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Ila Borders gone, but not forgotten

MINNEAPOLIS -- Ila Borders was a nervous wreck when St. Paul Saints manager Marty Scott called her into his office on the final day of training camp in 1997. Borders knew this was a make-or-break moment in her baseball career -- or what she hoped...

MINNEAPOLIS -- Ila Borders was a nervous wreck when St. Paul Saints manager Marty Scott called her into his office on the final day of training camp in 1997. Borders knew this was a make-or-break moment in her baseball career -- or what she hoped would become a baseball career.

She was shaking like a leaf.

When she heard the good news -- "Ila, you made the team" -- her immediate reaction was muted. She clenched her left hand into a celebratory fist, and that was the extent of the public outburst.

But on the inside, the 22-year-old pitcher from southern California was doing backflips. She said to herself, "OK, keep it together. Don't be a girl, keep it together."

She calmly left Midway Stadium, returned to her hotel room and closed the door. That's when she flipped out.

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"I went nuts," said Borders, now a 32-year-old firefighter in the Phoenix area, as she thought back to that day 10 years ago. "I was jumping on the bed and calling everybody."

A few days later, Borders made history by becoming the first female pitcher in aregular-season professional baseball game. And 26 days after that, she was gone.

The Saints traded Borders to the Duluth-Superior Dukes, another Northern League team. She was with the Dukes until being traded again, this time to Madison in 1999. In 2000 she played briefly with a Utah team in the Western Baseball League before retiring from the game.

But Borders lived her dream. And for fans in Minnesota -- those who cheered for her and those who sent her hate mail -- her days in St. Paul will never be forgotten.

In early 2000, Saints co-owner Mike Veeck was in Washington, D.C., for a speaking engagement. As he drove through the city, he turned a corner and saw something larger than life -- Ila Borders.

Famed celebrity photographer Annie Liebovitz had a show titled "Women" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. One of the photos in the exhibit had been blown up and hung on the outside of the building. It was a black and white shot of Borders throwing a pitch.

To this day, few people know that Liebovitz befriended Borders, including taking her on a trip to the White House to meet President Clinton. But then again, Borders was never in it for the publicity. She could have chatted with David Letterman and Jay Leno. She could have been profiled in People magazine. Veeck, who had built a national reputation as a baseball promoter, was mildly irritated when Borders said no to publicity, but he also admired her for it.

"Ila's the only person who didn't ask me, she just told me, she wasn't doing this appearance and she wasn't doing that appearance," Veeck said.

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And yet, despite Borders' intent to be treated as just another ballplayer, the media converged. When she made her regular-season debut in Sioux Falls, S.D., the press box was full of reporters and the line of television cameras in foul territory included several from Japanese media.

"I thought it would get coverage, but I never thought it would get what it got," Veeck said.

At 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds, the left-handed Borders relied not on strength but on mechanics, control and guile. Her fastball barely registered above 80 miles per hour, but she threw a curveball and changeup to keep hitters guessing.

She had played baseball with boys since Little League. She pitched for two college teams, Southern California College and Whittier College, before being invited to try out for the Saints.

"I didn't know how, I didn't know where, but I was going to do anything possible to play professional baseball," she said.

Borders had received some publicity in college, and that provided the spark that brought her and the Saints together. For Borders, it was the perfect fit. She didn't want to play for a team that would use her just to sell tickets, and the Saints already sold out every home game.

"It was like, 'Cool, I can sign a contract and not say it's a dog-and-pony show,' " she said. "I was very, very excited."

Borders has many fond memories of her time with the Saints. She remembers fans around the Northern League chanting her name. She remembers her teammates going out of their way to make her feel at home.

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"The majority of the college players I played with were jerks," she said. "They were mean; it was vicious. So when I went into professional baseball I thought it was going to be even worse. And when I got there, it was the exact opposite."

But it wasn't all good. There were the letters and phone calls from people who wanted her to stop competing with men.

"There were threats, but I didn't want to tell anybody because it breeds more of that," she said. "There was the stress of dealing with that and keeping it inside, saying everything is hunky and dory when it's not. The stress was pretty darn high."

On the field as well as off, Borders' career was a mix of good and bad. Her first pitch in a regular-season game hit the batter in the back. On that Saturday night in Sioux Falls, she threw 12 pitches in the sixth inning, committed a balk and a throwing error, recorded no outs and gave up three runs.

While signing autographs for 30 minutes after the 11-2 loss, a grim-faced Borders said, "That's gonna haunt me for the rest of my life."

After her first appearance at St. Paul's Midway Stadium and third of the season overall, her ERA was an ugly 10.80. She made short relief appearances in seven of the Saints' first 22 games before being traded to the Dukes. She had pitched only six innings with a record of 0-0 and a 7.50 ERA. When she retired from baseball in 2000, she had a career record of 2-4 with a 6.73 ERA.

"We got a call from Duluth, and they wanted to trade for her," said Scott, who was the Texas Rangers' minor-league director before joining the Saints and now works as a baseball consultant in Texas. "It was a situation where I didn't want to break her heart and take professional baseball away from her and be the one to release her. But at the same time I knew her values about not being exploited and not being used.

"I knew Duluth would pitch her on a regular basis and they could say, 'Ila Borders will be pitching on such and such night,' and they could sell a few tickets."

The trade was made on June 25.

Borders, who has a degree in kinesiology, never wanted to sit behind a desk and punch the clock. When USA Baseball named Scott manager of the women's national team for a 2004 world tournament, he wanted Borders on his pitching staff. But she was in the midst of firefighter training and unable to take part.

She still plays weekend baseball when she can, and she is active with the World Children's Baseball Fair. Earlier this month she traveled with that group to Puerto Rico, where young baseball players from 15 nations gathered for clinics and activities aimed at improving international understanding.

After living and working in southern California, Borders recently took a job with a fire department in the Phoenix area. On occasion, people remember her days as a ballplayer.

"We go on a call and someone might say, 'You look familiar. I know that name.' I don't want to say anything, but I do get that, especially being out there in the public on a daily basis," she said.

Borders has fond memories of her time in the Twin Cities. In fact, she would like to return for good. She has inquired about job openings with area fire departments.

"I'm still trying to live in Minneapolis or St. Paul because I love it so much," she said. "I absolutely love the Twin Cities."

She returned to Midway Stadium earlier this summer for "Ila Borders Night," when the Saints celebrated the 10-year anniversary of her debut. That brought back, once more, memories from the summer of '97.

"I'm telling you, I absolutely love the city of St. Paul and Minnesota," she said. "I'm really glad it happened out there."

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