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Local author, firefighter was a baseball trailblazer
Borders, who now resides in Beaverton, was the first female pitcher to start a game for a men's professional baseball team since the end of racial segregation in the sport, and she was the first to be credited with a win. After debuting with the St. Paul Saints the previous year, she went on to pitch for teams in Duluth, Minn., Madison, Wis., and St. George, Utah, before retiring from the sport in 2000.
If you're not a diehard baseball fan or from Minnesota's Twin Cities, you probably haven't heard of the St. Paul Saints. The team is now a member of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball; back when Borders played, it was in the now-defunct Northern League.
Independent leagues like the ones in which Borders played are considered to be professional baseball organizations, even though they are not affiliated with Major League Baseball. They have a lower level of play than the major leagues — Borders said the American Association is roughly comparable to Double-A baseball — but it's far from unheard of for players to make their way from "indie ball," as it's often called, to the MLB. All-Star reliever Brandon Kintzler of the Washington Nationals, for example, used to play in both the Northern League and the American Association, including for the self-same Saints with which Borders debuted. One of Borders' 1997 teammates in St. Paul was J.D. Drew, who went on to hit 242 home runs in the major leagues during a 14-year career.
'I just loved the competition'
"My dream was to play in the major leagues," said Borders, describing herself as practically having been "born on a field." Influenced by her father, who played in the minor leagues, she grew up in Southern California playing baseball, competing with and against mostly boys.
Girls who play baseball are generally pushed to start playing softball, almost certainly in college if not in high school or earlier. Although the rules of softball are very similar to baseball, the pitching style is completely different — the ball is thrown underhand, whereas nearly all baseball pitchers throw either overhand or sidearm — and Borders said she simply never took to it.
"Baseball, I just loved the competition," she said. "I liked the pitching. I didn't like softball. I didn't want to throw the ball underhand."
Borders is from the same city in California, La Mirada, as former fast-pitch softball star Jennie Finch.
She said, "She's an amazing lady, and softball was her thing, and if people want to go into that, that's fantastic. But I really wish (MLB) would do something for women's baseball. … You know how many emails I get — I get at least one a day from girls that are just like, 'They won't let me play college. That's all I want to do is play baseball. I'm getting pushed into softball.' And it breaks my heart, you know, that they're being forced to go play something when they just want to play baseball."
Borders was lucky, she said, as she ended up finding a school that would give her a scholarship to play baseball: Southern California College, now Vanguard University, in Costa Mesa, Calif. While she was never drafted by a major league team, she drew the attention of Mike Veeck, owner of the Saints. Veeck had a pedigree as someone willing to take risks and challenge conventions; his father Bill was famous — or in some crustier, more conservative circles, infamous — for his publicity stunts and progressive attitude toward racial integration as the owner of several baseball teams in the mid-20th century. He decided to sign Borders to a contract, and her professional career began.
Bringing it, one game at a time
Very little is given in baseball, and most everything is earned. Though she was a starting pitcher in college, the left-handed Borders found herself frequently coming out of the bullpen to pitch to a single left-handed batter as the extent of her contribution.
"It's kind of like that no matter where you go. You kind of have to earn your way," Borders said. "The first year, it was just about surviving. Being in the system, surviving. Your next year, you're starting to thrive, you understand the system, getting those chances. Third year, you're in a groove."
Gradually, and as she moved from team to team — not at all uncommon for a player in the world of independent baseball — Borders moved into a more prominent setup role, and then in her second professional year, to starting. She earned her first win on July 24, 1998, for the Duluth-Superior Dukes.
Borders' fastball topped out around 83 mph, she said — quite slow by major league standards, although not far below average in the league in which she played, especially for a left-handed pitcher. Her effectiveness as a pitcher depended on two breaking balls in her arsenal: a curveball she describes as "pretty decent," and a screwball, a rarity in today's professional game.
"That's what put me over the edge in professional baseball, was that screwball," Borders said. "You want the ball to be able to go in, then you have to have a ball going away. … You just want the ball to be able to go both ways and change speeds."
In the FOX television baseball drama "Pitch," the female protagonist throws a screwball, like Borders, to compensate for her below-average velocity. The show followed her rookie season from the time she is promoted to the San Diego Padres and becomes the first woman to play in the major leagues. (Borders said she never watched the show, which was canceled in May, although she's heard the comparisons to her own career.)
Unlike the fictional Ginny Baker, Borders herself never made it to the major leagues. In fact, she said, a major league team flirted with the idea of inviting her to spring training in 2000, but when they decided not to, it sent her into a funk, and her performance that year suffered.
"I just let my head get to me, because I was disappointed," Borders said.
A new career, and a new perspective
Borders retired from baseball in the middle of the 2000 season. Since then, the Southern California native has bounced around the country, becoming a firefighter and paramedic and eventually relocating to Oregon. She now works for the Cornelius Fire Department.
"I asked myself, 'What am I good at, and what do I want for a career?'" she said. "I love people. I love helping people. Pretty athletic. I like things different. I need to be challenged. I like to be part of a team but work independently."
But Borders hasn't been able to break the spell that baseball has on her. She recently visited her old stomping grounds in St. Paul and Duluth, where her old teams gave away Ila Borders bobbleheads to their home faithful and she threw out the first pitch. This week, she is in Washington, D.C., as a coach for the USA Baseball Women's National Team — a new experience for her, she said.
"I've never played with women before, ever," said Borders last week.
"It would be really nice to get MLB on board," she said. "But it's just not happening quite yet."
Borders actually works part-time as an MLB scout, she said, and she is appreciative of the organization's efforts to promote equity and inclusivity and create more opportunities for women, including in executive and coaching positions. But she thinks it will take a truly special talent to break the gender barrier in the major leagues for the first time.
"It's going to take, I hate to say this, like a Serena Williams," said Borders, invoking the 39-time majors champion — most of them singles' titles — with the 120-plus-mph serve, explosive groundstrokes and primal scream who has transformed women's tennis since debuting in the 1990s.
It's a poignant comparison, intended or not: Williams is widely regarded as perhaps the greatest women's tennis player in history, but former men's tennis great and commentator John McEnroe ignited controversy earlier this year when he suggested Williams would only rank around 700th in the world if she played on the men's tour, and Williams herself has pushed back on suggestions that she could go toe-to-toe with the top players in men's tennis, describing it as "a completely different sport" in a 2013 interview.
"You have to work harder," she said. "You definitely have got to be mentally tough to go under the scrutiny."
Borders released a memoir this year titled "Making My Pitch: A Woman's Baseball Odyssey." She said she had planned to write a book earlier, a lighthearted reminiscence on her brief baseball career, but life got in the way: Her partner was killed by a drunk driver in 2008.
"It just threw me for a tailspin," Borders said. "Definitely got to depression, got to suicide thoughts. … It took me about six years to recover from that. And so I talk about that in the book, how to get through that, how to overcome it."
She added, "I'm glad I actually waited and put it out when I was older, because it would have just been about baseball and humor and funny. But now I'm hoping that it reaches — you know, if you're going through a difficult, abusive childhood, I've been through that. Losing a loved one in a tragic accident, been there, done that. Went through depression and thoughts of suicide, got out of that. And then now I'm giving back to people and trying to make a difference. So it's good."
"Making My Pitch" is available at local bookstores, as well as from online retailers. Borders also sells autographed copies on her website, with personalized messages. The book is published by the University of Nebraska Press.
By Mark Miller
Assistant Editor, The Times
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