Ila Borders works in relative anonymity as a firefighter and emergency medical technician in Gilbert, far away from her time as a gender barrier-breaker in the national pastime.

And it can be said, jokingly, that the hazards of her current occupation pale in comparison to when she really felt the heat, while trying to make it in professional baseball as a pitcher.

"Baseball has helped me in this job tremendously," Borders said. "Dealing with stressful situations and thinking quickly on your feet, getting along with others and having to be a team player and perform - those are all qualifications necessary for both jobs."

In 1997, Borders made national headlines as one of the first women in professional baseball, embarking on a four-year independent minor-league career. In 52 games with four teams, the left-hander posted a 2-4 record with a 6.75 ERA.

While Justine Siegal received positive reviews for her work while pitching batting practice to the Cleveland Indians and Oakland Athletics last week - she is believed to be the first female to throw to major-league hitters - Borders did not always find respect easy to come by.

"I was usually asked if I was a woman trying to hook up with guys, a feminist trying to change baseball and the world, or someone who just wants the media attention," Borders said. "I had to explain that I was there because I love baseball, I want to win and do well."

Borders was reluctant to do interviews during her career, but she agreed to one with Mike Wallace for a "60 Minutes" feature in 1998, when as a member of the Duluth (Minn.)-Superior (Wis.) Dukes, she became the first female pitcher to start a men's professional game.

One of the images from the "60 Minutes" segment: A batter mouthing "What a (expletive) joke!" after he swung and missed at a Borders pitch.

"Among (opposing players) and the media, it was hard to get them to understand," Borders said. "But among the guys I played with, my co-workers, I think they knew what I was about."

Borders, 36, has no legitimacy battles in the Gilbert Fire Department, whose roster includes former major-leaguers Clay Bellinger and Andy Larkin.

"You want - you need - good, dependable people working alongside you in this fire department, and it was obvious that she's a dedicated, hard-working person," said Larkin, who pitched for four big-league teams from 1996-2000.

"The times that I work with her, I see the same focus, systematic nature you need to succeed in baseball. She gets a task and completes it."

Although offered coaching and television jobs upon her retirement from baseball in 2000, Borders has not attempted to profit from her playing days. She has, though, kept a journal for years and is considering using those entries to help compile a book about her experiences in baseball and public service.

The La Mirada, Calif., native worked in the Long Beach Fire Department for 1½ years before moving to Gilbert in 2008. She is scheduled to play in a softball game on Saturday matching Gilbert police and firefighters against their Mesa counterparts as part of the Cactus League Hot Dog Challenge at Big League Dreams park in Gilbert.

"I had always wanted baseball my entire life, but after that ended, I needed to decide what I wanted to do for the rest of my life," Borders said. "I figured that I like people, like helping people, and want something that is different and challenging every single day."

More than 1,000 girls in the U.S. played on high school baseball teams as recently as 2008, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. On Saturday, two female pitchers - Marti Sementelli of Birmingham High School in Lake Balboa, Calif., and Ghazaleh Sailors of San Marcos High in Santa Barbara, Calif. - are scheduled to start against one another.

Eri Yoshida became the first female to be drafted by a Japanese professional team and recently pitched in the independent Arizona Winter League. Chelsea Baker, a 13-year-old in Plant City, Fla., has been profiled by ESPN for her exploits as a Little League pitcher with an unbeaten record and nasty knuckleball.

Borders did not consider herself a trailblazer when she pitched, so she is hesitant to label herself one now.

"You go to Little League games and see girls in ponytails out there now," Borders said. "That's great, and I hope that, in a small way, I helped open people's minds to that ...

"Any time that a woman can go out there and play and pitch and do it for the love of the game, not because they want to be the first, I think that's awesome."

(1) comment

Bobbi Smith

Good job!

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