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Santa Clarita / Antelope Valley : City Fields Softball Debate About Mixed-Gender Teams : Sports: Suits threatened because a co-ed team was moved to an all-male league and men began playing on all-female teams.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The battle of the sexes has flared up on softball diamonds here, raising a question about fairness on the athletic field: If some women have a right to compete against men, do others have a right not to?

The fight began when the manager of a mixed-gender team managed to get it transferred from the co-ed league to an all-men’s league. In response, men began showing up on teams in the previously all-women’s league, provoking protests from the female players that it was unfair and dangerous to make them play against men.

The gender conflict, brewing for weeks, has spawned accusations of discrimination and threats of lawsuits from all sides.

These are hotly debated issues in a city where softball is taken very seriously. Ball fields are constantly used here, with game results printed weekly in both a local newspaper and a separate publication for softball enthusiasts. About 260 teams, including nearly 4,000 residents, now play in the league that is administered year-round by the Santa Clarita Parks, Recreation and Community Services Department.

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Days after the Northridge earthquake, while many neighborhoods still lacked water or power, several softball players appeared at the emergency tent outside City Hall and asked to register for the upcoming season.

The trouble began in the winter of 1992 when Richard Jewett, manager of Softball Express, which has both men and women players, asked park officials to register the team in a men’s division. The squad, Jewett said, so dominated other co-ed teams that its players were bored.

“It was just not competitive,” said Jewett. “It wasn’t fun.”

Recreation officials hesitated, but were advised by City Atty. Carl Newton that it could be illegal to block a team from playing in the league they desired, based solely upon the players’ gender.

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“No one had really asked about this sort of thing,” said Chris Daste, city recreation supervisor. “It was a real dilemma for us.”

Softball Express was admitted to play the winter 1992 season in the lowest category of the men’s division, the lower C league. The team did so well it advanced to the upper C league, where it has been competing since July.

Male players were surprised by the presence of women players on the Softball Express’ team, but had few protests, Jewett said.

“The biggest reaction to it wasn’t ‘They shouldn’t be here.’ It was ‘More power to them,’ ” said Jewett. “There have been a few egos that have been frayed, (but) it hasn’t been a problem.”

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Difficulties began, all agree, when the exception granted for Softball Express--allowing a mixed gender team to compete in a single sex league--set a precedent that was used the other way around by other teams. A handful of men, sometimes the team manager or a player’s spouse, began appearing on rosters in the women’s league.

Several women players complained--vehemently.

“To me, it’s cheating,” said Anne Marie Schoenmann, manager of the women’s Pirettes team, which plays in the most competitive women’s class, the A league.

Her squad has left the field rather than play against a team that fielded male players. Just Thursday evening, they walked off the diamond in the fifth inning when their opponents produced a male catcher, forfeiting the game--their third for that reason.

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“If we wanted to play co-ed, we would play co-ed,” said Schoenmann. “I played co-ed and it’s a whole different game.”

Schoenmann said her players are concerned about possible injury, especially if there is a collision between a runner and the catcher at the plate.

City recreation officials say they’ll allow mixed teams to compete in single-sex leagues for the remainder of this season, but will send them back to the co-ed leagues in October, when the next season begins.

As long as Santa Clarita provides “substantially equivalent” programs for men and women, it can keep men and women in separate leagues, City Atty. Newton said he now believes.

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“I think all you can do in this kind of situation is make a decision that will try to please the majority of the people,” Daste said.

Softball Express will register for the men’s league once again, Jewett said, and fight to stay in the male league.

Recreation officials say the team will forfeit any games in which it uses illegal players. Since team rosters don’t have to be submitted to park officials until weeks after the season begins, a showdown will probably occur at the inaugural game.

“When we show up for the first game, we are going to put the girls on the field,” Jewett said.

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. . . about the Antelope and Santa Clarita valleys. B10


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