It was winter 1993, but across America, baseball was still in the air. In October, Joe Carter had produced one of the most memorable moments in Major League Baseball history: a Game 6 home run that won a World Series championship for the Toronto Blue Jays. Barry Bonds had just taken home the third of his seven MVP awards, Greg Maddux was in the midst of a nearly unparalleled run as a starting pitcher, and nearly 4.5 million fans made it to Mile High Stadium to see the Colorado Rockies play their home games during the franchise’s first season. Outside of MLB, though, talk around the nation had shifted to the upstart Colorado Silver Bullets, the all-woman baseball team backed by Coors Brewing Company that would play its first games in the spring.

In a scene reminiscent of 1992’s A League of Their Own, women came by the hundreds for tryouts, which were held at sites across the country. There was K.C. Clark, a 23-year-old supermarket cashier who left her apartment in Irvine, California, for a tryout in Phoenix. There was Pam Schaffrath, who’d just started playing college basketball when she walked into her coach’s office in Iowa and said she needed to leave for Chicago to try out for a baseball team. “You’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t do this,” the coach told her. Missy Coombes, a 25-year-old middle school PE teacher, got time off from work to get to Orlando, Florida. Shannan Mitchem drove with her mother to a field in Atlanta. When Mitchem arrived, she lined up on the turf with the other women and surveyed her competition. The former Florida State University softball star was certain she’d make the team.

And there was Julie Croteau, who’d always been into baseball. She’d grown up in northern Virginia, playing T-ball and Little League. While most girls eventually gravitated toward softball—and the promise of a college scholarship for the best among them—Croteau was devoted to hardball. When she didn’t make her high school’s men’s varsity team as a senior, her family sued the school district for sex discrimination. Croteau asked a judge to grant an independent observer a chance to watch her play and report back to the court. The judge declined, and the family lost the suit. The lasting image from Croteau’s teenage years was watching the boys from the team celebrate her loss on the courthouse steps.

Baseball had meant everything to Croteau, so she continued playing, for three years, on a Division III college team. Later, she played semipro ball in Virginia, dodging pitches deliberately aimed at her head while she stood in the batter’s box. After nearly two decades in the game, Croteau finally thought she was done.

Then, one day in 1993, she got a call from an acquaintance—something about an all-woman baseball team. “Being on a baseball field made me feel like a whole human being, like anything was possible in my life,” Croteau says today. “This was my opportunity to feel whole again.”

Since baseball diamonds first popped up across America in the mid-1800s, women have played hardball. In 1866, Vassar College’s women played the game in woolen, ankle-length dresses. Thirty-two years later, in 1898, Lizzie Arlington pitched for the professional Philadelphia Reserves and later tossed an inning for the minor league Reading Coal Heavers. In the 1920s, Black women occupied roster spots on several Negro Leagues teams.

In 1931, 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell signed with her hometown Chattanooga Lookouts. Mitchell “has a swell change of pace and swings a mean lipstick,” a newspaper reporter wrote at the time. Hank Aaron, the prodigious Hall of Fame slugger, would reminisce about a woman named Toni Stone, who replaced Aaron on the Indianapolis Clowns roster after Aaron left the Negro Leagues for the then Boston Braves in 1952. Aaron recalled Stone as a tough second baseman who wore scars from the opponents who purposefully slid into her.

man with glasses
Bob Hope, the founder of the Silver Bullets. Photo by Laura Wulf

Aaron wasn’t the only admirer—and supporter—of women playing in the upper echelons of baseball. Another was Bob Hope, who befriended Aaron during nearly two decades in the Atlanta Braves’ PR department and ultimately founded the Colorado Silver Bullets. Even after Hope left the Braves in 1979 and pursued other opportunities in PR and sports marketing, he never forgot about his conversations with Aaron. In 1985, when the low-level Florida State League announced it was expanding, Hope, and a few others, raised several thousand dollars to create an all-woman team to compete with the rest of the league. Though Aaron joined the front office and served as an unofficial scout, the project eventually fizzled.

Seven years later, Hope hadn’t given up. As he traveled the country, selling major companies on sports-related sponsorships and promotions, he pitched the idea of a women’s professional team. “I got laughed out of the room a whole bunch,” Hope says. In late spring 1993, Hope secured a meeting with Leo Kiely, the new chief executive officer at Coors, in Golden, and the first non-Coors family member to have the job. “Leo was a big baseball fan,” Hope says, “and he wanted us to come out and present some ideas that would get attention for Coors Light, which was being marketed as the Silver Bullet.”

Hope prepared several proposals but decided to front-load the presentation with his idea for a women’s baseball team. “I figured I could get it out of the way and move on to other things,” Hope remembers. To his surprise, Kiely and the other Coors executives were intrigued.

