The Girl of Summer

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).