Reiff: Ila Borders’ Baseball (and Life) Odyssey

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No other woman has matched the feats of 1990’s pitching phenom Ila Borders, a pony-tailed girl from La Mirada who won men’s baseball games in both college and the pros.

But when that woman comes along – Borders is confident she will – she’ll almost certainly find a more welcoming environment than Borders did.

“It’s a different world now, and I’m very grateful and excited about that,” Borders said in an interview on the “Inside OC with Rick Reiff” public affairs program to promote her new book, “Making My Pitch.”

Besides having to endure hostile opposing coaches, angry little league and high school moms, suspicious players’ wives, locker room taunting and family and financial pressures, Borders spent her baseball career and years after hiding that she was a lesbian.

“I would have been kicked out. I would not have been able to play professional baseball. At that time it was not okay,” Borders said. “My entire dream of playing college baseball, pro baseball, I didn’t want that taken away.”

Borders, now a paramedic/firefighter in Portland, Oregon, said it’s a whole new ballgame:

“I’m out to family, friends, the media, everybody. And you can tell the big difference because where I work now… I work with men the entire time, I’m the only female, they have no problem with it. They invite my wife to banquets and we go over for dinner.”

A self-described “crafty lefty” with a fastball that broke 80 miles an hour, Borders was a sensation whose exploits drew widespread media and fan attention. In 1999 photographer Annie Leibovitz included a picture of pitcher Borders in an exhibit of 20th Century women at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.; Leibovitz paid for the cash-strapped Borders to attend the opening reception, where the wide-eyed young women met luminaries including President Bill and First Lady Hillary Clinton.

But Borders said she could never fully embrace “Ilamania” for fear of “negative stuff coming out,” particularly while pitching for a conservative Christian school in Costa Mesa, Southern California College (now Vanguard University).

“They gave me a shot, but with that came a lot of responsibility. They were taking a huge risk on me and I knew that,” Borders said. “I am a Christian and I am a gay woman. I could not be both at that particular place at that particular time.”

The pressure of living a hidden life continued after her playing days. Borders hit bottom in 2007 when the woman to whom she was secretly married was killed by a drunk driver. Borders said she contemplated suicide but came through the ordeal because of her Christian faith.

Borders is still the only woman to pitch and win a complete game in collegiate ball. She played four years in independent minor league baseball, winning twice, the only woman to win a professional game in the past 60-plus years.

She said there will “definitely” be a woman pitcher in the major leagues someday, but predicted she is likely to come from Japan, Canada or Australia, where more women play baseball. She said more American girls are playing ball than ever, but they’re steered into softball, often in pursuit of college scholarships.

“I’m trying to get this book out to say there is an opportunity (in baseball),” she said.

The interview was part of a program that also featured Borders’ co-author, Laguna Beach writer Jean Hastings Ardell; Ardell’s husband Dan, a real estate executive and member of the original Los Angeles Angels in 1961; and Whittier College professor Joe Price, who has sung the national anthem at more than 125 ballparks.

The program, which aired last week on PBS SoCal, KDOC and Cox, can be viewed on YouTube.