Kiely offered $50,000 to see if Hope could make his plan work. “I couldn’t believe we’d done it,” Hope says.

The team now needed a manager. Hope set his sights on Phil Niekro, a former Braves pitching star who’d eventually earn a plaque in Cooperstown. “Phil was the only person I even considered,” Hope, who’s now 77, says.

Niekro’s reputation preceded him. He was a baseball lifer, famous for a floating knuckleball that earned him 318 wins in a 24-year career and the respect of everyone who mattered in pro ball. Most important to Hope, “Knucksie” was a guy who’d ridden the ups and downs of the game. In addition to winning more than 300 games, Niekro lost 274—fourth-most in major league history at the time—and only twice saw his team make the playoffs. “Phil had seen his fair amount of failure,” Hope says. “But he never lost his love for baseball.” Five years after retiring in 1986, Niekro managed the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate in Richmond, Virginia. After a couple of mediocre seasons, though, a call-up to the big league coaching staff hadn’t materialized. Hope knew Niekro wanted to remain in baseball.

In summer 1993, Hope rang Niekro. “It’s a real opportunity to do something in this game,” Hope told his friend. Niekro balked, but Hope cut him off. He wanted his friend to think about the idea for a couple of days. “Mostly,” Hope says, “I wanted him to talk to his wife about it.”

Niekro called back within a week: He wanted the job. Although he said his family backed the decision, it wasn’t his wife who had persuaded him. Niekro told Hope that, having grown up in a baseball-loving family in the coal fields of eastern Ohio—his brother, Joe, would record 221 wins during a 22-year major league career—it was his older sister, Phyllis, a standout player herself, who had encouraged Phil to be part of the Silver Bullets team. “Dad always thought Phyllis deserved a shot to show what she could do,” John Niekro, Phil’s son and a former Silver Bullets coach, says. “In a way, I think Dad thought this was his chance to correct some wrongs in the game.”

The Silver Bullets were officially introduced on December 10, 1993, and made headlines around the country. They’d be led by a coaching staff that included Niekro’s brother, Joe, and a slew of former major and minor league players, including Tommy Jackson, who’d later win a World Series ring as a coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks. A series of open tryouts were scheduled in more than 10 cities during that winter.

Around 50 women who impressed the coaching staff at the tryouts were invited to spring training that following April, at the Boston Red Sox’s complex in Fort Myers, Florida. The hopefuls spent a month fielding, throwing, and hitting in the heat and humidity. The players lived in dorms and played daily scrimmages against one another. Even with professional accommodations and a coaching staff that included former MLB stars, some of the women still worried the whole thing was a scam—especially when the team announced its players would make $20,000 for the first season, or nearly double what a minor league baseball player might make in a year. “There’s no way this is happening,” Stacy Sunny, a former Division I All-Decade catcher for UCLA, remembers thinking. “It can’t be real.”

Baseball cards of manager Phil Niekro, Stacy Sunny, and Julie Croteau. Photos by Sarah Banks

The coaches would later realize how unprepared both they and the players were. Softball is played on a smaller field, with a larger ball, and with different rules. Softball hitters generally slap at pitches, in what often looks like a running start toward first base that would sap power from a baseball hitter. There’s also less nuance in the game: Softball runners can’t lead off, which means stolen bases are rare. Middle infielders don’t have to position themselves in case of a steal attempt; first basemen don’t have to watch the pitcher for a throw-over.

Southpaw Missy Coombes pitching. Photo by Laura Wulf

Besides Croteau, who’d spent much of her college career on the bench at tiny Saint Mary’s College of Maryland, none of the women had played organized baseball in years. Some hadn’t even touched a baseball in decades. “It felt so different in my hands,” Coombes remembers. Few players had swung a wooden bat or had thrown a ball the 120-plus feet from third base to first base. None had ever pitched from a rubber that was 60 feet, six inches from home plate.

At spring training, the coaches’ attitudes vacillated between surprise and bewilderment. “It could be a challenging atmosphere,” John Niekro remembers. “That’s putting it mildly.” Because the women played softball, they were used to the exuberant softball spirit—which is the opposite of the more staid, stuffy rhythms of traditional baseball. Someone would make a nice catch in the infield—and then immediately be swallowed by chattering teammates offering high-fives and pats on the rear end. When one woman roped a spring training hit into the outfield and slid into third base for a triple, she leapt into a coach’s arms and wrapped the man in a hug—something you’d never see in a baseball game. She got a talking-to afterward.

