Aug 15, 2013
A trio of former University of Michigan All-Americans is spending the summer playing in the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) league, the only domestic opportunity to play professional softball. Many leagues have come and gone over the past two generations, but the NPF has now survived for a decade and continues to fight for attention and air time in a crowded entertainment marketplace. MGoBlue.com caught up with the three players -- Dorian Shaw, Jordan Taylor and Nikki Nemitz -- to learn about life as a professional softball player. We will feature one player's story a week leading up to the NPF playoffs.
By Michael Kasiborski
Professional softball pitcher and University of Michigan softball alum Jordan Taylor (2008-11) is living the dream of thousands of young girls right now. She travels the world pitching and earning a living from her rocket-powered right arm. She lives in interesting cities and meets dynamic people. She even appeared on an episode of "Mythbusters" in May.
But as a kid she imagined a life much different than this one. She pined for frilly dresses, a fancy palace and a charming prince.
"I definitely did a lot of research on how to be a Disney princess when I was growing up," says Taylor, reminiscing about her childhood fantasy.
This California kid grew up about 60 miles from Disneyland and its phalanx of princesses. While she could have seen herself following in Cinderella's footsteps, fortunately for the rest of us, she eventually picked up a softball.
These days she is just a short pumpkin-carriage ride away from the epicenter of Epcot Center and the Disney empire, pitching for the USSSA Pride in Orlando, Fla. The princess phase may have passed her by -- she's focused now on being the queen of the diamond.
Taylor is in her second stint with the Pride -- she pitched the last few weeks of the 2011 season following a successful summer with Team USA -- and is enjoying a return to the professional ranks after an encore season with Team USA in 2012, winning the World Cup of Softball. Since this is her first full season with the NPF, she gets some good-natured grief about not quite being a rookie, but not being a veteran either.
"I'm in limbo between being a rookie and a veteran," she says, admitting the harassment from her longer-tenured teammates is mild at best.
Taylor's journey back to National Pro Fastpitch began in January, when she was living and training in Ann Arbor, occasionally throwing to the Michigan softball team. Then she spent a few months in Japan playing professionally. If you have spotted a bit of "softball nomad" theme here, it did not let up in the Far East.
"We don't have a home stadium in Japan," she says. "How it works is that we travel all over to our fans. We play two teams each weekend. [The workload] is very different than here in America."
But the nomadic lifestyle here or abroad has not dissuaded her from following her own softball fairy tale. She'll return to Japan in late August to resume the season -- which is split into two parts -- and stay there until November. Meanwhile she's pitching for the Pride and looking for a full-time softball coaching job here stateside to finally lay down some roots.
But until then, there's plenty of softball to be played and tourist traps to get caught in around Orlando. Playing for the Pride puts her smack dab in a town that doubles as America's playground.
"Our owner (the United States Specialty Sports Association) is great and provides opportunities to check out Orlando, especially when we have family in town."
She is perusing Gatorland with a few teammates when we catch up with her -- maybe she has outgrown the fairy princess stuff -- and enjoying life as a 24-year-old making her way in the world.
"There's a lot to do here. Obviously we have Disney World and Universal Studios. We have great shopping here; the outlets make it hard to keep your paycheck in check," she says with a laugh.
She is expecting a visit from her mom, Marjorie, soon. Taylor calls her mom "her biggest supporter" and says she missed just one game during her senior season at Michigan despite living in California. Of course no matter how many games Marjorie makes, old habits are hard to break.
"She can't watch me pitch," Taylor says. "She looks down and just keeps score."
Lots of folks across the country had their eyes on Taylor in May when she had the chance to demonstrate the power behind her right arm on an episode of the popular Discovery Channel show "MythBusters." They wanted to know if men and women actually throw differently or if it is a misconception in society. And although they made Jordan throw overhand, she helped prove that throwing is a matter of training, not of gender.
"We had one day of shooting in an old gym and then the next day we went to ILM studios (to shoot)," she recounted. And then regrettably, "I found out that Brad Pitt and George Clooney were there the day before, and I wondered why we couldn't have overlapped with them?"
She spent two days shooting with the MythBusters crew, and although a lot of her material ended up on the cutting room floor she got the chance to educate the TV crew on softball vs. baseball.
"It was an awesome experience," she says, "but the hosts were a little clueless about softball. I think they thought it was slow-pitch softball."
Taylor credits her time at Michigan and coach Carol Hutchins for her ability to slide into new situations -- like shooting a TV show or living half the year in Japan or even facing down a gator at Gatorland -- with comfort and ease.
"Hutch teaches you to be a better person to yourself, a better friend and a better person to other people. I got to Michigan and realized how much more there is than softball. To me, there is no better program than Michigan softball."
She mowed down the opposition with a vengeance during her four years at Michigan, earning All-America honors three times and finishing her career in first on U-M's all-time list in wins, winning percentage, no-hitters, perfect games, innings pitched, complete games and strikeouts. And while those numbers might be her Michigan legacy, she took away something else.
"Hutch has her saying about leaving the program better than when you found it, but the truth is the program makes you a better person than when you arrived. That definitely helped me adapting to my life in Japan. I wasn't stuck in a bubble, I was able to adapt to the culture and the people."
Hers is a life of constant adaptation lately, a softball chameleon of sorts. With the Pride and NPF, she assumes yet another role: softball ambassador.
"Ten years ago this league didn't exist and women were working overtime to make it a reality," she says. "Everyone in this league has bought into making this league a substantial force."
The NPF is in its 10th year and seems to be gaining some traction in its fight to be a viable and successful league. The ESPN family of networks is broadcasting 16 games this season. The league is attracting stars -- like Taylor -- who might otherwise opt to stay in the USA Softball program.
"Maybe in 10 years we'll have 10 teams. We want girls coming up now to have this be a viable career option because it's a sport we all love so much."
So there are no tiaras or ball gowns in the NPF. It's unlikely that anyone will break into song while in the circle. And unless something strange has happened recently, none of the players can communicate with animals. That is all the stuff of Disney princesses.
Taylor wants to live in a world where growing up and becoming a professional softball player is not a fairy tale anymore. Who needs glass slippers when you can wear cleats?
Follow Taylor on Twitter @7ordan7aylor
The Pride will play a three-game set against the Chicago Bandits beginning today (Aug. 15) and going through Saturday (Aug. 17).
» Past Profiles: Dorian Shaw