The Girl of Summer

How did Tina Nichols become the first woman to play in the South Florida Baseball League? Simple: She's good.

"It all just came natural," she says of her abilities on the mound and at the plate. "I just took to it. I love it. I can be driving home from work or something and if I see some kids playing baseball I'll stop and watch the game. I'll start analyzing all the plays, critiquing the whole game. I'm obsessed. I've always been obsessed with this game."

Tina Nichols has devoted much of her life to a man's game. She has nursed her obsession with baseball, pored over it and studied it, working to perfect it. The road leading to that lofty place of perfection has been full of pitfalls and potholes, the journey arduous to say the least. For Nichols, learning the game was easy; playing it has been anything but.

"Believe me," Nichols says forcefully, "I've seen it all." She can reel off a litany of unpleasantries that occur when a woman enters a domain populated and presided over by men: insults and bad attitudes from fellow players, coaches who only begrudgingly put her in the game, and the jealousy of wives and girlfriends who would prefer that their husbands and boyfriends not spend their Sundays with a well-toned blond possessed of a wicked curve and a good eye at the plate.

Whatever the situation, it's never just a matter of playing ball. "Some guys are cool with it, but others say they ain't gonna play on a team with no girl. One time, I struck out a guy and he turned around and started arguing the call with the umpire. It was a beautiful strike, right down the middle, you know? There was no doubt it was a strike. But he turned around and complained, and it went from the umpire to the dugout and it started a fistfight. Meanwhile, I'm standing there on the mound, knowing it all started because he got struck out by a girl.

"There was one team, Key West Coca-Cola," she continues. "Those guys did not like me. They did not want me out there. I was playing first base and I was stretching to catch the ball and the guy running to first ran into me on purpose, sent me flying off my feet. He never said anything, never apologized. And once we were playing a game against the coaches, and the Coca-Cola coach line-drived to me on the mound. The ball hit my inner thigh and I just went to my knees. My leg turned black and blue from my knee to my inner thigh. The guy never said 'Are you all right? You okay?' Nothing. It was like I deserved it because I was a girl out there pitching."

Jeff Herman has played in the South Florida Baseball League for the last five years. The designated hitter for the Broward Cardinals -- a basket and china manufacturer during the week -- claims to be the only player in the league to have gone two-for-three against Nichols, including two doubles. He speaks of the Marlins' controversial pitcher with admiration and respect -- a respect he says Nichols has earned from most players in the league. "She does as well out there as any guy," Herman states. "I think she's proven herself. She's a good hitter and she's got good movement on the ball. A lot of guys get up there and try to kill her, but they usually hit ground balls or pop-ups. And she hustles out there and runs out every hit, and that's what the game's all about."

Of course, not everyone shares Herman's open-minded philosophy about the blurring of gender lines on the diamond, and the friction between the girl and the guys isn't always generated by the opposing team. Early in her days as a Broward Marlin, the coach pulled one of the team's ace hitters out of the lineup to let her hit. (This being a recreational league, everyone gets to play.) The team had been down by a few runs, but Nichols got a hit that started a rally, much to the chagrin of the yanked hitter, who sat in the dugout nursing a seriously bruised ego. "It would've been bad enough if I had gotten up there and struck out," Nichols says. "But I'm a woman and because I was doing well and started something in the game, he was really pissed. He had a real attitude. None of it would've mattered if I was a guy, but because it was a girl ..."

Things with the Marlins are better these days. Among her teammates, Nichols appears to be just another player -- very much one of the guys but with no one forgetting that she's not just one of the guys. She seems closest to her two catchers, Jim Dailey and Bobby Heath, both incorrigible wiseasses and ballplayers who clearly love the game and spend a lot of their spare time honing their skills. The camaraderie among the three is tangible and easily apparent, both on field and off. Whether hooking down postgame drinks at Shenanigan's, a Fort Lauderdale sports bar, or smacking balls at the batting cages at Grand Prix Race-A-Rama, there is a mutual respect and admiration among the trio.

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