By now just about every sports fan has heard of Randy Jones, the celebrated San Diego Padre sinkerball pitcher who had won 16 games by the All-Star break. His alma mater, Chapman College in Orange, Calif., is justly proud of him and his pitches that drop at home plate as if controlled by laser beams. But there is another pro pitcher out of Chapman who not only had 21 wins two weeks before an All-Star break but can make the ball drop, rise, turn left, turn right and quite possibly do the hustle on its journey to the plate. Her name is Joan Joyce and she is the premier pitcher, hitter, manager and owner of the Connecticut Falcons in the International Women's Professional Softball Association, a league she helped found along with Billie Jean King and Dennis Murphy, a founder of the American Basketball Association, World Hockey Association and World Team Tennis. Joyce is more than The Franchise, she is The League.
In its first season, the 10-team WPS, as the association calls itself, is struggling along in near-anonymity. With half of the 120-game season completed Joyce's Falcons, who play home games in Meriden, are 15� games ahead in the Eastern Division, followed by the Buffalo Breskis, Pennsylvania Liberties (Reading), Chicago Ravens and Michigan Travelers (East Detroit). In the Western Division the San Jose Sunbirds hold an 11-game lead. The competition consists of the Santa Ana ( Calif.) Lionettes, San Diego Sandpipers, Phoenix Phoenixbird and Southern California Gems ( San Bernardino).
Despite the fact that attendance has been averaging less than 1,400, which is about the number of autographs Randy Jones signs every time he pitches, WPS owners do have a few things going for them. Expenses have been held down by negotiating contracts for small, established ball parks. There is a ceiling on salaries (except for Joyce's). And, of course, there is Joyce herself. Last week she went West with her team to play San Jose for the first time and the games—back-to-back doubleheaders—drew more than 6,500 fans. The interest was understandable because the games probably previewed the WPS Championship Series to be held in September.
Although the league is new, there is a familiar look to it for devotees of women's Softball. Connecticut's stars, including Joyce, come mostly from the Raybestos Brakettes of Stratford, Conn., a team that won 12 Amateur Association championships in 18 seasons and eight of the last 10. San Jose's best pros were drawn mostly from the Santa Clara Laurels. The San Jose and Connecticut teams have placed 13 players on the squads for the WPS All-Star Game, scheduled for July 28 in San Jose.
The Sunbirds' home is Municipal Stadium, which they share with the Class A San Jose Bees. The Sunbirds and the city spent $60,000 to install an artificial-grass infield that can be shifted back and forth to accommodate both baseball and women's softball.
WPS has a rule that a pitcher cannot appear in consecutive games—otherwise Connecticut might never lose. Joyce has thrown 110 no-hitters and 35 perfect games in her 18-year career. Thanks to the rule, the Sunbirds and Falcons split the doubleheaders, Joyce winning both games she pitched, San Jose taking the other two.
The victories improved Joyce's record to 21-1 (the loss came on an unearned run) and ran her win streak to 12. She departed San Jose with more season strikeouts (279) than the entire Sunbird staff and has 17 shutouts.
Joyce, now 35, can perform Wonder Woman feats at bat, too. She has a .325 average, fifth best in the league. The story is told that, during a game against the Michigan Travelers in Meriden, she was being interviewed in the press box when she looked at the scoreboard and said, "Gee, is it the seventh already? We need a run." She went down to the field, put herself in to pinch-hit and smacked the first pitch for a homer.
The Sunbirds had a couple of classy pitchers of their own to show off during the series—fastballer Charlotte Graham (14-5, 0.93 ERA) and junk specialist Bonnie Johnson (13-4, 0.57 ERA). Graham, 29, throws with a violent motion. Her right knee bangs into the dirt with such impact that she is forced to wear a pad on it, and her left heel comes to a jarring stop in a deep hole she always carves in the mound. In women's softball the rubber is only 40 feet from the plate, and Graham takes such a long stride that it must seem to the batter that she is about to deliver an uppercut rather than the grapefruit-colored WPS softball.
Graham opened the series against the Falcons' Kathy Neal and allowed only two infield hits and a walk in a 2-0 victory. Even so, Graham said, " Connecticut looks like a team of giants. They're so big and powerful that you have to pitch a different game. I went to an awful lot of off-speeds to try to keep them off balance. There are nights you can't do that; a lot depends on the umpire. Some won't call a rise ball a strike no matter what. Tonight he was all right, probably because of Joan Joyce; the rise is her best strikeout pitch."