One of Our Heroes: Ila Borders
Ila Borders is not your average athlete, nor is she your average human.
“I had a different dream,” Borders says. “I can remember when I was 5 years old that I wanted to play men’s professional baseball.”
Not softball. Baseball.
And in 1995, she made it happen. She was the first woman to start as pitcher in a men’s collegiate baseball game. But it started much earlier than that.
The Start of the Dream
Not one for dolls, Borders grew up interested in sports, especially baseball.
“I had a ton of energy, I always had a bat and a ball in my hand and I was constantly throwing it around,” she says. She started playing at just five years old.
Her mother and father were supportive of her dream, taking her to see baseball games and never telling her she couldn’t play with the boys.
She remembers being ten years old and going to a Dodgers game with her dad. She saw Dusty Rogers hit a home run and remembers looking up at her dad and saying, “Dad, this is what I want to do.”
Unfortunately, the world didn’t agree.
Challenging the Status Quo
“Every place I went to was difficult,” Borders says. She recalls a time at ten years old when she went with her mother to sign up for Little League baseball. There was a huge line and at one point, one of the volunteers tried to direct them to the softball sign ups instead.
Borders’ mother insisted she wanted to play baseball, not softball. “The lady lied to us, told us to come back the next day for baseball sign ups,” says Borders. “We came back the next day and no one was there.”
It took two weeks on the waiting list before the baseball coach finally called to let Borders try out. She promptly struck out all the boys and hit a home run, “just annihilated everybody out there,” Borders laughs. They let her join the team.
High school presented new challenges, both athletically and personally. Borders had to pay her own way to attend a private school just to be allowed to play baseball, which she did all four years of her schooling. And around high school, boys started to ask her out.
Borders has known from a very young age that she was gay, so getting asked out on dates by boys was not something she wanted.
“And so I would hide, I would absolutely hide during lunch. I just didn’t want to be asked out. I knew at that time I liked girls but I couldn’t date them,” Borders says. Her private Catholic school wouldn’t have allowed it.
College brought the same challenges, though she did play baseball all four years, which is when she became the first woman to start as pitcher in a men’s collegiate baseball game.
After college, Borders was able to play professional baseball with the men, but she still couldn’t date women.
“I was told if I came out, I could no longer play baseball,” she says. She wanted to sign with the Cincinnati Reds but there was too much media publicity surrounding her and her career to risk it. Instead, she signed with the Minnesota team the St. Paul Saints and played her first regular season game in 1997.
As a California girl, Borders says one of the most striking things for her was experiencing the Midwest.
“I went out to Minnesota and when I played for the Saints, the people were so nice to me. I’ve never experienced that before.” She says “I went from people saying they don’t want me to play baseball but then when I went to play pro baseball in St. Paul, they welcomed me with open arms.”
But the inability to publicly be herself was taking its toll. She had a horrible feeling she was lying to everyone. “I couldn’t be who I was, I just wanted to be out,” she says.
Despite the personal pressures, Borders played professional baseball for four years. She notes that in addition to the regular pressures her male teammates faced, she had the added stress of people telling her if she messes up, she messes up for all women.
She recalls one game in particular in Fargo, North Dakota where she was the starting pitcher. There was a huge crowd at the game, some fans supportive, but lots yelling at her. The coach was trying his best to get under her skin and intimidate her out of playing.
So she went out there and she pitched and by the 7th inning, her team was up 2-0. “Everybody’s tune changed,” she says, “In the sense of ‘Oh holy crap she can do this. She’s good. She’s about ready to get a win against us.’”
“That’s when it dawned on me—I’m not really going out there and pitching for myself. My purpose from that point on was to change people’s minds about women in baseball and women in sports and women in general.”
Ultimately, despite her successful career, not being able to be out was too much for Borders.
“It’s why I eventually left baseball,” she says. “I had to choose between [baseball] or living an authentic life. I felt like I was destroying who I was by keeping it a secret. So I got out of baseball, left that entire world, and came out to family and friends. I felt like I finally had my life.”
Instead of baseball, she became a firefighter and paramedic.
“I wanted to get into a profession that presented new challenges daily, was physically active, a part of a team, but also worked independently and was something I could be proud of that served others,” Borders says.
But baseball will never fully leave her. She currently coaches in Portland, Oregon; mostly boys and men, but sometimes girls too.
“When I have free time I try to give back,” she says. “It’s still in my blood.”