Weekend Diversion: Breaking the gender barrier?

Find something that you're really interested in doing in your life. Pursue it, set goals and commit yourself to excellence. Do the best you can. -Chris Evert

The Olympics have recently ended, and there were a trio of athletes who left me awestruck at their level of mastery of their sport as compared to the rest of their field. Every one of Shaun White's halfpipe runs simply outclassed the other competitors, as did Lindsay Vonn's downhill run (did you see how steady she kept her skis as compared to everyone else?), and -- perhaps in particular -- I believe that Yu-Na Kim's short and long programs in figure skating would have won her a gold medal in every single competition I've ever seen.

They say it's lonesome at the top, so here's the Lonesome Moonlight Waltz for you to listen to.

In Yu-Na Kim's case, one thing really stood out to me. She was so good that -- had she been in the Men's competition -- she would have finished ninth, despite not attempting a triple axel (much less a quad) and having only four minutes to skate (and earn points) instead of four-and-a-half. Now, that's impressive.

It got me thinking, are there any major US sports (football, baseball, basketball, or hockey) where a woman could make it at the highest levels, competing side-by-side with the men? What I turned up astounded me.

Meet Eri Yoshida. Two years ago, she was the first female drafted by the Japanese major leagues. In 2009, she pitched in eleven games for the Kobe Cruise 9 of the Kansai Independent Baseball League, and this winter, came to the United States to play for the Yuma Scorpions of the Arizona Winter League.

Last month, she got her first win by throwing four shutout innings. Subsequently, she got to meet her idol, fellow knuckleballer (and her inspiration) Tim Wakefield, who gave her a bit of coaching.

Not surprisingly, she has plenty of detractors, saying she can't throw hard enough (her fastball tops out at 63 mph) to compete at the highest levels. After his session with her, what did Tim Wakefield have to say? (Quoted from the Boston Herald, emphasis mine.)

I had seen film of her and I was pretty impressed at the film. But to see her person and to actually see her throw, I was very impressed with how she threw and the knowledge she had on the knuckleball because she told me she was self-taught.

This is the first time she's actually ever had coaching throwing a knuckleball. I kind of know where she's at because I was there when I first started throwing. Nobody knew what to do. It's pretty cool that I'm able to give back to somebody that wants to carry on the tradition of throwing a knuckleball.

She has stated that her goal is to play professional baseball, and that she would love to play in the United States' major leagues. Could she be the one to do it? I'm cheering for her, and I hope we'll hear more about her soon!

Eri Yoshida is eighteen years old.

More like this

Ski Jumping. Bowling if you count it as a sport (some never did, some don't now because OH NOES a women is beating all the men).

By Katherine (not verified) on 07 Mar 2010 #permalink

Ms. Yoshida will need her own locker room, but hey, why not? Sports tend to be segregated by gender though. I don't know anyone who would imagine pitting the top male tennis player against the top female - Serena Williams is astounding (and would soundly whoop me without breaking a sweat), but I just don't see it happening. Ms. Yoshida's still better than I ever was though; my top clocked pitch ever was only 62 and 58 was more typical on a very good day.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 07 Mar 2010 #permalink

"Find something that you're really interested in doing in your life."

By a curious coincidence, at the age of 15 I set doing Chris Evert as my life goal. Oh well.


Can you think of a sport, a serious sport with requirements for athleticism, balance, skill, and endurance, a sport where there is considerable danger, where participants are seriously injured or killed each year, but one in which men and women compete directly against one another?


Katherine is right about Ski Jumping. Women have been barred, despite petitioning extensively. Everybody knows they are barred because they go farther then men (they're lighter). It's not a safety issue, it looks scary, but statistically it's much safer than a sport like downhill.

Want more proof? The record holder for the longest jump on the normal hill that was used at the Winter Olympics is held by Lindsay Van (not "Vonn" of Alpine fame).

Katherine & Cheyenne,

I agree that it's ridiculous that there isn't women's ski jumping at the Olympics. I really look forward to it in 2014; they've got to include it there!


