Hard and fast

It’s practice time for the Metro Detroit Renegades, and team captain and founder Shawn Olvera is digging through a bag, looking for a ball. To her surprise, she pulls out a softball. Olvera heaves it, in disgust, into the nearby woods.

Like her teammates, Olvera is through with being shunted to softball, a fate which commonly befalls women who want to get out on the field.

"I think slow-pitch was invented for people who wanted to play but weren’t totally serious," says Olvera. "I don’t like the shortened bases, the bigger ball. I want the real thing."

The Renegades come from all over the metro area and beyond to play on the brand-new team, part of the Michigan Women’s Baseball League and the Great Lakes Women’s Baseball League. They range in age from 19 to 36 and they all have day jobs; they’re students and moms and they work in air-conditioned offices when they’re not on the diamond pursuing the real thing.

Their manager is Barbaro Garbey, who played on the 1984 Tigers’ World Series championship team. I ask Garbey why he’s interested in helping women baseball players. He’s not interested in women baseball players, Garbey corrects me.

"I just like this team, I like these girls. I believe they want to play the game just for the love of the game, the way it’s supposed to be played."

Garbey explains women’s baseball is the same game as men’s, "only at a slower pace." He says the pitchers’ fastballs don’t exceed 50 mph. Jim Glennie, a former catcher who founded the Michigan Women’s Baseball League in 1992, disagrees, estimating the women’s pitches at 65 mph to 70 mph, compared to men in recreational leagues who throw in the high 70s (and often well over 90 mph in the pros).

In a way, the differences are less about gender and more about the techniques used in the game. Lupe Carrillo, 33, who grew up on Detroit’s southwest side playing "strikeout," held down third base for five years for the Blues, perennial champions of the co-ed People’s (softball) League. Now, playing baseball, she’s finding that new skills are required.

"I was used to swinging coming under and waiting for the ball and keeping the shoulder down," she says. "(Garbey) taught me how to stand and where to hit the ball. He goes, ‘What are you looking at the left for? Keep your eye on the ball.’"

"In softball you have to drop the back shoulder in order to have a good swing," Garbey explains. "You drop the back shoulder and move your hip before you move your head. In baseball it’s the opposite way."

Girls get game

To a woman, the Renegades have had to battle the notion that "girls play softball, not baseball."

Kris Raniszewski, a pitcher from Newport (near Monroe), played softball for the University of Detroit and wanted to try out for the men’s baseball team; the coach turned her down without a reason. This was in 1986, not the Dark Ages.

Becki Fierens, a 20-year-old psychology major at U-M, says she was "mad at the whole organized sports system for a while." She wanted to try out for the Johannesburg-Lewiston High School baseball team up North, but "they said that softball was a fair substitute so I couldn’t play baseball."

She boycotted the softball team for two years, just playing with male friends in games not sanctioned by the school.

Girls are allowed to play on Little League teams until they’re 12, though not many do. Nineteen-year-old Heather Engel of Jackson was an ace at stealing and an all-star Little Leaguer. There were only two other girls in the whole division, and Engel was the only one in the infield.

"I got made fun of quite a lot," she says. "I remember once when I was at bat one of my ex-boyfriends was catching, and he said, ‘Come on, guys, move it in,’ and the infield moved in. You know, ‘Easy out,’ those kind of calls. I got really mad and I swung the bat as hard as I could and I hit a home run. And on the throw-in, he was standing on the base. He was in my way, so I mowed him over."

Engel refused to play softball in high school. "I wouldn’t settle for the generic brand," she says. "I vowed to myself that I was coming back to baseball and I would never settle for softball, ever. Back then, of course, I was young, and I had no idea that I would actually be back. But here I am."

The Renegades hit it home on their Web site, where the first words are: "This is baseball, not softball!"

Bitterness is not the reigning emotion on the field, however; it’s sheer joy at doing what they like best. I remark to second base player Marie Civiello, the team’s oldest member, that there’s no summer sound that compares with the thunk of a ball hitting the glove. "Especially at the end of a double play," Civiello agrees.

Dreams of the field

The Renegades are a dream come true for many of the players, some of whom played on Lansing teams, some of whom found the team through the Internet. Engel says she came across the Renegades while looking up the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (subject of the 1992 Geena Davis-Tom Hanks movie A League of Their Own) "because I wanted to believe that women’s baseball didn’t stop in 1954."

Lefty pitcher and outfielder Debra Redding has actually lived her dream already. In 1998 she quit her job of 10 years and played full-time for the Nighthawks, a professional women’s baseball team in Buffalo. The Nighthawks were part of a bicoastal six-team league that went belly-up three months into the season.

"It was like living my dream because I got the feel of what it was like to just play baseball," says Redding. "We had a couple of clubbies that did our laundry and shined our shoes and got food for us. It was the whole spread. I felt like a pro.

"A lot of people don’t have the opportunity to live in something that they’ve dreamed to do, and I became much more comfortable and relaxed with other things in my life because I had accomplished that."

The rest of the team still chases those dreams. Southpaw Kris Raniszewski, for example, began the season shortly after finishing chemotherapy for breast cancer, following surgery to remove her left lymph nodes. "I don’t want to let the team down, because we only have three pitchers," she says, "and one girl drives up from Kentucky."

See the Renegades vs. the Lansing Sharks on Saturday, July 15, at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. at Henry Ford Field, Livonia. For information call 734-699-7040.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

Jane Slaughter

Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Monthly Review, and In These Times.
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