Female Japanese knuckleballer lands in America
CHICO, Calif. — Eri Yoshida is like many girls her age. She has an affinity for torn blue jeans, loves music and giggles uncontrollably, sometimes for no reason at all.
The 18-year-old Japanese teen also throws a pretty mean knuckleball, which she hopes to parlay into a professional baseball career.
Yoshida was introduced on Friday as a member of the Chico Outlaws, a minor league team that plays in the independent Golden Baseball League. The press conference came less than two weeks after Yoshida graduated from high school and only a few hours after she landed in San Francisco following a flight from Tokyo.
"This is such a real opportunity for me to be here and to play for this team in America," Yoshida said through an interpreter. "I will try the best I can and will work really hard as much as I can. I'd really like to show what I can do on the mound."
Yoshida already owns the distinction of being the first female to be drafted by a professional team in Japan, having been selected in the seventh round of the 2009 draft by the Kobe 9 Cruise. Now she's ready to tackle America.
Chico manager Garry Templeton and team president Mike Marshall, both former major leaguers, came across Yoshida while she was pitching in the Arizona Winter League recently. Yoshida pitched in 10 games for the Yuma Scorpions, going 1-1 with a 4.79 ERA.
Already she's become a national story in the United States. The Outlaws have received requests for Yoshida to appear on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric and on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and a combination of local and international media turned out Friday.
Yoshida didn't disappoint.
She entered the room flashing a bright smile and wearing blue jeans with huge rips near the knee and on her left leg. She also had on a pair of red Nike hightop shoes, which matched perfectly with her new red Outlaws hat and white No. 3 jersey.
"She wants to pursue her dream of playing in the major leagues, either in Japan or the United States," Marshall said. "We thought (this) would be a great place for her to start. She really is that driven."
What makes Yoshida's story so unique — besides being an 18-year-old female trying to make it in a male-dominated sport — is that her primary pitch is a knuckleball. She taught herself to throw the pitch after watching videos of Boston's Tim Wakefield, and quickly became comfortable with it.
Yoshida met Wakefield when the Red Sox were in spring training this year.
"That was a big surprise to me," Yoshida said. "There are so many things I didn't know about but he really showed me how to get a target when I throw the knuckleball. That was the best advice I got."
Yoshida is expected to pitch in an intrasquad game for Chico next week. The Outlaws will be in spring training for the next two weeks before opening the regular season at Tijuana. Yoshida likely won't pitch until the team returns home in late May.
When she does, she'll become the first female to play professionally in America since Ila Borders in 1997.
"I want to give her a chance to get her legs underneath her," Templeton said. "She brings a lot to the table. Either she did a lot of studying or she had a great mentor growing up in Japan, because I saw her do some things in the AWL that I was kind of shocked. I didn't think she knew that much about the game."
Yoshida will have a separate area to dress inside the Outlaws' clubhouse, but otherwise will go through the same rigors of spring training as her new teammates.
Templeton, who is in his first season with the Outlaws, said Yoshida has a chance to do well based on her work ethic.
"It might be tough but I think she has a shot at," Templeton said. "If a lady has a chance to make it, it probably will be a knuckleballer. A knuckleballer gets guys out. She also has two other pitches she throws pretty well, her fastball and her slider."
Yoshida grew up with an older brother playing baseball, and though softball is very popular in Japan, the then-second grader made up her mind to try baseball.
She hasn't looked back since.
"I really want to go out and start playing," Yoshida said. "The United States is the best as far as baseball and I still have to learn so much. I'm excited and ready for it."