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Women Make Pitch for All-Star Game

July 13, 1998

AKRON, Ohio (AP) _ The Women’s Pro Fastpitch softball league holds its first All-Star game Tuesday night. Why? Because the players suggested it.

Fans who attend the game may find this growing sport caters to them, too.

``That’s what sets us apart,″ said Dee Dee Weiman-Garcia, an All-Star pitcher from the Tampa Bay FireStix. ``Our game is quick and short and tight. Fans interact and get involved. We take pictures with them afterward, they come out on field. I heard that’s the way baseball used to be.″

The 2-year-old league holds its inaugural All-Star game at cozy Firestone Stadium. Thirty players from the league’s six teams are split between two squads _ the Stars and the Stripes.

The league seeks an all-American flavor, from the chatter on the field to the guidance of spokeswoman Dot Richardson, the star of the U.S. women’s gold medal team in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

``Our sport has lasted hundreds of years,″ said Richardson, 36, who has been on eight gold medal-winning U.S. national teams and led the U.S. at the inaugural Olympic tournament in Atlanta.

``It’s growing, it’s exploding. You see the participation and the love of the sport and the dreams these young athletes have. Now these dreams include becoming a professional.″

The league started in 1997 with two teams in Florida, two in North Carolina, one in Georgia and one in Virginia. Last month, it expanded to Akron for the 1999 season as the first step toward an 18-team, coast-to-coast league.

It is an aggressive reprisal after a women’s fastpitch league failed after four seasons in the late 1970s.

``I believe in it because I find it very entertaining, not just to play but to watch,″ said Amy Putnam, a catcher for the Georgia Pride and one of 11 rookie All-Stars. ``The people running the league are more business oriented. I really think it’s going to work.″

The league has a $3.5 million, three-year contract with title sponsor AT&T Wireless Services and a national TV contract with ESPN2. It is trying to capitalize on the growth of women’s sports, using the WNBA and ABL pro basketball leagues as a model.

``In order to make it happen, we have to get corporate dollars,″ Richardson said. ``We have to get exposure. We have to focus on the personalities in the sport.″

After the inaugural season, in which the Orlando Wahoos were crowned champion, the league provided a 10-page questionnaire to every player. Weiman-Garcia was one of many who suggested an All-Star game as a way to gain attention and add to the fun.

``I don’t know of any other league that has that much input from its players,″ Weiman-Garcia, an All-American at UCLA recognized as one of the sport’s fastest ``riseball″ pitchers.

For those unfamiliar with fastpitch softball, this is no weekend beer league. Pitchers stand 43 feet from home plate and whiz underhanded pitches toward the plate at close to 70 mph. From that distance, it’s like trying to hit a Randy Johnson fastball.

``It’s difficult because there are so many different kinds of pitches and pitchers,″ Putnam said. ``Each pitcher has different stuff.″

On Monday, skeptics got to dig in and take their cuts against the league’s top pitchers in the media challenge. The league envisions a home run contest as a prelude to future All-Star games.

Though fans seem to give the WPF a thumbs-up, there is still room to grow. The league drew about 200,000 fans for its first season, but lost money.

For now, all ESPN2 telecasts are tape-delayed. The All-Star game will be shown on July 20. The championship game, set for Sept. 5 in Akron, will be televised two days later.

Players earn about $4,800 for the three-month, 66-game season. Many have day jobs during the offseason, when they are not traveling for hours on cramped buses.

``The only time we fly is to the All-Star game,″ Putnam said. ``The toughest trip was from Tampa to Allentown, Pa., for an exhibition game. It was pretty brutal.″

What does the future hold? Richardson is upbeat. Rules changes are expected to allow Olympians to play in the league without losing amateur status. For now, Richardson stays on the sidelines because she hopes to play in the 2000 Olympics.

``It can’t just be playing the game and winning it,″ she said. ``We need people watching the game and cheering for us to have an opportunity for the future.″

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