I could give you some lessons if you want," said Kelly Roby with a devilish smile. The Gators' catcher, Donna Keferlis, had just let a pitch get past her to the backstop, and Roby, 22, a smear of black under each eye and wearing catcher's gear as she watched her team take its cuts, couldn't resist sticking in the needle.
Keferlis, also 22, turned toward Roby and glared—which prompted Roby to spin around at her post behind the batting cage and burst out laughing.
So went the June 5 season-opening doubleheader of the six-year-old, suburban Chicago-based American Women's Baseball Association (AWBA), the nation's only hardball league for women. These folks are very serious about playing baseball instead of Softball. But that doesn't mean they take themselves too seriously. The ambience at AWBA games—held during the summer on Saturday mornings at Dee Park, near Glenview, Ill., most weeks, with games at 9 and 11:30—is refreshingly cordial.
"Everybody's really friendly," says Judi Kahn, 36, the Gator third baseman and the AWBA's president. "It's like one big family, and we all share this dream."
Kahn, a lawyer, has presided over league business from her apartment near Wrigley Field since founder Darlene Mehrer died of cancer in January 1990. Mehrer launched a two-team AWBA (which grew to include four teams) in Glenview in 1988, inspired by her participation in a fantasy baseball camp run by former Cub catcher Randy Hundley.
Since then, the home branch of the AWBA has been scaled back to three teams—the Gators, the Daredevils and last year's champions, the Knights—while Kahn and the five-member AWBA board of directors have gone about publicizing and refining the original league, seeking corporate sponsorship (without luck, so far) and granting AWBA affiliation to newly launched sister chapters in Miami and Lansing, Mich.
How good are these women? At their best, many are pretty good. Line drives leap from aluminum bats with solid pings, fastballs speed into catchers' gloves with impressive smacks, and pitchers serve up both curveballs and sliders. Fielding is more problematic, the same sort of adventure it tends to be at Little League games. Base runners stole at will in the opener between the Gators and the Daredevils, and a dropped easy pop-up to second was followed within minutes by back-to-back dropped third strikes.
Some of the players, though, are remarkably good. Take Rochelle Maly and Sharon Ephraim, for example. Maly, 25; a high school math teacher, had the league's best batting and earned run averages last year (.500 and 2.48, respectively) in leading the Knights to a 9-1 first-place finish. A former softball star at St. Xavier University in Chicago, Maly was recruited by Kahn at the tryouts for the movie A League of Their Own and has since recruited half a dozen of her former college teammates to join her in the AWBA.
Ephraim, 30, who plays for the Daredevils and was the runner-up to Maly in hitting last year, with a .484 average, helped organize a women's fast-pitch softball team as an undergraduate at Connecticut College, earned an MBA at the University of Chicago and stayed in town after school to work for Continental Bank. She continued playing softball in summer leagues, but what she really wanted to play was baseball. "Fast-pitch softball is great," says Ephraim, "but ever since I was a kid, I've been watching baseball. It's fun to put into play what you watch all the time."
Kahn believes that next year the Chicago league will split into competitive and recreational divisions. Boosting the competitiveness of the league is crucial to attracting endorsement money, but everyone agrees that it has to be balanced with the league's original intention.
"There isn't one person in the league who doesn't want it to succeed," says Kahn. "In order for the league to go forward, we need to develop the competitive play. At the same time, it's become a little too competitive for some of the girls, and that's not right, either. The league is supposed to be for all women."
"The point of this league," says Ephraim, "is for women to be able to play baseball."
Bill Beuttler is a Chicago-based free-lance writer. This is his first story for Sports Illustrated.