Pro baseball player Ila Borders blazed trails with each pitch she threw

Lois Bernstein Photography/Courtesy of Ila Borders

Ila Borders on the mound circa 1994, while playing for Southern California College.

Twenty-three years ago, writer Jean Hastings Ardell headed out to Southern California College (now Vanguard University), in Costa Mesa, because she heard a woman was pitching there.

The avid sports fan was researching women in baseball, and the prospect of seeing a female on the mound was enticing.

Ila Borders, the first woman to earn a collegiate baseball scholarship, was the pitcher. In 1997, the left-hander eventually went on to sign with the St. Paul Saints in the Independent Northern League, becoming the first woman, since the women in the Negro Leagues, to play professional baseball. A year later, she became the first woman to pitch a winning professional game, while playing for the Duluth-Superior Dukes. Borders went on to pitch for four seasons.

"It was electric," Ardell said of Borders' pitching that day in Costa Mesa. "She was on. She was focused, and she was determined. Her ponytail was blowing in the breeze, and she won 12-1."

Ardell joined the postgame press briefing. Of course, the inquisitive scribe had to meet this fearless player, and she did. Ardell continued to write about Borders for the duration of her baseball career, with the two eventually developing a friendship, one that brought them together to publish Borders' memoir, "Making My Pitch: A Woman's Baseball Odyssey," which will be released on Saturday.

Courtesy of Ila Borders

Borders' 1997 St. Paul Saints rookie card.

The duo initially entertained the idea of publishing a book more than a decade ago. However, they felt it was too soon after Borders' career, which concluded in 2000 when she was playing for the Zion Pioneerzz. By 2007, Borders was ready to develop the book, but her partner was killed by a drunk driver in 2008, and Borders had to process the death of a long-term love, while concurrently grappling with the fact that she had never openly acknowledged she was a lesbian. The weight of it all sent Borders into a downward spiral.

"I don't remember conversations, or really anything, for six years," Borders said.

But Borders, now 42 years old, knew she had a story to tell. She knew her experiences didn't happen in vain and understood her position as a pioneer and role model. After all, it was a biography of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball, that inspired her to keep getting back into the game and got her through some of her toughest times.

"I was so worried that I was going to let my family down, lose all of my friends, and I didn't want to do that." Borders said. "Now I'm hoping to show other athletes out there, other women who happen to be gay, that there is someone else out there like them."

Though Borders is now a firefighter by day, baseball is still a big part of her life. She frequently does clinics and coaches as often as possible. She also plans to join the MLB USA Women's Trailblazer series at Dodgers Stadium on April 13 -16, where she'll mentor girls aged 16 and under, in hopes of encouraging the next generation of women players.

Book cover image by Annie Leibovitz

Borders' memoir, "Making My Pitch," releases on Saturday.

These days, there seems to be more imagery around women playing baseball, for example, the Fox scripted television series "Pitch," which explores the life of pitcher Ginny Baker -- the first woman to fictionally join the MLB. This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the release of "A League of Their Own," and now Borders' memoir.

"After years and years of women wanting to play baseball and not just softball, things are finally beginning to change," Ardell said.

In 2016, the Pawtucket Slaterettes became the first-ever all-girls baseball team to compete in the MLB All-Star Youth Classic. The Sonoma Stompers, an independent professional baseball team based out of Sonoma, California, signed two women to the organization last summer. It is arguable that many of these changes would not have happened without the path blazed by Borders.

"People need to know how we got here," Ardell said. "It wasn't just the All-American [Professional Baseball] Girls League, as wonderful as it was. It wasn't just the Negro leagues, where three women played in the 1950s. It's someone like Ila Borders, who wanted to prove that she could play day in and day out, season after season, and that's what she did."

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