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Houston's Scrap Yard Dawgs Battle It Out in Fastpitch Softball

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Down a grass-lined road, past a gravel parking lot and under a baking hot sun lies the home of the newest Houston pro sports team. This 75-acre complex of softball and baseball fields – named the Scrap Yard – is where the Scrap Yard Dawgs, Houston's women's fastpitch softball team, play ball.

At a recent Sunday home game, a few dozen fans braved the 100 degree-plus heat index to sit in the stands, often beneath the protective shade of hand-held umbrellas. The satisfying thwack of the neon-yellow softball – a few inches larger in circumference than a baseball – into the catcher's waiting glove could be heard throughout the intimate field. (Which, okay, yes, is technically located in Conroe.)

“Softball definitely has that 'wow' effect,” said Meagan May Whitley, who plays catcher for the Dawgs. “It's so fast. You're right on top of each other. Like there's people that are running speeds that you wouldn't believe, that are hitting balls harder than you [would] believe, hitting them farther than you [would] believe.”

The Dawgs, who started their inaugural season in June, are ranked second out of the six teams that make up the National Pro Fastpitch league. They're the second pro softball team in Texas, after the Dallas Charge (who they lost to on Sunday). And they made headlines earlier this year for signing one of their players, pitcher Monica Abbott, as the first woman ever to receive a $1 million contract from an American pro franchise for a team sport.

“It felt good to be able to hopefully open some doors for the next generation,” Abbott said of the contract. “[And] hopefully inspire them to close the wage gap a little bit, or get their worth, fight for their value.”

Yet for the Dawgs, the contract is not only about shattering records, but also expectations. Women's sports in general have long been underappreciated – remember the Sports Illustrated writer who tweeted, “Women's sports in general not worth watching,” right after the U.S. team won the Women's World Cup? – and softball was no exception, at least until recently.

“College softball is at an all-time high,” said Connie May, the team's general manger and Whitley's mother. “The game itself has exploded.” Last year's Women's College World Series aired on ESPN and was watched by more than 1.8 million people, more people than ever before. In fact, more people watched the WCWS than did baseball's Men's College World Series, according to CBS Local Sports.

And the Houston area, May said, is a hot spot for softball. “There's just hundreds of thousands of kids playing the game in that city,” she said. She should know: May raised Whitley in Spring, and now coaches a local 18-and-under softball club. “I mean, there's so many teams, I wouldn't even venture to count. And then you have all the associated families who are falling in love with the game.”

Despite this increased attention, the road to the Dawgs' first season hasn't been easy. Though May and others initially planned to create a proper stadium for the Dawgs – right now, they play on a retrofitted field – record spring rains doomed the team’s plan to start building before the season.  But the Dawgs’ other big issue is a bit more personal: Salaries are just too low. Players don't make enough to support themselves. “Monica might be the only one that's able to focus on softball 24-7,” May said. “All the rest of them do something else.”

The league's salary cap for each team is $150,000, explained Whitley, who doubles as the marketing director of Scrap Yard Sports, the group that runs the Scrap Yard. “But what ends up happening is there's only so much that can go around for a 23-person roster, so it ends up being about somewhere between $3,000 to $10,000 per summer for somebody to be able to play. And that money doesn't usually extend outside of the summer. So if you don't have a job or you don't do lessons or something outside of it, then usually you're not able to do this.”

“It's very much a tight squeeze,” she added. Some players have even had to leave the season midway through because of other job commitments. The Dawgs’ salaries are far below those of Major League Baseball players. That league’s minimum salary is $507,500 per year.

But for some fans, none of that matters. At the Sunday game, a young bat girl stood in the Dawgs' dugout, one hand twisting her braid and the other on her heart. As the National Anthem played, her eyes were glued to the Dawgs, who stood on the foul line in their bright red uniforms.

When asked about that bat girl and about the many young softball players who come to watch the Dawgs' games, Abbott said, “When I was young, I didn't have a ton of women around me playing sports. So I [feel] like an obligation to them to put on a good show and show them what the athletic life is all about…When you have a positive person that you can see and maybe look up to, it creates dreams for you…It passes the torch.”

"To everyone that is a part of this sport, there's a responsibility to us right now to take this opportunity,” Whitley said. “Because we may not be in this position again, if we squander this and we don't do with it what we need to do with it, then we could just be starting right back at ground zero.”

The Dawgs' next home game is against the Akron Racers, as part of a three-game series starting August 4. Some National Pro Fastpitch games are also broadcast on the CBS Sports Network, on Mondays and Tuesdays.

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