Ila Borders has taken a lot of heat for her baseball-playing ambitions, sometimes even from her teammates, but none of that prepared her for this:
It’s after 8 p.m. and the sun was still shining in Saskatoon, where Borders was pitching for the Swift Current Indians against one of the best lineups in the province. The temperature was above 80 degrees, the humidity felt as if it were 100%.
To ward off the mosquitoes, Borders had donned two shirts, one long-sleeved, under her jersey. At one point, Borders, who is hypoglycemic, was feeling weak. She called over to third baseman Steve Riley and said, “I need some candy, now. “
Said Riley: “We got her a couple sticks of gum and she rifled them into her mouth, and I think she ended up striking the guy out.”
Soon after that, Borders had to leave the game, nearly fainting from the effects of the heat and her low blood sugar. But her performance--4 1/3 innings, giving up seven hits and three runs--impressed her coaches. The Saskatoon Cubs have many veterans of international competition.
“I was really proud of her because she was facing some really strong hitters,” Swift Current Manager Joel Barta said. “She just kept going after them. They are some of the best and she just shut them down.”
Borders isn’t wilting in Canada. After a frustrating sophomore season at Southern California College, she is re-establishing herself as a pitcher in Swift Current, a town of 15,000 on the Canadian prairie north of Montana.
The Indians play in the Saskatchewan Major Baseball League, a five-team amateur circuit that occupies the province between hockey seasons. Swift Current, traditionally one of the top teams, has won two league titles in three years and is again battling for first place.
Teams are composed of collegiate players from the United States, local residents and players from elsewhere in Canada. The level of competition is similar to NAIA or NCAA Division III, but Borders says the lineups are tougher than the ones she faces for SCC.
A handful of SCC baseball players have played for Swift Current, most notably Ryan Seidel, who was the league most valuable player last season. This year, Borders, catcher/pitcher Bryce Primm and shortstop Steve Dolias made the trip north.
Borders, who last year became a national media sensation as the first woman to win a collegiate baseball game, is creating a stir in Canada. Media attendance is up at Swift Current games: about 15 reporters were on hand for the Indians’ season opener in Weyburn, even though she didn’t pitch.
She is one of a five-pitcher rotation, and after struggling in her first two starts, she seems to be getting back into a groove. On June 24, at Kindersley, a three-hour drive from Swift Current, she pitched into the eighth inning, giving up seven hits and three runs. She left the game leading, 3-2, with a man on first who reached on an error, but the reliever failed to hold the lead and Kindersley won the game.
But it definitely was a boost for Borders. “I have all the confidence in the world and I’m having fun out there,” Borders said by telephone the next day. “I think that’s the whole key for me.”
Her first appearance in Canada did nothing to bolster her confidence. It was the Indians’ home opener and 350 turned out, about 100 more than came to watch the 1994 opener.
“She by far got the loudest ovation when her name was announced,” said Scott Anderson, sports editor of the Swift Current Sun.
The first two Moose Jaw batters reached on a single and a walk, but Borders struck out the No. 3 batter. The fourth hit a grounder to second, but the second baseman messed up what could have been an inning-ending double play.
Then it got ugly. Moose Jaw had a double, a triple and a home run before Borders got out of the inning. After the leadoff batter in the second hit a home run, Borders was pulled. Her line: seven runs, four hits, two walks, two strike outs.
Even so, the coaching staff didn’t give up on her. They told her not to expect much at first, after all she hadn’t pitched against live competition in more than a month.
Barta, who during the school year is an assistant baseball coach at Mayville (N.D.) State, said he never doubted Borders could be successful in the league.
The day after U.S. players arrived in Swift Current in late May, Barta had the pitchers throw in the bullpen. He was especially interested to see how well Borders threw. Charlie Phillips, Borders’ coach at SCC, had assured the coaching staff that she had talent, but Barta wanted to see for himself.
“She had good stuff and in a way I was surprised,” Barta said. Borders struggled early, Barta said, because she was afraid to throw her fastball. Batters waited and teed off on her off-speed stuff. Her control wasn’t precise and therefore, her confidence was sagging.
Now, she’s throwing all her pitches well, including the split-finger fastball she uses as her out pitch.
“She still runs into problems when she wants to call her own game--that’s the catcher’s and my job,” Barta said. “We’re trying to get her to stop thinking so much when she’s on the mound.”
To that end, Barta has taken to keeping Borders in the dark about when she’s going to pitch, letting her know in the hour before game time. “Then I have no time to get nervous, no time to worry about things,” she said.
She also doesn’t have to worry about animosity from teammates. Riley, the third baseman and assistant coach, said the Swift Current players aren’t threatened that a woman is receiving so much attention. Some of Borders’ teammates at SCC made it known to her that they felt slighted.
“Every time she steps onto the rubber she’s trying to prove herself,” Riley said. “You need to get some guys who are mature enough to handle it.”
Riley added: “Coaching them and playing with them, you would hear something like that and I haven’t heard anything at all.
“We’re just trying to get a win for her.”
Borders says she is adjusting well off the field too. It is her first extended time away from her home in La Mirada, where her parents installed a personal 800 number to make it easy for her to keep in touch. She volunteers at a senior citizens’ home before heading over to the baseball field for practice or games. She, Primm and Dolias have helped paint the bleachers.
Most of all, she works hard at improving her pitching and enjoys the Canadian hospitality.
“I’m having a blast up here,” she said. “They’re all so friendly. I walk down the street in town and everybody says, ‘Hello’ and ‘Eh.’ ”