The Girls Of Summer

Jo Ann Kruger of the Baltimore Blues slides into home, beating the throw to catcher Donna Middleton of the Virginia Flames, on opening day for the Eastern Women's Baseball Conference this month at Joe Cannon Stadium in Hanover.
Jo Ann Kruger of the Baltimore Blues slides into home, beating the throw to catcher Donna Middleton of the Virginia Flames, on opening day for the Eastern Women's Baseball Conference this month at Joe Cannon Stadium in Hanover. (By Dennis Drenner For The Washington Post)

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By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 27, 2007

THUMP. "Steee- rike."

" C'mon," growls Mimi Evenson, stepping back from the plate, knocking the tip of the bat on her cleats.

Bottom of the first on opening day at Joe Cannon Stadium in Hanover. No score. The count is 2-2. Two outs.

Evenson, 39, steps back to the plate. Her two kids, ages 4 and 6, sit in the dugout, crunching on the ice from their plastic McDonald's cups.

Carmen Dominguez uncoils on the pitcher's mound. THUMP.

"Hee-yarr!" bellows the umpire, jerking his arms like he's starting a lawn mower. It's a strikeout. Dominguez trots off the field with the rest of the Virginia Flames.

"[Expletive] pitch -- sorry, kids," Evenson says as she returns to the Baltimore Blues' dugout, cleats crunching on the ground, gold nail polish glinting in the sun of an infant summer. "Was low and outside."

Dismayed by the Nationals? No allegiance to the Orioles? Consider the Eastern Women's Baseball Conference. Six local teams to root, root, root for. Overhand fast pitch. Hardball, not softball. Major League Baseball rules. They play through September, with an invitational tournament this weekend.

Games are free, so come on down. They could use some fans. Or, better yet, players. Join midseason if you want.

"It's been hard because most people don't know we exist," says JoAnn Milliken, president of the conference, which is 90 women strong and in its 18th year, making it the oldest women's baseball league operating in the country. It's a nonprofit, so there's no money for marketing. Newspapers don't cover them or print their scores. Coaches and players say they're perpetually trying to assure people that women play baseball.

Yes, baseball. Yes, with a hardball. Yes, with ornate profanity and dirt-smeared jerseys and tampons up noses to staunch the blood after a wild throw. ("Works great," says Blues catcher Jo Ann Kruger, 31, "but that's something you will not see in men's baseball.")

CLACK.

Top of the second. Government contractor Donna Middleton, 36, and counselor Gina Whitacre, 43, (who bought her first glove at age 9 with money made from mowing lawns) race home as their fellow Flames shout "Nice wheels, nice wheels!" between pulls of Gatorade. CLACK. George Washington University master's student Jen Hammond, 26, zings a ball to right field and then steals second base. Soon after, Milliken hits a double to drive Hammond home, stretching the score to 3-0 before the Blues get that third out.

Veteran umpire Roger Loos peels off his mask as the teams exchange places on the field. "They asked me to do one of the playoff games three or four years ago," he says. "I said, 'I never did a women's game before.' And they said, 'Don't worry about it. It's good ball.' And it was fantastic."

And, although organized women's baseball is growing, it's not an opportunity many get at a young age. Girls who express interest in baseball are funneled into softball, says Milliken, 53, and are then reluctant to join the EWBC when they get older. "Some of them say, 'No way, I can't hit something that fast and that small,' " she says. "I always say, 'If I can do it, you can do it.' "

(For some, joining the league fulfills a lifelong ambition. Hawks outfielder Heather Millar, 64, relives her first game last season, a moment that was 50 years in the making: "I run out on the field, and I am thrilled. Absolutely thrilled. It is a dream come true to be out there. . . . There's nobody happier than me.")

Back to the rivalry. "Curveballs, sliders -- I'm not used to those pitches," Blues rookie C.J. Luers, 22, says before she goes up to bat at the bottom of the second. Dominguez winds up, throws and THUMPs Luers in the butt.

"Attagirl!" shouts Bonnie Hoffman, 38, a public defender in Virginia, as Luers, feeling the transition from softball to hardball, trots to first base.

"We call that turning the other cheek," says Jan Strevig, 49, the Blues' manager and a music teacher (her ensemble is in talks to sing the national anthem for the June 15 Orioles game in Baltimore).

Over the course of the next three innings, the Blues tighten the game to 8-7.

"C'mon, ladies, let's play defense," bellows David Fyfe, the Flames' manager.

Cheers come from two of the six fans in the stands. They are both friends of Dominguez, 44, second baseman as well as a relief pitcher for the Flames. They try to make all the Flames' games, which are played in stadiums and high school fields in the area. They'd rather be here than at Camden Yards or RFK.

"They have to be playing better than the Nationals," Alexandria resident Karen Olin says gravely.

"It's smaller, more personal," says Brigida Galleguillos, Dominguez's roommate in Fairfax. "You get to know them all." And they all get to know one another -- organizing trips to major league games, going out for nights on the town, doing bridesmaid duty at weddings.

Bottom of the seventh, Blues down by four. CLACK. Jo Ann Kruger doubles, steals third, then takes off for home after Kem Patteson, 33, pops the ball up and Flames catcher Donna Middleton runs off the plate to catch it. Kruger slides into the plate in a cloud of dust. She picks herself up, walks toward the dugout, stops, presses one of her nostrils shut and shoots dust-snot out the other.

"I'm just tired and exhausted," she mutters, having brought the score to 11-8, where it will remain until the Flames end the inning, and the game, with a quick throw to first: THUMP.

The crowd, if there was one, would cheer.

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