- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2007

It was another powerful performance.

Desiree Serrano used her vast array of pitches — risers, screwballs, change-ups and off-speed drops — to record the dominant shutout. The windmill-style hurler with a quick smile, pony tail and lethal right arm offered batters little chance.

The ace for the first-year Washington Glory professional softball team was just as busy immediately after the contest as a swarm of giddy young girls approached her on the field to seek autographs and pose next to their hero for pictures.

“To see all the little girls here and what they have dreams to do and then seeing us and getting excited, it”s just amazing,” Serrano said. “It gives them hope.”

Serrano is a pioneer in professional women”s softball. The former Arizona State star is playing professionally in the National Pro Fastpitch league. She moved across the country to pursue a professional career and hopes one day that women can make a living playing the sport full time.

The Glory, which plays at George Mason University, are part of the six-team NPF, the latest incarnation of the sport, which has folded and reinvented itself numerous times in the past 15 years. NPF teams play 40 games from Memorial Day to mid-August. Salaries range from $15,000 for top players — usually pitchers — to less than $5,000 for the season. Free housing also is part of the package.

“I always loved softball and wanted to continue to play,” said outfielder Catalina Morris, a Stanford graduate who spends the rest of the year teaching elementary school in Arizona. “It”s a perfect opportunity.”

The Glory have tapped into a niche crowd of softball enthusiasts and drawn them to the tree-lined park at George Mason. However, the question remains: Will there be enough interest from sports fans who know little about fastpitch softball — other than perhaps Olympic bombshell/ace Jennie Finch — to sustain the league?

The Glory drew about 200 fans to a fast-paced contest last Friday, completing seven innings in a brisk 1 hour, 40 minutes. Washington won the game 4-0 over the Michigan Ice, a semipro team, as part of a four-game sweep that kept the team in first place of the NPF with a 19-5 record.

The team”s marketing plan is similar to minor league baseball’s: quality entertainment in an intimate, family-oriented environment at a reasonable price. Tickets start at $8 for children and top out at $15 for adults. Season tickets range from $25 to $55.

Attendance has varied, with as many as 900 fans showing for weekend games to fewer than 200 during the week, said owner Paul Wilson. The numbers have been inconsistent as the team struggles to establish an identity and educate the area on a sport that keeps a low profile outside of the Olympics.

“As long as we get players that are fun to watch and owners who want to push us in right direction, we are going to get there,” said catcher Sara Larquier, a second-year player from Virginia whose eight homers lead the NPF. “It is going to be a process. It is just keeping the league intact as we grow.”

The Glory also had to battle a shorter than expected startup time. They were supposed to start play next season, but joined the league early after Connecticut dropped out.

“[Attendance] is probably slightly under what I expected, but I am never happy,” said Wilson, who owns Paul”s Sports, an Internet-based sporting goods store specializing in softball equipment. “I am ecstatic with the environment we created. To me, the first year was much more about getting the word out and getting into the community. Once they come out and see how fast that game is, I think they”ll like it.”

Top pitchers can throw close to 70 mph. Considering that the pitching area is only 43 feet away from home plate, while baseball is 60 feet, 6 inches, the reaction time is roughly comparable to facing a 100-mph fastball in baseball.

Mr. Wilson is taking a gamble on turning the nontraditional revenue sport into a sustainable and eventually profitable one. He rented a 1,400-seat grandstand, and lights were installed at the field shortly before the season — the result of the Glory signing a five-year lease.

In addition to selling hamburgers and hot dogs, the team has a tent at home games where it sells elite softball equipment — with bats for as high as $239 — along with more traditional souvenirs.

Mr. Wilson, a 39-year-old former high school baseball player, feels that the women”s league is ready to explode now that it is has solid owners and a clear vision.

The team”s operating budget this season will be slightly higher than $500,000, including a salary cap of about $150,000. He expects to lose money the first two seasons and break even the third.

But he knows that the greatest challenges are to establish a brand and to convince the area that fastpitch softball is a viable player in a crowded sports marketplace.

“The fastpitch equipment side of the business led into this,” said Mr. Wilson, who plans to open an indoor softball training facility in Ashburn, Va., in the fall. “I thought it could work right away. I saw a lot of potential there and a lot of things they weren”t doing well. I thought they had not taken advantage enough of their star players. You have Jennie Finch, who is willing to be the poster child of the league.”

Wilson thinks selling those stars is key to the league’s success. Finch pitches for Chicago. The Glory drafted Monica Abbott, the USA Collegiate Player of the Year at Tennessee, this season. Abbott, who holds the NCAA record for career strikeouts, is a household name in softball circles. She became better-known by the mainstream during ESPN’s broadcasts of the College World Series.

Abbott currently is with the U.S. National Team but is expected to sign with the Glory when the national team goes to Mason for a practice next week. She should join the team in a few weeks.

The league expects Finch, Abbott and former University of Texas phenom Cat Osterman to boost its marketability to sponsors, fans and the media. The Glory”s last home series, against Rockford Aug. 2 to 5, could serve as a harbinger as Abbott and Osterman are expected to face each other.

So far, the league has been unstable. Only two franchises — New England (Lowell, Mass.) and Akron, Ohio — remain from the six that started in 2004. The changeover continued before this season as Connecticut, Texas and Arizona folded and Rockford and Washington joined. Two new teams, including Arizona, are expected next season.

“It is the right time socially and with the Olympics,” said Glory coach Carie Dever Boaz, a former head college coach at Arkansas who most recently was the pitching coach at Virginia. “The “96 Olympics [when the United States won gold in Atlanta] really helped. Then, more than just the nuts that love it knew about it. It kind of became the female”s version of America”s pastime.”

Whether fans will care enough about the sport outside of the Olympics, which will drop softball after the Beijing Games, remains to be seen.

But that was of no concern to the grade-school girls chasing autographs from their heroes after a recent game.

Pro softball”s past may be checkered and its future unclear, but for the time being, the girls of summer are getting paid to play.

“I didn”t want my career to end,” said Serrano, who finished her college career in 2006 and played for the now-defunct Arizona Heat last season. “This league wasn”t around when I was a freshman. It”s had its ups and downs. It kept folding. It’s amazing this is around now.”

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