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Sweet Swing

The MVP of midwest women's softball can't get enough of the game.

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Thirty minutes before the game Lisa Pugh is already on the field, loosening up with a friendly game of catch, the ball making a loud whack in the mitt of her teammate. The other players sneak a glance. Pugh stretches her legs and arms, and when the umpire lets the players take the field she trots out to shortstop, arriving just in time to scoop up a practice grounder. It's 9 AM on Sunday--an ungodly hour for many of the players--and the women's softball league at Lincoln Park is about to start another round of games.

If this league has a Babe Ruth, one player whose talents rise above the others', it's Pugh. She's always been something of a trailblazer when it comes to softball. She was one of the first African-Americans to play in the women's softball leagues in Berwyn and Oak Lawn. And she's easily good enough to play in a men's league if she ever wants to break the gender barrier, though she says, "I don't have the time for that."

"Lisa's amazing, OK?" says Liz Menor, one of Pugh's teammates on both the Berwyn team and the Lincoln Park team. "She's the queen of the Berwyn league. She's the queen of every league. It doesn't matter if she's gay or straight. Any team would want her. That girl can flat-out play."

In some ways Pugh is a throwback to a time before the federal government mandated equal spending for boys' and girls' school sports. "When I was coming up they didn't have a lot of girls' sports," says Pugh, who's 39. "Back then, girls who played a lot of sports were tomboys. That was me. I was all tomboy."

Pugh was born and raised in Cabrini-Green, one of a family of ten. "We lived in the projects, in a high-rise on Division," she says. "One of my sisters was a good tumbler--she tumbled with Jesse White. But I was the only one who stuck at sports."

By the time she was ten Pugh was playing baseball with the neighborhood boys. "We grew up playing baseball--each building at Cabrini had its own team," she says. "I don't know why I loved playing ball so much. I just did. The boys would be playing strike 'em out against the wall, and I'd say, 'Hey, let me play.' I was always the only girl who played. They might give me a hard time every now and then, call me a tomboy or something. But it was nothing too bad. What they did is they used me to tease the other boys. I'd strike a kid out, and they'd say, 'Ooo, you got struck out by a girl.'"

Her main coach was a gym instructor at Stanton Park named Janice Roberts. "Back then the Park District was really into helping the community. Now they charge for everything," says Pugh. "Janice Roberts taught me the fundamentals--how to throw and hit and pitch. Everyone has someone to thank. No one does it on their own. I have to thank her."

Pugh went to Lincoln Park High School, graduating in 1981. After that she married Trez Pugh--"My husband and I were childhood sweethearts," she says--and they had two children, Tarik and Tara. By the mid-1990s they'd bought a house near Cabrini and a few pieces of property on the south side. She now works as a laborer in the city's Department of Streets and Sanitation, and her husband is a postal inspector.

She never stopped playing softball. "You know how it is--the years just go on, and we go through so many changes," she says. "But one thing stayed the same. I played on the softball team at Lincoln Park--we weren't very good--and I kept on playing after graduation. My first team was an all-black team of women. Most of us are still together. We're a touring team. We travel all over the country to play in tournaments during the summer."

Sometime in the late 80s she started playing on other teams. "I was playing for a law-firm team in a Grant Park league," she says. "I was a ringer. That's where I met Liz [Menor]. She was also a ringer on that team. I think all the good players were ringers."

Menor brought her into the Berwyn league. "I grew up in Cicero, so I know all about the softball teams out there," says Menor. "I saw Lisa--this big, tall, strong woman who could crush the ball--and I said, 'Girl, you got to play for us.'"

By the mid-90s Pugh was playing in five separate leagues. Now she races from city to suburbs, playing six days a week. "I play in Berwyn, and then I play in Oak Lawn," she says. "I play at Seward Park. These are all slow-pitch and a 12-inch ball. I also play in a 16-inch league at Normandy Park. And of course I've got my traveling team, which goes all over the country. We've played in Atlanta, Champaign, and Cincinnati already this year. Listen, my kids are almost all grown. My husband's great--he's very supportive. He knows how much I love this. He lets me do my thing. I just get up every morning early, strap on my work boots, put on my construction hat, go to work, come home, get on my shorts, and go play ball. That's my life and I love it."

