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Baseball: Borders was ahead of her time

The first time Ila Borders, then a member of the St. Paul Saints, pitched at Wade Stadium, she came on in relief and extinguished a one-out, bases-loaded fire by inducing a double play.

Mike Krebs / Ila Borders laughs as she is lowered to field level Wednesday at Wade Stadium. Borders played for the Duluth-Superior Dukes from 1997–1999.

The first time Ila Borders, then a member of the St. Paul Saints, pitched at Wade Stadium, she came on in relief and extinguished a one-out, bases-loaded fire by inducing a double play.

Borders, the first woman to pitch in a men's professional game, returned to Wade on Wednesday. Fittingly, she was lowered to the field by a fire truck ladder, which had been fully extended - with Borders hanging out at the top - moments prior.

It was Emergency Services Night at the old ballpark.

Borders, a firefighter and paramedic in Portland, Ore., threw out the first pitch - a strike right down Broadway - ahead of the Duluth Huskies' game against Thunder Bay. Somehow, it's been 20 years since the trailblazing lefty helped the Duluth-Superior Dukes win their lone Northern League title. After starting the 1997 season with the Saints, they promptly traded her north. Her Dukes debut came on the Fourth of July that summer.

"When they told me I was going from St. Paul to here, at first I was like, 'Oh, no.' And then I got here and I'm like, 'Yes!' I'm like, 'I just want to stay here as long as I can,' " Borders, 42, recalled. "Because I love the field. It's a pitcher's ballpark."


Before being interviewed Wednesday on Wade's steamy turf, Borders had spotted Jim Wadley, who owned the Dukes from 1995-99, in the concourse. She immediately threw her hat in disbelief, then embraced her former boss. Wadley, she says - just like Saints owner Mike Veeck - gave her fledgling career a jolt.
"It wasn't a cool time for women to play baseball, so I applaud people like Mike Veeck and Jim Wadley," Borders said. "They took a huge risk on me. I would not have been able to realize any of my dreams without those guys."

Wadley, along with other front-office types, were on hand Wednesday as the '97 Dukes were recognized.

The former owner was asked earlier in the week what led him to acquire Borders. Independent baseball demands outside-the-box promotions to put butts in seats. A female pitcher certainly would meet that criteria, but Wadley wanted Borders for multiple reasons. The biggest? She could get batters out.

"There was some degree of promotion, but No. 1, I'd seen her pitch," he said.

That's all Borders ever wanted to do. She didn't care about breaking barriers. Like her male teammates, Borders was trying to summit baseball's mountain. She thought she was on the brink after posting a 1.67 ERA with the Madison Black Wolf in 1999. Borders opened that year in Duluth, but struggled mightily. In early June, her ERA at 30.86, the Dukes placed her on waivers and ultimately shipped her to Madison.

The change of scenery touched off a rebirth. Borders didn't throw hard, topping out in the mid-80s, but she expertly located her pitches. Following her success with the Black Wolf, two major-league teams told Borders they planned to invite her to spring training in 2000.

Those invitations never materialized.

"They just told me flat-out that if I went there the media was going to be so intense that it was going to be taking away from the game and from the other players' development," Borders said.


She was dejected.

"When I didn't get that call, I allowed it to devastate me instead of just saying, 'OK, you know what, let's just keep going because you love the game,' " Borders said. "I allowed that to affect me, and when I showed up to spring training camp for Madison, my fourth year, I was not prepared. It was my own fault."

While playing for the Dukes, Borders lived with a couple across the alley from the stadium. That allowed her to walk home after games, in uniform, and shower there. On the road, she'd shower back at the hotel. Borders was careful not to disrupt the locker-room dynamic.

Eventually, her teammates accepted her, but it took time, just as it did at every level - when she was a prep standout in California, upon becoming the first female to pitch in a college game, then as a pro.

Wadley and his general manager with the Dukes, Bob Gustafson, both said Borders was a leader. They noted her work ethic and professionalism.

"When she showed up, guys started thinking, '(Shoot), if this gal is working this hard, we better, too,' " Wadley said.

Borders earned her first professional win on July 24, 1998, 50 years to the day after the first incarnation of the Dukes endured a horrific bus crash that left six team members dead.

Wednesday, the affable Borders, who still coaches and plays baseball, couldn't go more than a minute without shaking a hand or sharing a hug - minus the time she spent high above right field, from whence she jogged to the mound wearing her firefighter uniform and a black Dukes hat.


Seventeen years after exiting professional baseball, Borders doesn't have any regrets. Sure, she was "young and dumb" when she left the Black Wolf, but she needed a break from the grind, and the spotlight.

"I don't know about regrets because then I feel like if you go back and change those things, maybe you wouldn't be who you are today," Borders said. "And I'm very grateful because I'm in a really good place."

• Today is Ila Borders Bobblehead Giveaway Night at Wade, where the Huskies open a two-game set against Mankato.

• Borders released a memoir, "Making My Pitch: A Woman's Baseball Odyssey," this past spring.

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