Still, the women slowly began to win over the coaching staff. Even if they weren’t attuned to baseball’s more conservative culture, each was athletic and highly competitive and had the bona fides to prove it. Mitchem had played four years at Florida State and appeared in three NCAA College Softball World Series. Martinez starred on a national championship team at University of California, Berkeley, and would later pitch on the Puerto Rican softball team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. She hadn’t pitched overhand since the 1970s, so she tried out for the Silver Bullets by zipping the ball in the underhand motion used by softball pitchers. Her future teammates sneered at the oddity, but Martinez put pitch after pitch into the strike zone. “They didn’t laugh after that,” she says.

There were also the players who had something to prove. Clark, who played the outfield, suffered from a degenerative eye disease that was slowly robbing her of her peripheral vision. Although she still excelled in the field, Clark struggled at the plate. The Silver Bullets offered her a chance to play defense—and to show something to herself and to the people who she thought had written her off.

One pitcher, Leslie Ketchum, had a father who played six seasons of minor league baseball, and she wanted to keep the pro game in the family bloodline. Croteau simply wanted an opportunity to rewrite the ending to her life in the game. “I couldn’t see it any other way,” she says. “I needed that team.”

Within four weeks, the 50 hopefuls had been whittled down to a roster of 24. The team’s first game was scheduled for May 8, 1994, Mother’s Day, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Any excitement about the season was quickly extinguished after the Silver Bullets lost their first game 19-0 to a semipro All-Star team that included Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd and Leon Durham, two former pros with a combined 18 years of major league experience. Durham hit two home runs and Boyd—whose fastball barely topped 80 mph—relied on an arsenal of breaking pitches to shut down Silver Bullets hitters. By the seventh inning, Boyd had given up just two hits and struck out 12 batters. “It was soul-crushing,” says Stacy Sunny, who started at third base that night. “We probably went in a little overconfident,” John Niekro says today. The team had left spring training hitting the ball well and were getting on base. “But we never really stepped back and said we were hitting the ball all over the place against ourselves,” Niekro says.

The team needed a quick reset. A day after the blowout, the Silver Bullets backed out of the Northern League, an independent pro minor league that would have pushed the team into more potentially devastating losses. Instead, they’d become an entirely barnstorming organization—playing outside of any established league and traveling the country while scheduling exhibition games with teams composed of male players who ranged from high schoolers to middle-aged beer-leaguers. They’d also trade out wooden bats for the aluminum ones they’d played with in college.

There were immediate complications with the team’s schedule. The players didn’t know where they would be week to week, or even night to night. Because the Silver Bullets had opened their schedule to nearly all comers, that sometimes meant hastily scheduled games. The team lost its second contest, 7-0, to the Red Mountain Bandits in Mesa, Arizona. The Silver Bullets went to San Francisco to play North California Community College and got drubbed 14-0. Over the season’s first 16 days, the team played games from Jacksonville, Florida, to Winnipeg, Canada. They were outscored 57-1.

Perhaps the most difficult—and strangest—part of the schedule was that there weren’t true home games for the team. Although the Silver Bullets had “Colorado” emblazoned on their jerseys, the team played only two games in the state—a July 1 contest against the Pueblo All-Stars, in Pueblo, and a July 3 game at Mile High Stadium against the amateur Colorado Sox, which more than 35,000 fans attended. Over five months, the team would take 64 flights and dozens of bus rides. “At some point, you just want one night to sleep in your own bed,” first baseman Croteau says. “It was exhausting.”

By the start of the team’s third month, the Silver Bullets had played 23 games and logged just one victory—a 7-2 win in St. Paul, Minnesota, over a team called the Richfield Rockets. The Silver Bullets were shut out 13 times, including a stretch of four straight games in which they didn’t score a run. Some Silver Bullets players saw more combined losses in May and June of 1994 than they’d experienced during their entire college softball careers.

After the team’s 6-1 loss to the Colorado Sox in Denver, the Silver Bullets were in desperate need of a victory. “You don’t want to admit that you’re getting pissed off about dropping games, but we were definitely getting pissed off,” says Schaffrath, who played catcher and outfield and sometimes served as designated hitter. Other teams’ players mocked them before games. “It was like they were saying we’re barefoot and pregnant and blah blah blah,” Clark says.

The team traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, in early July to play the Summerville Yankees. Martinez was on the mound. “To say I was motivated is an understatement,” she says. Martinez’s most prodigious underhand pitch was her dropball, which she delivered with a pronated right hand that gave the ball both a falling and a tilting action. The movement was similar to that of an overhand screwball, working down and in on right-handed batters.

