Advertisement

A Dream of Their Own : Barnstorming Tour by Colorado Team Might Put Women’s Baseball on the Major League Map

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She attended UC Davis and Pepperdine law school, but this spring she has focused on education of a different kind.

Phil Niekro has been teaching her the knuckleball. Joe Niekro has been showing her how to scuff it a little.

There have been classes in how to chew sunflower seeds and on autographing a baseball.

Gina Satriano, an assistant district attorney in Los Angeles on leave from the Compton office, is one of 24 women--there were 48 at the start--who have survived cuts during seven weeks of spring training in Orlando and Winter Haven, Fla., and will open the season with the Colorado Silver Bullets.

Advertisement

“This is awesome,” said Satriano, 28, the daughter of former Angel and Boston Red Sox catcher Tom Satriano and the first female to play Little League in California.

“Every day that I walk on this field I ask myself, ‘How did I get here?’ I’m having the time of my life and I can’t believe it’s happening at this stage of my life.

“Baseball has been in my blood since I was a kid, but I had to think that it was an unattainable dream.”

Coors Brewing Company is investing $3 million-plus to provide some of the best female players with a . . . well, team of their own if not a league of their own.

Advertisement

Under the direction of Manager Phil Niekro and coaches Joe Niekro, Paul Blair and Joe Pignatano--all former major leaguers--the Bullets will be paid $20,000 each for a summer of barnstorming against male opposition.

They will play the first of 32 games--the schedule is still being expanded--in Charlotte, N.C., on May 8 against the Northern League All-Stars. ESPN2 will televise the game. They will also play in Candlestick Park, the Oakland Coliseum, Denver’s Mile High Stadium and Seattle’s Kingdome.

“We have to stay competitive or we lose our credibility,” General Manager Shereen Samonds said.

Samonds gave up a promising front-office career in the Chicago Cub organization only when convinced by Coors that this was not a “fly-by-night promotional gimmick.”

The long-range hope, she said, is that the Bullets will help open the door to the major leagues, that eventually there will be a woman “good enough to play at that level.”

Niekro and staff have been sorting it out seven days a week, five hours a day, with only a five-day break in training since March 7.

“The first thing anyone thinks about when they think about women in baseball is the major leagues,” Niekro said.

“Can they hit 90-m.p.h. pitching? Well, how many guys in the big leagues can?

Advertisement

“Can they reach the relay man from dead center? Well, how many guys in the big leagues can--or do it accurately?

“Most of these women have had only softball experience, and they walked in scared to death--smaller ball, smaller bat, larger field.

“But they’ve progressed a lot more than I would have imagined, and they’re far more coachable than the guys, most of whom think they know everything there is to know about baseball.

“These girls can’t get enough, and some of them can knock your eyes out with the way they catch and throw. The big adjustment for them is with the heavier wooden bats and larger field. Do they have the speed to cover it defensively against a men’s team? Can they pitch it with enough finesse considering they’re not going to blow hitters away?

“I have a feeling we’re going to be beaten bad in some games, but that’s not my concern. I’m more interested in how we develop over the course of the year. We’re going to be in a spring training and conditioning mode while we try to compete. It’s going to take patience, but this is not just a one-year project.

“We don’t have a lot of the top female athletes, but I think some of them will watch us play this year and run to the batting cages to get on board next year.”

The Bullets held tryouts in a dozen cities. Major league scouts were brought in to help judge the talent.

K.C. Clark of Costa Mesa gave up her job at a deli counter and made the team. So did Missy Cress, who had been loading UPS trucks in Simi Valley and attending Cal State Northridge. So did teachers Melissa Coombes of Arcadia and Michele McAnany of Culver City.

Advertisement

Satriano said she weighed the risks and took half a second to decide. Her supervisors at work have been supportive, she said, but if the budget for the voluntary leave program is cut, she could lose her job.

“The little kid won out over the mature adult,” she said of her decision. “I felt it was something I had to pursue.”

She is a pitcher-infielder who has always felt that way. Her parents divorced, but she was raised in a baseball environment.

Tom Satriano, now a partner in a Los Angeles accounting firm, spent parts of 10 seasons in the major leagues. Nick Satriano, her brother, played at UC Santa Barbara and is the baseball coach at Malibu High. Lisa Satriano, a sister and assistant movie director, is helping support Gina financially in this venture.

And it was Sherry Satriano, her mother, who threatened the lawsuits that enabled Gina to play in the Woodland Hills Little League, resulting in phone threats against the family and the burning of trees in their front yard.

Gina was not dissuaded.

She put up with hassles from coaches and teammates through Pony and Colt leagues, was forced to play softball at Santa Monica High, was cut at the end--"they placated me as long as they could"--of fall baseball practice at UC Davis, and put the dream on hold while completing her education, although she spent three years with a men’s semipro team in Los Angeles, the New York Heartbreakers, and was occasionally joined in those games by her father and brother.

It was an addiction, she said, and it didn’t die when she was hired by the district attorney’s office, another dream come true.

She would make the long drive from her home in Malibu to the office in Compton, then, three or four nights a week, she would drive to Burbank to work out with a women’s semipro team, the L.A. Gatekeepers.

“I’d get home at about 10 and have to sit at the computer for another hour or two, working on whatever trial I was involved with,” she said. “That’s how badly I wanted to play.”

No matter that the Gatekeepers are largely a team in name only. Many times there were only three or four players working out in the dark. In Satriano’s nine months with the team, she said, they played in only two tournaments.

It was while competing in a Florida tournament in January that a reporter told her about the Silver Bullets. She called from California on a Monday and had a ticket back to Florida on Thursday.

“I don’t know if it was the intent of the movie, but I bawled when I saw ‘A League of Their Own,’ ” Satriano said. “Here these women got the opportunity I always wished I had.

“I was so envious, and now here I am getting that same opportunity. It’s hard to believe.”

Two women from the era portrayed in the movie, Ynez Voyles and Anita Foss, held a send-off dinner for Satriano, sharing their scrapbooks and experiences on the road.

She has also, of course, leaned on her father over the years, gaining insight into strategy, positioning, setting up hitters, and she recently boned up at the Geoff Zahn pitching school, but she calls it an incredible experience to be receiving individual attention from the Niekro brothers.

“This is the first time any of us have gone through something like this on a daily basis, and the toughest part has been maintaining my concentration, attempting to be at my best every day,” she said. “Fortunately, my body has been holding up very well.”

The opportunity represents a victory for the women of the Silver Bullets, but they face an itinerary of mental games, including ridicule from those who don’t think women should play baseball.

Gina Satriano smiled and said she has been exposed to it before.

“That experience should help me now, knowing it does not have to affect me if I don’t want it to,” she said. “There will be individuals who support us and others who put us down, but they can say what they want. I’m out here to play baseball.”


Advertisement