The Girl of Summer

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

The Sunday sun is brutal and scorching, bathing the manicured diamond at Fort Lauderdale High School in a high-beam glare. Surely, though, none of the ten players on the field this morning is as hot as the one at the plate, a batter for the Broward White Sox facing the pitcher of the Broward Marlins, both among the 24 teams in the men's South Florida Baseball League. He's just taken two pitches for strikes -- a fastball for the first, and, for the second, a spectacular knuckleball that fluttered across the plate like un papillon, a butterfly, as baseball announcers in Montreal refer to the virtually unhittable pitch. After the knuckler, the Sox batter steps out of the box for a few seconds and gets a verbal roasting. The jeers aren't coming from the stands -- there are only three people sweltering in the unshaded concrete bleachers behind the plate -- it's his teammates who are hurling the jokes and insults, in Spanish, from the dugout. The player smiles dimly, sheepishly, and steps back into the box, his smile turning into a determined grimace as he faces the pitcher. Then, like that, he's out. Before he even saw it coming, a curveball ripped across the plate. Belt high. Strike three. Take a seat.

The batter crosses the plate and heads back to the dugout, into the fiery maw of more insults and ridicule. It's an unwritten rule among players to let a disgraced batter grab the bench in peace, a moment of silence as it were, the better perhaps to find that remaining shred of dignity after staring blankly at one too many strikes. Today, though, is different. Those weren't just ordinary strikes. The disgraced Sox batter didn't just strike out. He was struck out by a girl.

It's a man's world, this South Florida Baseball League, composed of part-time softballers and energetic amateurs, ex-pros from the majors and minors, and guys who played a little ball in college or high school. But assuming a space in this testosterone-fueled kingdom of 599 men is Tina Nichols, pitching ace for the Broward Marlins and a ballplayer for most of her 32 years. A pitcher of considerable finesse and a batter of enviable power, Nichols -- who wears #44 in erroneous tribute to Jackie "#42" Robinson -- is the first and only woman in Florida to play men's baseball.

And that's baseball, mind you. Not softball, a game Nichols regards with unfettered disdain. "It sounds weird, I know, but softball is for girls," says the Key West native, a blond-haired, blue-green-eyed furniture sales representative who lives with two cats in a North Miami Beach apartment. She's telling her tale from a captain's chair in the bar of Doria's Pier 5 Italian Seafood Restaurant, a Hallandale eatery and favored haunt of Nichols, where the maitre d' dotes on her with fatherly care and where the house keyboardist writes songs for her. She's wearing a snug, multicolored top and a tight black skirt, her long, stockinged legs crossed, and gold earrings catching what little light there is in the snug lounge. "It's a sissy game," she continues, sipping at a vodka and grapefruit juice. "I remember I went out for the high school baseball team and they wouldn't let me play because I was a girl. The only other place to go was softball, and I refused to play softball. So at that point, baseball ended for me."

Temporarily, of course, as Nichols's scrapbook attests. Thick as a big-city phone book, treasured by its owner like a Mickey Mantle rookie card, the scrapbook offers a chronicle of Nichols's sporting life told in newspaper headlines and photographs, box scores and awards. Beginning at age nine, Nichols in middle, Pony, and Little Leagues -- on boys' and girls' teams -- as a pitcher mostly, but also as a first baseman. Tall, gangly, with her long hair pulled into a ponytail, the young Nichols towers over her teammates in the group photos. Other clips from local newspapers and national publications such as USA Today document her stints with various teams in an assortment of women's baseball leagues (one of which she formed); her role in an old-timers game with greats such as Pedro Ramos; and her ill-fated tryouts with the Colorado Silver Bullets, a female quasi-professional baseball team.

"There's just something about me and baseball," says Nichols, who also logged time in high school and college as a tennis player of some note. "It was always something I wanted to do. When all the little girls were interested in boys and dolls, I wanted to go out in the street and play baseball and football with the boys." The sister of two brothers she describes as "unathletic" and daughter of a father with little interest in sports, Nichols discovered baseball on her own by watching games on television. She's never had a pitching lesson, and though at the plate she can crush the hell out of the ball, she's had only two batting lessons (albeit with the instruction coming from Charlie Lau, Jr., son of the former batting coach for the Chicago White Sox and the Kansas City Royals).

"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.

"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."

Whatever the case, the Silver Bullets debacle bold-printed an axiom that Nichols claims has dogged her through her baseball career: not man enough for the women, too much a woman for the men. On a damp Wednesday night at Grand Prix, between turns in the batting cages with Heath, Dailey, and a couple of other teammates, Nichols complains that she can't make herself shop for clothes, saying she is "the only girl in South Florida who doesn't live for shopping, who doesn't live at the mall." As for male suitors, she refers to potential boyfriends as "wanna-be's," most of whom aren't quite sure what to make of an attractive woman who can throw a nearly 80-mile-per-hour fastball and drive an equally fast pitch to the nether regions of centerfield. Mostly, she goes out with friends, having after-game drinks at Shenanigan's, eating stone crabs at Joe's, and sampling the myriad sporting diversions at Dave & Buster's, an entertainment megaplex in Hollywood.

In her remaining spare time, Nichols has been working for the last year with her friend Marvin Friedman on a screenplay: Diamond Girl, a semi-autobiographical tale in which a female baseball player named Tina becomes the first woman to play major-league baseball, in this case, for the Florida Marlins. The screenplay was finished in August, and a song was written for the film by Doria's Pier 5 keyboardist/vocalist Ed Slater titled "Major League Girl." Nichols and Friedman plan on shopping the script to studios such as Warner Bros., King World, and Disney. She's also hoping to get the screenplay into the hands of Hollywood producer Warren G. Stitt, who was at the helm of The Spitfire Grill, a recent favorite of Nichols.

"I just sat down and started writing," she says of the endeavor, which chronicles some of Nichols's real-life baseball struggles. "I had never written anything before in my life. I didn't know where to start so I bought a notebook and wrote 'The scene is Key West ...' and just put it all down." She envisions the film as one for the family, but also one that could provide motivation and inspiration for anyone interested in toppling tradition and rewriting rules to fit their own desires.

"I see the appeal of this being for little boys, little girls, anyone who's interested in baseball, anyone who wants to do something people say they can't. I know when I was growing up there was never anything like this for me. As a female athlete, I would go to the theater and get really motivated by movies like Rocky or Bull Durham and The Natural. But they're all male-oriented movies. Except for real feminine ones like Ice Castles, there's never been a movie for a female athlete. You have A League of Their Own, but that's a true story. I think Diamond Girl can do something different. When little girls see me play, they ask me all the questions about how I do it, was it hard. I think this could show them they can do it too.

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