Menor also brought her into the weekend league in Lincoln Park. Most of the women in the league and on her team are lesbians. "I had to think it over at first," says Pugh. "You know, what are people going to think? Then I figured, 'Forget that. I'm a ballplayer--it's all about playing softball. No one's going to bother me.' And you know what? It's been no big deal. I've been playing here for, what, six years? There are hundreds of players in this league. As far as I know, I'm one of the only straight women. But it's no big deal. No one's ever given me a hard time."

So once or twice a week Pugh finds herself on the softball fields under the Waveland clock tower in Lincoln Park. On this particular Sunday her team--the Mis Fits--is playing a team called Women Craft. It's a hot, gorgeous morning. On the sidelines, clumps of fans, almost all of them women, slurp their coffee and squint in the sun.

The umpire, a tall man in shorts, is a good-natured ham. "Here we go, players," he calls out. "Balls in--batter up!"

The first pitch is a ball.

"That's a good call, blue," someone yells.

"Thank you," he replies amiably. "Thank you very much."

The first batter pops out to Pugh. To the plate comes a tall woman with her long dark hair tied back.

"Come on, ponytail," a fan shouts. "Wait for your pitch."

Ponytail strokes a single to right. The next batter slaps one up the middle. Pugh bobbles the ball and winces in frustration. "Don't worry, Lisa," Menor calls from center field. "Shake it off."

Menor isn't the captain of the team, but she's clearly the leader, calling on her teammates to play harder. She also enjoys taunting the opposition, playing a shallow center field, as if daring the batters to hit the ball behind her.

Eventually two runs score, and the Mis Fits come up for their half of the first. Menor, leading off, drives a single up the middle. The next batter sprays a hit to right. Up to the plate steps Pugh. She takes a big practice swing and digs in.

The first pitch is high. The second sails a little low, right where she likes it. Bam!

The ball rises on an even arc toward center field. The center fielder steps in, then realizes her mistake. The ball lands 20 feet behind her. Pugh races around the bases--a three-run homer.

After that the Mis Fits rattle pitches all over the park. They bat around twice, scoring 13 runs before the inning mercifully comes to a close. "We need some drama in this game," the Mis Fits scorekeeper yells.

"You want some drama--I got some drama," responds a Mis Fits fan. "I'll give you some drama about the relationship between Jen and Liz. There's plenty of drama there."

"That's not the kind of drama I was talking about," the scorekeeper replies.

In the bottom of the fourth Menor hits the ball down the left-field line. She runs past second, drawing a throw to third that the third baseman bobbles. On Menor goes, heading for home. The third baseman recovers in time to throw a bullet to the catcher. Menor runs faster. It looks like she's going to plow into the catcher. At the last instant she swerves to avoid a collision.

"Runner's out," bellows the umpire. "Out of the baseline."

Menor runs for another ten feet or so, then collapses, wheezing and laughing and hacking. "Gimme a cigarette," she says. "I was thinking of knocking the catcher over, and then I decided not to." She lights up and sits back in the grass enjoying the breeze blowing off the lake.

At the end of the inning the umpire says, "OK, players, whatever's gonna happen is gonna happen now." As he explains it, the games are seven innings long, unless one team's ahead by ten runs after the fifth. Then the slaughter rule applies, which means in this case that Women Craft will have to score at least four runs to keep the game alive. "Ain't gonna happen," says Menor, crushing out her cigarette and heading toward center.

Women Craft does manage to put runners on first and third with two outs. Then a woman named Michelle comes to the plate. The first pitch is a strike on the outside corner.

On the sidelines, players from the next game's teams are starting to gather.

"Hey, girl," one player calls to another. "How was your night?"

"Fabulous," says the other.

"Stee-rike two," calls the umpire.

"Come on, Michelle," yells a fan, "swing the bat."

Michelle strikes out.

"Game over!" booms the ump.

The Mis Fits gather in a circle, hands together, and shout, "Good game, Women Craft! Thank you, blue!"

Women Craft gather in their own circle and reply, "Thanks for the spanking--nice spanking. Thank you very much."

The players laugh, and the next two teams take the field.

Pugh and Menor are the last of the Mis Fits to leave, staying behind to check their schedules. "I got a game tomorrow," says Pugh, "and a game on Tuesday."

"That's a lot of softball," someone says.

"It's not enough," Menor cracks. "It's never enough. I wanna play forever--or at least until my legs fall off. Isn't that how you feel, Lisa?"

Pugh laughs. "Yeah. It's hard to understand if you don't love the game. But I'm gonna play all summer. Then I'm gonna wait out the winter for the spring and start playing again."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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