiroshima Carp, compiling a 3-8 record and posting a 6.04 ERA in 2007.

As for Yoshida, time is on her side, and we’ll see if the female knuckleballer ever makes it to the point where her meishi will read “Eri Yoshida, Knuckleball Queen of NPB.”

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Meanwhile, women’s baseball is growing rapidly and some of the best female players in the world are currently in Hong Kong competing for the Phoenix Cup in the third Hong Kong International Women’s Baseball Tournament.

The event got under way on Saturday and will continue through Tuesday with 22 games, including the championship. Teams from Japan, Australia, Hong Kong, South Korea, North America (a combined U.S.-Canadian entry) and Taiwan are there.

The United States is also represented at the tournament by umpire Perry Lee Barber, the only woman to have umpired major league exhibitions in the U.S. and Japan, and one of only eight women so far to have umpired pro baseball games in America.

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An exhibition game with a theme is coming up Feb. 28 at Fukuoka Yahoo Japan Dome, where the Softbank Hawks will host the Lotte Giants of the Korean Baseball Organization. The game is part of Asia Gateway 2011, a joint project promoting tourism between Fukuoka and Busan, home cities of the two clubs.

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Finally this week, we will have no column on the next three Sundays, Feb. 14, 21 and 28, due to coverage of the Vancouver Olympics. We’ll see you again on March 7.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: wayne@JapanBall.com