Schoolgirl Breaks Baseball's Gender Barrier in Japan

16-year-old knuckleballer signs a pro contract

A 16-year-old Japanese girl signed with a regional baseball team Tuesday, becoming the country's first female professional baseball player.

Eri Yoshida, a knuckleball pitcher, will play for the Kobe 9 Cruise in a new independent league starting in April 2009. The team selected her last month along with 31 male players in the league draft.

"I still don't feel like I've really become a pro baseball player, but I want to do my best," Yoshida said at a news conference after signing her contract. "My specialty is the knuckleball, so I really want to be able to get batters out using it effectively."

The Cruise are more like a farm team and a far cry from Japan's mainstream pro teams such as the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants. But the 5-foot, 114-pound Yoshida has broken a barrier in baseball-crazy Japan, where women are normally relegated to amateur, company-sponsored teams or to softball.

Yoshida, who started playing baseball when she was in second grade, said she wants to emulate Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, who has built a successful major league career as a knuckleballer.

The fledgling Japanese League, which is based in western Japan, is hoping to find enough success to eventually challenge the likes of the long-established Central and Pacific leagues. Those leagues, home to the best Japanese players, have become an increasingly fertile ground for talent headed to the U.S. major leagues.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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