Fast women

ColoradoBIZ
May 2004

You’re tired of arrogant athletes. You’ve had it to your neckline with contract squabbles and steroid busts. You’re burned out on $100 tickets, showboating rookies, no-trade clauses and free agents who disappear into the night. Your faith is wavering. The romance is fading. Anymore, your remote control is just another gadget that needs new batteries.

You need a hero. A reason to root. A throwback.

You, sports fan, need Amber Burgess.

You need Amber Burgess because she’s an athlete who is positively, outrageously, infectiously, convincingly ecstatic to be making a little more than $5,000 to play 60 games this season. You need Amber Burgess, who hit .252 with five homers in her senior year for Nebraska, because she’s a Littleton kid who grew up playing ball on the same fields where your kid knocks down grounders on Saturdays in summer. You need her because of where she went to high school (Columbine), when (1996-1999) and who coached her (Dave Sanders). Most of all, you need her in the age of end-zone cell phones and Balco supplements and preyed-upon hotel clerks because of what this 24-year-old catcher believes in most as an athlete.

Which is, get this: the soil.

Good old Colorado clay. Earth. Ground.

“I grew up,” says Burgess, “respecting the dirt.”

You may regret having paid $65 for that Portis jersey. You may be wondering privately what it is about a three-hour hockey game that makes a pair of rink-side seats worth $354. But you hear a love-of-the-game athlete with, until now, zero chance of playing professionally express her fondness for terra firma, and even you, oh jaded one, get back a little of that old-time stirring.

The Denver-based league that has given Burgess and about 95 other players a chance to extend their playing careers is called National Pro Fastpitch. Six teams, 60 games apiece, June through August.

For the uninitiated, this is not your Thursday night beer league. The emphasis of National Pro Fastpitch is “fast,” and it’s typified by flame-throwers like Jodie Cox, a lefty who struck out a conference-high 224 batters last year for Cal State Fullerton.

Entry isn’t cheap. Individual team owners will sink close to $500,000 into their first year of operations. Even with a strong fan turnout, owners likely will depend on corporate sponsorships for about half of their revenues, says Danny Stroud, a Denver communications technology executive who is attempting to form an NPF team.

The idea is as risky as crowding the plate against a Jennie Finch fastball. League organizers intend to build for the long haul, avoiding the problems that plagued the league’s previous incarnation, known as the Women’s Pro Softball League. It halted operations in 2001. For the revived NPF, gone are the word “softball” and the idea that the league itself should own every team. Instead, the league is banking on solid individual team ownership and a marketing affiliation with Major League Baseball, which has embraced the NPF as a “development partner,” hoping to attract more women fans to the game at large.  

League president Rich Levine, an Evergreen attorney and sports business veteran, hopes the NPF gets an extra jolt out of attention likely to be lavished on the U.S. women’s team at the summer Olympics in Athens. He’s also banking on broad popularity of the game in general. More than 358,000 girls nationally play high-school ball (up 60 percent over the last 20 years), and 1,100 NCAA colleges have teams.

The initial six-team schedule announced by the NPF in March excluded Stroud’s Colorado Altitude, which had signed some of the nation’s top-ranked players – Burgess and Cox included – and had hoped to begin its season with a June 1 home-stand at Denver’s All City Stadium.

If Stroud and co-owner Claude York can’t iron out a deal with the league before the season starts, the NPF will go with a six-team field, and players like Burgess will be free to negotiate with other teams. No matter where she lands, Burgess will be competing with the best players in the game. In the small world that is elite women’s softball, she recognizes nearly every player in the league, and has played ball with many of them since she was 12. With the NPF comprising an elite field of fewer than 100 players, Burgess isn’t even assured of a job. But come opening day, she intends to be behind the plate.

“I came here to start,” says Burgess. But then, what else would you expect from a scrappy Colorado kid who loves to play in the dirt?

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