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Stepping Up to the Plate

"Come on in!" shouts Luann Myatt, a pitcher for the Seadogs, as she hits practice balls to the infielders on her team. Some of the balls sizzle past in a cloud of red-clay dust; others are snagged in soft leather gloves and hurled to first base for imaginary outs. Myatt yells encouragement, and well-played balls elicit cries of delight from around the field.

The same scene is no doubt playing out all over South Florida as teams gear up for their fall seasons, but here at Brian Piccolo Park in Cooper City on a Sunday morning, there's one big difference -- these women are playing baseball, not softball. The Seadogs are one of five teams in the South Florida Diamond League, a women's league that formed in 1993. The Devilrays are practicing on a nearby field, and the Diamondbacks, Marlins, and Scorpions are expected to show up. The 20-game season, played from October 4 through the first week of June, pits the five teams against one another. The four teams with the best records at season's end battle for supremacy in the playoffs first, then a championship series.

Each game lasts seven innings instead of nine, but otherwise teams follow the rules of Major League Baseball. The women run 90 feet between bases, as opposed to 55 feet in softball. And once they get there, they're allowed to slide into the bag and steal extra bases -- no-noes in softball. But the biggest difference between the two sports is the pitching; softballers throw underhand, hardballers overhand at 65 to 75 miles per hour.

"The biggest attraction is the amount of strategy involved in baseball that doesn't come into play in softball," says Diamond League president Esther Surujon. She and Dr. Joanne Housman founded the league in 1992, after seeing A League of Their Own, a movie inspired by a real-life women's league that was formed as a substitute for men's baseball during World War II. Surujon, who'd played softball in high school and college, wanted to try hardball, which she says is faster and more competitive. "It's a much more exciting sport."

And more challenging. "The ball is much smaller, and it comes [in] a lot quicker," Surujon says. Softball players can make the conversion, she adds, by going to the batting cages at least once or twice a week to get used to faster pitching and by regularly practicing on the field.

Myatt, the Seadogs' pitcher, has been playing in the Diamond League since it began. She also played for the Florida Legends, a professional team that was part of a short-lived national women's league that folded this past summer after its promoters ran out of money. Myatt is determined to continue playing baseball, although she thinks the players in the Diamond League have it "easy" compared to those she played with in the pros. "They might not take it as seriously," she explains.

While the Diamond League consists of amateurs, Surujon says that the players -- mothers, businesswomen, doctors, and accountants in their mid-teens to late thirties -- show their seriousness by making a commitment to play every week. Some travel from as far south as Key Largo and as far north as Palm Beach County.

Other signs of commitment exist. During the last practice session, Judalyn Blake got popped in the head with a ball. But now she's back on the field, remembering why it was she joined in the first place. "I was driving by [the park] and saw the banner that said 'Women's Baseball League,' and I said, 'I've got to call.' I love it," she says. "I get out of the house. It's good exercise."

Phyllis Jones' love of the game seems to run even deeper. "I get that clay and ball in my hand," she says, "and it's a heart thing."

-- Carol Porter

For more information about the South Florida Diamond League, call Esther Surujon at 954-920-5584. Games start at 10 a.m. every Sunday at Brian Piccolo Park, 9501 Sheridan St., Cooper City. Call 954-437-2600.

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Carol Porter

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