There are many examples, from the aforementioned ski jumping and bowling to racecar driving, where women are the equals of men. The fact that competitions are traditionally gender-segregated didn't stop Lynnette Woodard from joining the Harlem Globetrotters before there was a WNBA, and it didn't stop her from being just as good as the men. I hope Eri Yoshida gets her chance at the highest levels, because it looks like she's earning it!

Hayley Wickenheiser has played minor pro hockey in Finland and Sweden. This is a full-contact sport and she would have been competing shoulder-to-shoulder with professional male skaters. Very impressive.

Right up there with knuckleball pitcher, the position of goaltender in hockey might be a likely spot for a woman to crack among the big league sports. There have been some publicity stunts involving female goalies and pro teams in the past (see: Manon Rhéaume).

I see Jeff J made the point about Rheaume that I was going to make; good show to him. Rheaume ended up playing goal for the Tampa Bay Lightning in an exhibition game.

Also, about Wakefield, if I remember correctly, he doesn't top out on his heater much higher than 70 mph, doesn't he? Yoshida can probably gain a good 5-10 mph just with some coaching and technique, plus that arm angle would make her stuff pretty dirty.

By Samsoneffect (not verified) on 08 Mar 2010 #permalink

@5- Sailing?

Horse jumping (eventing) and dressage are the only examples of a major Olympic sport that I know of where men and women have traditionally competed against each other.

And don't tell me it's all about the horses, that they do all the work.

Ethan, the examples you gave are exceptions.

Cheyenne, don't know about sailing. I don't think there are rules about gender of crews. I was thinking more of individual competition directly between genders.

@Rob: how about Danica Patrick?

Danica Patrick is an exception. I know women have been racing for more than 50 years, but they are still the exception.

Also, stock car racing is not exactly skiing, skating or riding. It is entertainment, not sport.

My point is that eventing and dressage is the only Olympic sport where there is direct competition between men and women. There is no physical advantage to being bigger, stronger, faster, or whatever. While most horses ridden in such events are geldings, there are many mares that are equally good, and there is no obvious advantage to riding one or the other.

@Rob: I dare you to tell a race driver that it's entertainment, not sport. Make sure someone's around with a camera - it should be fun to watch.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 08 Mar 2010 #permalink


I don't know any race car drivers, so I'm safe there. LOL

Obviously I considered my audience before posting that statement.

Baseball scouts always have a hard time projecting knuckleball throwers (the rare few) for many reasons, notably because a good knuckleballer won't dominate any level of professional baseball - they might be good, but rarely great. The pitch itself relies on weak contact more than missing contact.

Yoshida, outside the four innings pitched last week, had pretty minimal success in prior pro outings in Japan. Yes she's young, but she'll need a team to take her on full-time and let her fail for a while (knuckleballs are almost impossible to master) in the low minors.

Sports women can win in: There's been talk before about long distance running - it's no advantage to carry extra weight around when running a marathon. Since 1980, men have taken 5 minutes of the record (2:04 now), women 15 (2:15 now). It's feasible, perhaps, that women can close the 9% gap further. Most M/F running records show a similar difference though.

Forget marathons - it's ultra-marathons where women can compete, and beat men. 100 miles up, it's better to be female.

Whether or not you think knuckleballers are legit, it is most refreshing to see excitement and whatever measure of success she is having in a totally male dominated sport. I wish her well.
Integrity IP

The two problems I foresee for Eri are:

âA supreme difficulty in holding runners (which is tough even for guys like Wakefield who can through in the 70s and 80s);

âAnd, depending on the movement/deception/control of her, she'll likely have trouble sneaking it by even independent-league batters when she needs a strike (that being the only reason to throw a 60-mph "fastball" in the first place).

But she did just get signed by the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League (the May/June/July home of the Yuma Scorpions). I know I'll be rooting for her to prove me wrong!

When her floater is working consistently around the zone, she should do fine.

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By Logo Design Company (not verified) on 08 Sep 2010 #permalink

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