Curled up in a deep leather chair and dressed in a sweat-top and training pants emblazoned with Snoopy the cartoon dog, Eri Yoshida is an unlikely sporting pioneer. Yet this baby-faced 16-year-old with the shy smile and tomboy haircut has just broken through a once shatterproof glass ceiling: Japan's unofficial ban on female baseball players. Next year, the Yokohama schoolgirl will begin training with the all-male team Kobe 9 Cruise on a salary of 200,000 yen (HK$17,365) a month, making her the first woman to play professional baseball in Japan - reportedly the first in Asia. The one-year contract has already made her a star on her way to a potential career as a big league pitcher. For now, however, she is just savouring the moment and ignoring sniping from the sidelines. 'I couldn't believe it when I heard I was selected,' she says. 'I mean, there are girls who are much better than me. I'd like people to see them too.' Her friends have more faith. 'Some of them said afterwards, 'I knew you'd be picked'. They were rooting for me, saying, 'Show us what you can do'. I was touched.' Outside her small circle, however, the Kobe contract has been denounced as a joke, a publicity stunt and a well-meaning but doomed gesture to gender politics. Japan's sometimes fanatical baseball bloggers heap scorn on her skills, when they're not sniggering about the locker-room arrangements. 'Where's she going to change, with the men?' says one. 'She's not a serious player, just a performing panda to attract customers,' writes another. 'Baseball is not a playground for high school girls.' Baseball commentator for The Japan Times, Wayne Graczyk, remains unconvinced about the choice. 'My sense is that her selection is a publicity stunt, but on the other hand it's almost as unusual for a team to pick someone so young, so it could be that she's talented,' he says. The criticism has stung her father, Isamu Yoshida, a self-employed plumber and fitter, but he says Eri is not trying to win the sex wars, just inspire others. 'It's too early to say if she'll succeed, but it makes me happy to see other girls emulating her. Eighty per cent of the comments I read support her.' Eri says she would like more women to get involved in baseball. 'Most people think baseball is a men's sport because there are very few women,' she says. 'I think more girls would play, but they can't find opportunities or teams.' Eri had the classic childhood ingredients of an athlete: an early competitive drive and a sport-loving family that encouraged her. She began throwing catch-ball with her father and older brother, Yusuke, when she was eight years old. 'Even when I was small I didn't want to lose to him [Yusuke]. I would keep playing even when he wanted to quit.' Like thousands of other sports-obsessed youngsters, she might never have strayed from her local baseball grounds, but two years ago US pitcher Tim Wakefield unwittingly ignited the spark to her professional career. A veteran Boston Red Sox star, Wakefield's speciality is the knuckleball, clutched between the knuckles and thrown, without spin, in a weaving, erratic arc that can leave batters swinging at fresh air. It's a difficult technique to control, and watching Wakefield toss it on her dad's giant TV had Eri mesmerised. 'I couldn't believe the way he threw the ball,' she says. 'It looked slow, but the batter couldn't hit it. And he's over 40 [Wakefield is 42], but he still has it. It really made an impression and I started to think about how I could throw like that.' The pitch has one other advantage: it doesn't just require speed. What the teenager lacked in raw power, the knuckleball made up in technique. On the local Yokohama grounds the quest to master it began - at first with zero success. 'I just couldn't do it, but nobody else could either,' she says. 'Most people get fed up trying, but I kept at it.' By September, she had enough to impress scouts, who were stunned to discover the tiny novice - just 1.5-metres tall - outpitching much taller, stronger boys. But weaknesses were evident in other parts of her game, especially running. 'I can't keep up with taller boys. It's really frustrating because I don't want to cause my team trouble, or for them to lose.' Still, her talent and determination to succeed were enough to earn her a November try-out in Kobe with her brother Yusuke, 19, instead of some other players in her team - some of whom had played longer. 'I think my dream was different to the other girls,' she says. 'They played because they wanted their team to win. But I wanted to become a professional baseball player.' Eri's options are limited: as in the US, Japan scrapped its pro-league for women following a brief experiment in the 1950s. Amateur teams only began accepting girls about a decade ago. Eri's current outfit, Asahi Trust, is one of only half a dozen girls' amateur baseball teams in the country. Kobe was the chance of a lifetime. The whole family took the long drive to the coastal city, where she and Yusuke were put through their paces. To their astonishment, it was Eri who was selected with 30 other apprentices from 450 candidates after throwing a no-hit inning. A post-contract press conference drew 12 camera crews and 80 reporters, a turnout normally reserved for the game's superstars. Some journalists wanted to know where she'd learned that odd pitch, to which she replied that she'd copied it from television. The contract included one major attraction: 'I'll be able to practise every day,' she says. As she knows better than anyone, however, the hard work starts once she transfers to a school in Kobe next April. First, she has to convince her many sceptics, who say she's a sacrificial lamb, recruited to boost the coffers of the new cash-strapped Kansai Independent League. 'I don't see how a girl, let alone one as young as this, can compete equally with men,' said Toshihiko Kasuga, director of the Women's Baseball Association of Japan, who declared Yoshida's contract a publicity stunt. Her Kobe coach, Yoshihiro Nakata, admits that Eri has a battle ahead but says size doesn't matter - her pitch gives her the edge. 'Accuracy is more important than power, so with practise and experience she'll succeed against rival teams.' Eri practises every day after school and at the weekends, and by enrolling in a Kobe school she can continue her studies and be close to her team. Kobe 9 Cruise has dodged questions about where their star apprentice will change into the team uniform and the potentially vexing issue of separate showers and hotel rooms. Few underestimate the problems in the year ahead - including the real possibility of a stalker - least of all her father. 'We get noticed in the street more which makes me a bit uneasy,' he says. 'And the pressure will ratchet up because she's getting a salary now. But as I told her, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a chance to challenge herself. If she fails, that's life.' He believes that Eri will steal hearts and silence doubters when she gets onto the field. 'I always liked that she plays with a smile on her face, like she really enjoys what she does,' he says. 'She gets down sometimes after a loss, but quickly recovers. Once people see that they'll love her too.' Whatever happens, says Eri, she wants to enjoy the ride. 'I don't like to lose, but more than that I like to play,' she says. 'When something bad is happening in my life, I play. It cheers me up. As long as I don't forget that I'll be fine.'