Lisa Martinez on the mound. Photo by Laura Wulf

Martinez pitched those first innings in Charleston, her windmill softball delivery and hip-high release baffling hitters. By the game’s midpoint, the Silver Bullets were up by a couple of runs and the dropball was working well. Standing in the dugout in the eighth inning, Martinez studied the scoreboard. Only then did she realize she was throwing a no-hitter. The ninth inning went one-two-three, with a groundout to third base ending the game. After the final out, Martinez and Sunny met each other between the mound and home plate and embraced. Teammates encircled the pair and laughed and cheered and cried. Afterward, they celebrated with beers in the clubhouse.

Video of Martinez’s no-hitter doesn’t exist, or at least no one on the team has seen it. “That’d be so cool to see that last out,” she says. “Just take that little walk in the past.” Martinez, whose married name is Shawver, is in a hotel room in Las Vegas, resting before a ballroom dancing competition the next morning. She’s 59 now and hoping to start dancing professionally.

The Silver Bullets folded after four years when Coors pulled its funding for the team, and each year, the memories fade a little more for those associated with the team’s earliest days. Remembering specific opponents and which small towns they visited is most often an effort in futility, made even more difficult because video footage of that first season is scarce.

The Silver Bullets’ website, which Hope still operates, looks as if it’s trapped in the mid-1990s. There’s a hodgepodge of names and statistics—the team won just six games and lost 41 in its inaugural campaign—but little else. Coors, which is now part of the Molson Coors conglomerate, has only a few photographs and an old press release to show for its $7 million investment over four years of the team’s existence. Leo Kiely, the former CEO who greenlit the Silver Bullets, died in January 2023.

A commemorative ball signed by Silver
Bullets players. Photo by Sarah Banks

Even the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, is light on Silver Bullets paraphernalia; it has some photos, a couple of jerseys, and an autographed team ball from that first season. “It’s a little bit like here today, gone tomorrow,” says Schaffrath, 52, who’s been a Chicago police officer for 24 years. “We did our thing, and it was fun and rewarding, but then the world moved on.”

Although she spent three seasons with the team, Sunny doesn’t think too much about legacies. “I’m just happy that, for a few glorious years, I got to play pro baseball,” the former catcher says. “How many people in this world get to say that?”

Part of this is perhaps a consequence of the era. “Imagine if we’d been around at this time, rather than 30 years ago,” Clark says. “We’d have the internet and social media. Think about what Silver Bullets on TikTok or Instagram would look like. The attention would be nuts.”

Twenty-seven years after the team folded—by its fourth and final season, the team posted a vastly improved 23-22 record—Silver Bullets alums still talk occasionally. They’re mothers and wives and professionals in things other than baseball. Julie Croteau is the director of strategic communications and events at the Stanford Cancer Institute. Stacy Sunny is the VP of technical operations and remote crewing at Fox Sports Net. Lisa Shawver is working on that dancing career, but she’s also an entrepreneur and motivational speaker. Shannan Mitchem is now Shannan Lovelady, a breast cancer survivor who’s raising three kids in a sports-obsessed home with her husband, a high school football coach whose team won the Georgia state championship in 2022. “I’m Mom now,” Lovelady says. Still, there’s a framed Silver Bullets jersey hanging on a basement wall, in case the kids forget Mom was an amazing athlete in her own right.

Fifteen years ago, a bunch of the women got together in Atlanta, where Phil Niekro still lived. They swapped stories. They talked about how Niekro could make them feel like they’d just let down their own fathers if they made an error in the field. They talked about a coach who yelled when they ran back to the dugout after striking out. “What are you so happy about?” he’d shout. The voice still rang in their ears. They talked about Shawver’s no-hitter. They talked about the time Sunny got hit in the face with a fastball and played again that week. They talked about knocking back beers at the bar after a game while groupies tried to hit on them, about fleabag motels, about the coast-to-coast plane rides.

They’ve seen their ranks get smaller over the years. Joe Niekro, their pitching coach and Phil’s brother, was the first to go. He suffered a blood vessel rupture caused by a brain aneurysm in 2006 and died at 61. The day after Christmas in 2013, third base coach Paul Blair had a heart attack and was pronounced dead at the hospital. Hitting coach Joe Pignatamo died of dementia in 2022.

Four years ago, the texts started flying among old teammates: Phil Niekro was battling prostate cancer. He’d kept quiet about it, but the end seemed inevitable. At 81, he was grinding out the last months of his life like a warhorse starting pitcher muscling through the final outs on his way to a complete game. Lovelady got a call in December 2020. It was Niekro’s family. “Dad was going downhill pretty quickly,” John, Niekro’s son, remembers.

