From a dream to a reality...

by Kathleen Christie

After nearly 40 years the field of dreams has finally become a reality for women who want to play professional baseball. On Mother's Day, May 8, 1994, the Colorado Silver Bullets begin their inaugural season as the first, and only, all-female professional baseball team to be officially recognized by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues.

The Silver Bullets are owned by Whittle Communications of Knoxville, Tennessee, which will be home base for the team. The Coors Brewing Company of Golden, Colorado, is sponsoring the team on behalf of its Coors Light brand.

Announced on December 10, 1993, the Silver Bullets will play approximately 50 exhibition games against men's minor-league, semi-professional, and college teams. As an independent member of the AA Short Season Northern League, the team will play games in the hometown of each of the six Northern League teams - Duluth, Minnesota; Sioux City, Iowa; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Winnipeg, Manitoba; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Thunder Bay, Ontario. This squad will also barnstorm the country, taking on minor-league and semi-professional teams in many of the nation's major-league stadiums, notably Candlestick Park, Oakland Coliseum, Seattle Kingdome, and Mile High Stadium.

The formation of the Colorado Silver Bullets actually began 10 years ago,in 1984, when Silver Bullets Club President Bob Hope attempted to field a team of female baseball players in the minor leagues - the Sun Sox. His goal was to give women a foothold in the major-league system through a franchise in the Class A Florida State League. The dream never materialized.

Never abandoning the belief that women could play professional baseball if given the opportunity, Hope approached the Coors Brewing Company in the summer of 1993. W. Leo Kiely, President of Coors, immediately endorsed the team and offered significant financial support to the project. "Coors' sponsorship represents an excellent means to continue our support of women's programs," said Kiely. "In addition, it provides our flagship brand, Coors Light, an opportunity to participate in an unparalleled and innovative promotional venture to further the role of women in professional sports."

From the beginning, Hope had only one person in mind for the role of manager: Phil Niekro. From his days as vice-president of promotions with the Atlanta Braves, Hope was familiar with Niekro. Niekro's outstanding career as a player, the respect he earned as manager of the AAA Richmond Braves, and most important, his love and respect of the game, made him ideally suited for this tremendous challenge.

Upon viewing Coors' commitment to the team, Niekro accepted the position. "Women should have every opportunity to play competitive professional ball," he said. "I think we are going to surprise quite a few people with the ability of these athletes and the caliber of ball they can play."

Following the appointment of Niekro, Hope began to the task of selecting a general manager. In conversations with various members of the baseball establishment, one name - Shereen Samonds - came up repeatedly. As the only female general manager in Double-A baseball and the Rawlings' 1993 Female Executive of the Year, Samonds is uniquely qualified to guide the team through its first season.

With the backing of Coors and the commitment of Niekro and Samonds, the Silver Bullets immediately began the process of selecting 20 to 25 of the country's top athletes to fill the team's roster. This began with an invitation-only tryout at Tinker Field in Orlando, Florida, on December 18,1993. Twenty-two athletes were invited to Orlando for a week of intensive workouts. These athletes were selected from the recommendations of college coaches and scouts.

The Silver Bullets next began a series of open tryouts across the country in January and February, led by the Orlando Cubs manager and former major leaguer Tommy Jones, with the assistance of former major-league pitcher Joe Niekro. The tryout camps - held in Orlando, Knoxville, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Houston, Sacramento, Mesa, Los Angeles, Denver, and Tacoma - were attended by approximately 1,300 women. So impressed with the caliber of athlete they were witnessing on the road, both Jones and Niekro soon accepted full-time positions with the club.

From the 1,300 athletes who attended the invitational camp and the open tryout camps, 55 were invited to spring training at Tinker Field in Orlando from March 7 through April 5, where some two dozen players would be selected to join the Silver Bullets for their inaugural season.

On Saturday, March 5, 49 women reported to Tinker Field. Teachers, coaches, moms, students, waitresses, all put their lives on hold for the opportunity to become a Silver Bullet. Several of the athletes were college softball stars, who had grown up baseball players but were forced to turn to softball in high school and college in order to continue their athletic career.

The athletes worked out seven days a week at Tinker Field under the guidance of the Silver Bullet coaching staff - Phil Niekro, Joe Niekro, Tommy Jones, and John Niekro. Former major leaguers Paul Blair, Joe Pignatano, and Jerry Thurston assisted the coaching staff for the month. These seven coaches - who together have 119 years of major-league experience and eight World Series championship rings - spent one month teaching the athletes every aspect of the game from pitching and hitting to the art of signing a baseball.

Following five cuts, the final roster of 24 athletes was announced on Sunday, April 3, 1994.

From the beginning, this team has garnered a tremendous amount of public and media interest. The Silver Bullets have been highlighted in hundreds of newspaper, magazine, and television features, including ABC Evening News, NBC Evening News, CBS Evening News, ABC Day One, CBS This Morning, Good Morning America Sunday, CNN, ESPN, ESPN2, Inside Edition, Sports Illustrated for Kids, USA Today, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, The Houston Post, The Seattle Times, Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Detroit News, New York Newsday, New York Daily News, Arizona Republic, The Baltimore Sun, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, Glamour, Vogue ... the list goes on. Rarely do female athletes have this opportunity to raise public awareness of women's athletics, and provide hope for a future in professional sports to thousands of young girls.

Win or lose, the Colorado Silver Bullets are a success already. Female athletes rarely get the same opportunities as men to succeed, or fail, on the playing field. When the Silver Bullets win, it is proof that women can compete. When they lose, it proves that female athletes are human and that they should also be afforded the same luxury that other athletes enjoy - the knowledge that tomorrow and next season there will be more innings, more games, and more teams to play.