By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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"We hit it off real well," says Heath, a plumbing engineer at the Miami Heart Institute with a long history in sports, from high school and college football to a stint with the Junior Olympics baseball team. "She's a ballplayer, and ballplayers tend to stick together. She jokes around and gives out a hard time just like everybody else." Heath admits, however, that he was skeptical when he first caught her last season. "The way I felt, if she wanted to play and she could play, more power to her. But to tell you the truth, she really surprised me. She's got good control and she's a very determined player. She's a real competitor and takes the game to heart. She's out there to play."
Nichols says her recent seasons with the Marlins have been the best since she joined the league in 1994. She arrived somewhat reluctantly, signing up with the Broward Dodgers only after a women's league she organized a few years before belly-upped. "I wasn't trying to prove anything by playing with men. I just wanted to play baseball," she says. "I called up the owner of the league and asked if I could play. He said sure, if I was good enough. And I was good enough. The Dodgers needed a pitcher so they sent me there. But the Dodgers were very chauvinistic. I had to push just to get my turn on the mound. They just didn't like playing me, and when my turn on the mound came, they'd play me out there as little as possible."
She left the Dodgers after two seasons, deciding that -- for a challenge -- she wanted to play on the worst team in the league. Enter the Marlins, who were 1-11 the season before Nichols joined. "They're great guys," Nichols exclaims. "I think we used to be known as the team with the girl on it, but now we're known as the Broward Marlins. I think I've proven myself."
Like any athlete, Tina Nichols is well acquainted with disappointment, failure, and loss; though she's impressive at the plate (she's batting .500 this season with an on-base percentage of .580, both team highs) and on the mound (she gives up few hits and even fewer walks), Nichols is no stranger to bad days. When she took the mound for this season's first game against the Miami Red Sox, she was still reeling from a cold that kept her awake most of the previous night, dizzy and achy, stopped-up and coughing, throat sore and ragged. It showed in her performance: The Marlins lost 2-1, with Nichols coming out after giving up five hits in six innings and one earned run. ("I was seeing two hitters out there," she commented after the game.) Still, she handles defeat well, drawing from a history of struggle, perseverance, and determination -- the traits that have helped carry her up through the amateur ranks of this man's sport. "I've never thought I'm any different," she asserts. "I've always thought I should be out there -- that it is the natural thing for me to do." And win or lose, Nichols knows there will always be another game.
Only once has she conceded defeat -- three failed attempts from 1993 to 1995 to make the Colorado Silver Bullets, a women's baseball team sponsored by Coors Brewing Company that travels across the country each season to square off against men's pro and semipro teams. Three years after the first tryout in Orlando, Nichols's wounds are still healing. "The only time I've ever been discouraged was with the Silver Bullets," she admits. "It's always been my dream to play professional baseball. That was my shot and I didn't make the team. I know I would've been happier if I had made it. It's a sore spot for me still."
It wasn't her numbers, Nichols asserts, that kept her from making the cut. Both her batting and earned-run averages were as good as any other candidate's. It was politics, she says, plain and simple. "There's a roster of 24 girls on the team, and most of them have fathers or brothers or uncles or know someone who is or was a major-league player. It's just who you know."
And, she asserts even more strongly, what you look like. "I didn't fit the mold, I didn't fit the image," she says, the words coming fast, the agitation and irritation fresh once again. "The first thing you think of when you think of a female baseball player is this big Godzilla-looking woman. The Silver Bullets are basically a team of ugly, dykey-looking women, and that's not me. I'm not your typical female baseball player. I'm out on the field prancing around with my long blond hair and painted fingernails and I guess [Silver Bullets coach and ex-Atlanta Braves pitcher] Phil Niekro didn't think I could play baseball because of that."
Not true, says Bruce Crabbe, the Silver Bullets' infield coach and director of player development. He says players are selected solely for their abilities on the field. "We look for the best possible players, that is the A-number-one priority," says Crabbe, a former University of Miami baseball player and ex-big leaguer, having played nine years of pro ball in Chicago (with the Cubs), Atlanta, and Toronto. "Looks or anything else is not a factor. There is no such thing as an inside track to making the Silver Bullets." Crabbe adds he can't comment on Nichols's performance because of the sheer number of candidates the Silver Bullets staff considers at each tryout (anywhere between 25 and 125, by his estimate). He does say good players can be overlooked: "It's tough. We're not perfect. And with so many girls out there, we can only try to look for the best overall performance on the field."