Women in a league all their own

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Women in a league all their own

A 0-53 loss doesn’t happen very often in professional sports. In baseball, it seems next to impossible.
But that was the score on July 21 by the time Bimylie, Korea’s only women’s baseball team, was finished playing a Japanese team in Uozu, in Japan’s Toyama prefecture.
The Korean women barely touched a base. The game was finally called in the fifth inning. Korean players collapsed on the ground and burst into tears.
But the outcome of this game, if not the exact score, was determined before it started. Bimylie was making its professional debut on that hot, damp afternoon. And this wasn’t just any game ― it was a game in the 4th Women’s World Series, involving the national teams from the United States, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan and India, as well as Japan.
Japan alone has more than 100 women’s baseball teams; in the United States and Canada, efforts are being made to launch professional leagues. At this level of competition, Bimylie’s goal was to finish nine innings without the game being called. But even that goal turned out to be too ambitious.
As her team was crushed, coach An Hyang-mi, 23 ― the one and only professional women’s baseball player Korea has ever produced ― watched with a bitter smile.
To coach Bimylie in the World Series, Ms. An had to give up her slot on a Japanese semi-pro team, the Dream Wings. She couldn’t be both a player on a Japanese team and the coach of a Korean one. She didn’t hesitate in making her choice, even though she knew full well that Bimylie would lose, and that she wouldn’t have a team to play for afterwards.
“I have no regrets,” Ms. An said weeks later. “I made a promise to my players that I’d somehow find them a chance to play a pro game, and I’m happy that I kept it.
“This World Series was the first time for us to play a pro game, and we learned a lot. That’s enough.”

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Bimylie members gathered for their weekly practice in a corner of a field at Duksoo Information Industry High School in Seoul, Ms. An’s alma mater.
The infield was taken up by male amateur baseball players, dressed in snappy uniforms, complete with steel hats. Bimylie was restricted to a far corner of the field. Fewer than half of the members were in uniform.
When the women finally got a chance to take the infield, the male players began teasing them, sarcastically shouting “Way to go!” The women, however, remained calm.
“I’m just happy that I’ll be able to hit a ball like a pro,” said the team’s best slugger, Lee Min-jeong, 23.
The jeers were soon overwhelmed when Ms. Lee sent a ball flying high. Watching it soar, she cried, “Did I really make that hit?” But a moment later, she turned pale. The ball hit outfielder Choi Young-sook in the mouth, breaking her teeth. Blood coming out of her mouth, Ms. Choi smiled and said, “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. Just get back to your positions, gals.”
“Everyone of the team is just so used to this kind of injury,” Ms. An explained. “It’s nothing; you get treated fast at a hospital.”
Ms. An started Bimylie ― short for “Baseball is my life” ― in March of this year. Prior to the World Series, the only games they’d played had been friendly games against amateur men’s teams. In Japan, they had 15 players.
But at this Sunday practice a couple weeks later, there were more than 30 newcomers, in addition to the 15 who’d been to Japan. Word about Bimylie had spread since their shut-out at the World Series, with short notices about the team appearing in Korean newspapers.
Apparently, there were other women out there who wanted to play baseball.
Some had never played before. Choi Young-sook, a baseball fan who’d longed to be on the field rather than sitting in the stadium, had tracked down Ms. An by typing the words “baseball” and “women” into a search engine.
Lee Yu-yeong was an aspiring athlete in college, playing basketball and softball, but she never pursued a career in sports. Many of the other women had developed an interest in baseball while playing softball in informal neighborhood clubs, which women aren’t discouraged from joining.
Most of the team members can only practice on Sundays. The lead-off batter, Kang Hyo-rim, 23, is your typical office worker during the week; few of her colleagues know about her dream to be a pro baseball player.
“I used to love watching pro baseball games. Since I got to actually play, just watching a game is never enough,” Ms. Kang says.
Another batter, Woo Mi-ja, 32, who works for a power company, found her softball team to be the only joy in her life, before she discovered Bimylie.
“I know I’m kind of too old to play baseball, but somehow my Sunday practice has become my one and only stress reliever,” Ms. Woo says.
Kim Hye-jeong, 24, lives in Busan and takes the bullet train to Seoul every Saturday for Sunday practice; this costs her 400,000 won ($330) a month.
“I just like playing baseball, that’s it,” Ms. Kim says, putting her glove on.
They have no shortage of enthusiasm. But it’s not a lineup that’s going to send shockwaves through the Women’s World Series anytime soon.
“You can compare it to an under-age-10 Little League team in the United States,” Ms. An said during a break in Sunday’s four-hour practice session. “We have a long, long way to go.”

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Ms. An’s favorite film is “A League of Their Own,” with Geena Davis and Madonna as players in a fledgling U.S. women’s baseball league in the 1940s. In Korea, Ms. An ― and, now, her team ― essentially is women’s baseball.
In 1996, she became the first (and, so far, only) girl to play high school baseball in Korea. She pitched four times; her maximum pitching speed was 110 kilometers (68 miles) per hour.
“When you stand on the mound, the world around you gets all blurry,” Ms. An says with a faraway look.
For her to play high school baseball, Ms. An and her father, An Hwa-seong, had to struggle against the Korea Baseball Association and the government. High school players have to register ― the system is designed to help pave the careers of future pro players ― and since there were no professional women players, there were no provisions for a girl to register.
“Only men, theoretically, can be pro baseball players here,” says Mr. An, now 50. To help his only daughter realize her dream, Mr. An successfully fought to get the rules changed. Mr. An attends Bimylie’s practice every Sunday, to do chores for the team.
After high school, however, Ms. An found it impossible to play college baseball. So she tried her luck with pro teams in Korea ― again, to no avail.
Then she seemed to have a breakthrough. Steve Kim, the U.S. major leaguer Park Chan-ho’s agent, called her from the United States and showed interest in getting her to play women’s baseball there. But she was unable to get a U.S. visa.
Still she didn’t give in. She heard about a church with an amateur baseball team that welcomed all players, regardless of gender. She started attending the church, even though she was from a Buddhist family.
Once on the church team, a friendly match with a Japanese church led to a connection with the Dream Wings, the Japanese semi-pro team. And then she gave up the Dream Wings for Bymilie.
She says the team is “everything” to her. And yet its future is unclear at best. For one thing, when you’re a country’s only team in a particular sport, who do you play against?
They’d like to be in the World Series again next year. In the meantime, they have no games scheduled. But Ms. An says they’ll be practicing Sunday, rain or shine.
“I’m playing baseball not because I love it,” Ms. Ahn says. “There are times I feel baseball is too consuming.
“But I can’t help playing it. I simply don’t know what to do other than baseball. That’s what I am.”

by Chun Su-jin
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