At the time, Lovelady lived less than 10 miles from Niekro’s house, and she’d visited a few times over the years. Although she’d swapped out Mitchem as her last name nearly 15 years earlier, Niekro still called her “Mitch.” One morning before Christmas, she drove to Niekro’s home to see her manager for the last time.

They talked for about an hour. Niekro looked tired, but he brightened as they reminisced about their families and a friendship that now stretched across nearly three decades. Mostly they talked baseball. At one point, Lovelady admitted she’d wanted her manager’s validation—that she probably still wanted it—and that she’d always fought to stay on the field because she never wanted Niekro to think he’d made a mistake by putting her on the team.

Before Lovelady left, she held her manager’s hand for the final time and looked into his eyes. “You were good, Mitch,” Niekro said. She cried all the way home.

Veronica Alvarez was relaxing in her yard in northwest Denver this past fall, planning the next few months of her baseball life. The 40-year-old Oakland Athletics coach is a rarity in the pro game. As one of only about 30 women coaching in Major League Baseball, she’d recently been promoted to a job overseeing Oakland’s training program in the Dominican Republic—fertile ground for the game’s future superstars.

Veronica Alvarez in the dugout with a couple of fellow Athletics coaches. Photo courtesy of Jean Fruth

It had been a busy few years for Alvarez, who’d begun her career in the majors as an A’s spring training coach in 2019 and then moved into a job coaching the organization’s minor league catchers. In July 2022, she filled in as manager of Oakland’s High-A Lansing (Michigan) Lugnuts and became the first woman ever to manage a pro game. Her team won 6-3 over the Great Lakes Loons. “Honestly,” she says, “I’m probably the luckiest person alive.”

Before becoming a softball catcher at Villanova University, Alvarez was a kid growing up in Miami. The daughter of Cuban refugees, Alvarez lived in a three-bedroom home she shared with her baseball-crazed parents and brother. Like her father, she loved the sport: the sound of the bat on the ball, the history, the link to her parents’ native Cuba. As a young ballplayer, Alvarez could hit for power. She could pitch and catch and play pretty much every position on the field.

Photo by Sarah Banks

In summer 1994, she was 11 years old. The dream of becoming a professional baseball player was giving way to the reality that softball likely would be her path if she wanted a college scholarship. She turned on the television in her family room. A game was on, but there was a team playing that the girl with baseball dreams didn’t even know existed. Who are the Silver Bullets? she remembers wondering.

Alvarez was captivated. “I watched every second of that game,” she says. “There was a woman at every position. Every hitter who came up was someone who looked just like me.” To a girl growing up in South Florida, the baseball field that day looked like opportunity—freedom to choose a path in life, to pick a future.

Of course, softball won out. Alvarez played at Villanova, got a degree, and moved on with her life. After she graduated from college in 2005, she returned to Miami and worked as an administrator in the school district where her father was also an administrator. A few years into the job, she was thinking back to that game she’d seen on TV years earlier, opened her laptop, and Googled “Colorado Silver Bullets.” Among the results was a link to USA Baseball, which sponsored American teams in international competitions and was creating a women’s baseball program to compete against teams in other parts of the world. The toughest competitors were the Japanese and the South Koreans, who’d invested in women’s leagues that played full summer schedules.

The idea that Alvarez could return to the diamond and represent the USA in a game she’d loved since childhood was enticing. Alvarez got in touch with the organization and eventually headed off to a tryout in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In 2008, the then 25-year-old made her debut with USA Baseball, helping the team to a bronze medal in the women’s baseball World Cup. She’d play again in 2010 and 2012. In 2015, Team USA won gold at the Pan-American Games.

Two years later, Alvarez was asked to coach at the MLB Trailblazer Series and later at the MLB Girls Breakthrough Series Showcase & Development Camp. At the camps, she encouraged the young women to stay in the sport, to not be swayed by people who talked about softball being the only route for girls, to stand firm that baseball was also a women’s game. In 2018, Alvarez became an assistant coach on the USA Baseball Women’s National Team staff. The following year, the Oakland A’s called. “The rest is history,” she says.

As she talks about her career in baseball, which has become a life in baseball, Alvarez’s mind keeps returning to that Silver Bullets game in 1994. What would have happened if she hadn’t turned on the television at that moment? “It’s funny how things work out,” she says. That single game became a memory that never left her, which turned into a Google search 14 years later, which led to a tryout, which led to all this.

“It’s crazy, right?” she says. “How my life turned out this way because of that team.” Alvarez smiles, shakes her head in disbelief, and laughs. She holds the smile, then purses her lips. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the Silver Bullets,” Alvarez says, and she could barely get the words out before her eyes welled. “Those women, they don’t even know me. But I owe them everything.”

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