Whatever happens to their league in the months and years to come, whichever of their far-reaching dreams are realized or dashed, the organizers of Women's Professional Fastpitch (WPF) softball will always recall opening night in Durham, a balmy and breezeless evening when all was as right as a perfect game. There was the overflow crowd at 2,006-seat Durham Athletic Park, the gaggles of glove-clutching girls, the letter of good wishes from President Clinton and the tautly played soft-ball that kept onlookers riveted to the end. "It's a great night for women," said Virginia Roadsters coach Lynn O'Linski after her team beat the Durham Dragons 2-1 with a run in the seventh inning. "We're proud to represent the multitude of women who have waited so long for this."
Though the last attempt at a women's pro fast pitch league sputtered to an end in 1979, after four desultory seasons, nothing could dampen the headiness of this night. The WPF has a $3 million sponsorship deal with AT&T and ESPN2 will televise six games. As the league opened its inaugural season—the Dragons, Roadsters, Carolina Diamondbacks, Georgia Pride, Orlando Wahoos and Tampa Bay Fire Stix will each play 72 games—those involved felt they held the future of more than softball in their hands. "The responsibility is overwhelming," said WPF president Mitzi Swentzell, watching the Dragons stretch before the game. "You start realizing the social significance the league could have if we succeed."
The impact was already manifest in the bleachers of Durham Athletic Park, where members of a 16-and-under Raleigh rec-league girls' softball team sat in uniform gazing intently at the pregame action. "All they talk about is someday playing here," said their coach, Pat Wright. One player on the team, a high school dropout, learned that 90% of WPF's players are college graduates and that the rest are on their way to earning degrees. She immediately vowed to get a high school equivalency diploma. "The league," Wright explained, "has given her hope."
Hope—and reverence—were evident among the scores of children who pressed shyly against a chain-link, field-side fence after the game for the chance to talk to and get the autographs of their new heroes. Others in the dispersing crowd were simply excited by the good ball game. From the moment hard-throwing Dragons starter Carla Brookbank rallied from a 3-0 count to retire leadoff batter Priscilla Welch on a popup, the fans roared long and loud. They cheered madly in the third, when Durham's Julie Sexton slid in headfirst with a triple, and stood en masse in the fifth, when the Dragons' Toni Rieke completed a catcher-to-first-to-catcher double play to foil Virginia's attempt to bunt home a run. Despite Durham's last-inning loss, the fans, who had paid $4.50 to $6.50 a seat, behaved as if they had gotten their money's worth. "If they come to see the game once," said Roadsters third baseman Michelle Carlson-Neveling, "we're going to make sure they want to come again."
The players, the best among those not on or vying for spots on the U.S. national squad—which doesn't accept pros—earn an average of $1,600 a month. Some were selected in WPF's 10-round draft, others were recruited independently and still others, like Dragons third baseman Bobbie Paull, who is known as Taz for the Tasmanian devil-like dust clouds she raises with her hell-bent defensive dives, made it through one of the league's open tryouts. "I was in awe at the tryout," said Paull. "It's still hard to believe I'm here."
The Durham opener was women's night at the ballpark in every sense, and one woman set the tone when she fell from the sky. Army paratrooper Shauna Dorsett brought in the game balls by pararchute. Her mark was near second base. She hit it perfectly.