Originally created 07/06/97

Softball professionals play for love of game



LITHONIA, Ga. -- You wouldn't see this at Turner Field.

The game is over and a small group of fans takes over the field at the Southeast Athletic Complex. There are no police to keep them back, no surly players in the dugout.

Each member of the Georgia Pride cheerfully signs autographs, even though they're tired and dirty and ready to get home.

"This is the great part of it right here," said manager Cindy Bristo. "We could lose 15-0 and they don't care. They think it's the greatest thing."

Women's Professional Fastpitch has joined an increasingly crowded field of female sports leagues, a trend that took root with the success of female athletes at the Atlanta Olympics.

Six teams, based in Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, are playing a 72-game schedule this season. The parks are small, the salaries minuscule and the perks nonexistent.

"We still have to carry our own equipment," Pride catcher Angie Jacobs said. "I take care of the catching gear, the pitchers take care of the balls and the others take care of the bats. We all have to separate our own laundry."

These are athletes playing strictly for the love of the sport and the hope that their sacrifice will provide a chance for youngsters such as 9-year-old Terri Mesko, who attended a Pride game against the Virginia Roadsters with her undefeated youth team.

"This is cool," said Terri, who plays slow-pitch softball for the Stingers of McDonough, Ga. "They're throwing real fast, and sometimes they hit it so soft and sometimes they hit it real hard. It's surprising."

MacKay Chewing, who lives near the 2,100-seat ballpark in this Atlanta suburb, came out for the Pride's season opener and has been to every game since then. He even plans to make a road trip to Florida later in the season to watch the Pride play a series against the Tampa Bay Fire Stix.

"I love it," he said. "It's almost better than baseball."

The crowds have hardly been on par with even a low-level men's minor-league team.

WPF is averaging less than 1,000 fans a game, and the Pride's attendance is just 150 per night, even though tickets are only $4 and $6.

"I thought it would be a whole lot better than this," Amy Wilkerson, whose daughter also plays for the Stingers, said as she looked around the nearly empty ballpark. "It should be better than this."

Attendance has been hampered by several factors. The Southeast Athletic Complex is far from the softball hotbeds north of the city. The team got a late start on its promotional campaign and is sort of lost in the crowded Atlanta sports scene.

The front office is populated with inexperienced, 20-something workers such as media coordinator Candyss Westenhouser, who joined the team two weeks into the season after graduating from Ohio University.

"We're trying to put together what we've learned in the books," Westenhouser said.

Bristow looked to more entrenched factors.

"It's tough to convince the public that women athletes can play as well as men, that fans should come and watch it," she said. "What's been hard is having to constantly convince and justify why we need to be doing this. If this were a guy's league, we wouldn't have to justify it. Why the hell do we have to keep justifying why we do it?"

Bristow was part of a failed women's softball league in the 1970s. While its predecessor was modeled after the major leagues, with high travel costs that eventually hastened its demise, WPF is hoping to keep costs down by starting out as a regional circuit with teams that play in parks with between 2,000 and 4,000 seats. Each team is limited to about $80,000 for player salaries, which average around $1,500 a month for the 31/2 -month season.

"We'd like to be in a situation where we're averaging over 1,000 a game," said Mitzi Swentzell, the league president. "But we realize that's not realistic to start with. We've got to give it a chance to grow."

Unlike the American Basketball League and the Women's NBA, the WPF doesn't have access to the players who led the United States to an Olympic gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Professionals are still banned from international tournaments in softball, a rule that is scheduled to change in 1999.

In the meantime, fast-pitch stars like Lisa Fernandez and Michelle Granger are reluctant to join the new pro league.

"That really didn't hurt us like it would other sports," Swentzell said. "In amateur softball, there might be a couple of recognizable names but it doesn't have the stars already in place like Rebecca Lobo or Teresa Edwards."

For now, the WPF is made up of players like 31-year-old Tricia Shaar, a recent chiropractic school graduate. She arrived in Atlanta just two hours before a game, dressed in the car on the way, and wound up pitching that night.

"This came out of the woodwork," Shaar said. "I never thought I would be doing this."

After finishing the autographs, Shaar and her teammates pack their equipment bags, sling them over their shoulders and make the long walk to the parking lot.

No one is complaining.