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The sky’s the limit for Laura Brenneman. No, really.
Brenneman is the second baseman and leadoff batter for the U.S. women’s baseball team. Her squad, the first national team ever sanctioned, is currently competing in Edmonton, Alberta, site of the inaugural World Cup for women’s baseball. When the tourney ends, she’ll be back in College Park to begin the third year of her Ph.D. program in astrophysics at the University of Maryland. She explains that her specialty is devising a computer model “to simulate emission lines or other spectral features that come from the accretion disc around a black hole.”
She digs the brainiac stuff, yet when Brenneman, 27, wishes upon a star, she’s more likely to ask to play baseball for a living. But assuming that no such gig becomes available in the next few years—and there’s no reason to believe the launch of a pro women’s game is imminent—Brenneman will resort to Plan B.
“After school, I’m thinking about NASA’s astronaut training program,” she says.
It’s nice to have something to fall back on.
And, again, chances are she’ll need that something. Women’s baseball is a black hole for its purveyors. Brenneman, a four-time All-Met during her high-school days at the National Cathedral School and a multisport star at Williams College, and her teammates on the U.S. squad are the best distaff players this country has to offer. Yet there are no pro leagues for the gals to head toward after the World Cup.
A decade ago, following the release of the smash feature film about women’s baseball, A League of Their Own, the future of the game seemed almost bright.
“I can quote every line from that movie,” says Brenneman.
To exploit the popularity of the film, Coors Brewery started up a pro squad, the Colorado Silver Bullets, in 1994. The all-women’s team traveled the country on the beer-maker’s dime and got all sorts of exposure by holding its own against teams of male players. The most ink the barnstormers ever got, in fact, came when the Silver Bullets gave as good as they got in a bench-clearing brawl against a team of good ol’ boys from Georgia.
But when Coors pulled out in 1997, nobody stepped up to pick up the Silver Bullets’ tab, and the only viable pro women’s team, and the dreams of many young ballplayers across the country, quietly retreated. In the late ’90s, players began gravitating toward Lynn, Mass., where a businessman named Nick Lopardo funded a regional women’s league.
During her last year at nearby Williams, where she starred in soccer, softball, and basketball (she still holds an NCAA Division III record for three-point shooting accuracy) and made various all-academic teams, Brenneman heard about Lopardo’s leagues from a friend and got involved. She’d played softball since age 11, when she was a member of the all-girls program of Capitol City Little League, a Northwest D.C. confederation, but she’d never played baseball before. Her high school and college softball experience proved to be a good training ground for baseball—at least offensively.
“The women pitchers throw in the low 70s [in miles per hour],” she says. “And even if you didn’t play baseball before, all the hitters are used to seeing fast pitch softball pitching, where it’s going just as fast over 43 feet instead of 60 feet, so they’re prepared. The ball’s smaller, obviously, but if you groove a fastball in women’s baseball, it’s going to get hit.”
When Brenneman came back to the D.C. area for grad school, a friend invited her to play in the fledgling Eastern Women’s Baseball Conference. She’s a shortstop and most valuable player for the Virginia Flames in that league.
Along with the local games, for the last couple of years, Brenneman has signed up for teams that Lopardo put together to face national teams from around the world. Along with the United States, Japan, Australia, and Canada now make up the big four of women’s baseball. But when the U.S. team headed to Australia for a global tourney last year, players were responsible for a good chunk of the traveling and uniform expenses.
Beginning last month, the women’s team was put under the auspices of USA Baseball, the premier governing body of amateur baseball in this country. That organization, which receives funding from Major League Baseball, is now helping Lopardo cover the cost of things like tryouts and jerseys and airplane tickets for women players.
It doesn’t take Pat Buchanan to realize that now might be a good time for MLB to start throwing as much seed money as possible at homegrown ballplayers of any gender. A look at the leaders boxes of the American League over the weekend could lead a reader to think it’s the Un-American League. Foreign-born players held the top slots in every notable offensive category through Sunday’s games: Remarkably, non-domestic products owned the top four batting averages and top six RBI totals. Imports also led the AL in home runs, slugging percentage, and hits. Foreign-born pitchers, meanwhile, had notched the top three totals in strikeouts and the top two in saves.
The future’s not looking all that bright, either: Our boys of summer, plainly, are in trouble. When the Olympics kick off in a couple of weeks, there will not be a baseball team representing the United States in the competition. While squads from such noted baseball powers as Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands go for the gold, the Americans, who got knocked out in the qualifying rounds by Mexico, will be home.
So maybe it’s up to the women to regain America’s grip on the so-called National Pastime.
“I think it’s great that Laura is taking advantage of opportunities that women before her never had,” says Paula Brenneman, her proud mom and her first softball coach in the Cap City league. “I’ve told her that when I was growing up in Lawton, Okla., the city fathers decided the only fitting sport for girls to compete in was tennis. She’s an athlete from the word ‘go’!”
When she’s not a student, that is.
“My wife and I talk about how much she juggles, between school and baseball and everything else, and just shake our heads and say, ‘How the hell does she do that?’” adds father Mike Brenneman, a D.C. native who played basketball at American University from 1949 to 1951.
Laura’s studious ways have come in handy on the ballfield. Brenneman is far and away the best base stealer on the U.S. team, though not its fastest runner. She says all her thievery comes from scrutinizing the delivery and pickoff moves of opposing pitchers and using that data to gauge how big a lead she can take.
But there are certain things about the game that no amount of studying can explain, even for a gal who has chosen to devote years of her life mulling, well, the spectral features that come from the accretion disc around a black hole.
“I still don’t understand a knuckleball,” she says.