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Female teen knuckleballer lands in U.S.

5/8/2010

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 news 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," 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 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."