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Breaking down barriers

Ready or not, J.D. Patton has pioneered the 1990s _ for women and Major League Baseball. J.D., also known as Jennie Diane, works for the Chicago White Sox. She is the only woman who has a pro ball scouting contract, according to the Major League Scouting Bureau, and is one of the few ever to have one.

As Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the 1950s, Patton is doing the same for women in the '90s.

"I am like Jackie Robinson," she said. "You have to hide your feelings even when you're irritated, because you have to be the example. I've been accused of my business card being a practical joke."

But it's no joke. Chad Zerbe, a left-handed pitcher for Hillsborough Community College, doesn't think so, either. Zerbe first was drafted out of Gaither High School in 1990 by the White Sox after Patton brought him to the team's attention. He didn't sign, but on Monday the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted him in the 16th round.

"I think it's great that she's a scout," Zerbe said. "Some of the guys rag on me, but I tell them: "Hey, this is the first female scout to scout me, and I'm proud about it.' "

Chad's father, Bill Zerbe, agrees.

"J.D. knows baseball and she knows people, and I'm very impressed with her. She's a person's person and tells it like it is. She doesn't know any barriers."

Patton also scouted catcher John Timko, drafted by the White Sox out of Clearwater High. He said he initially thought Patton was the wife of a scout.

"At first, it threw me for a loop," said Timko, who now plays for Polk Community College. "But she taught me to listen to what everybody says and then judge the good from the bad."

Patton was born in Jamestown, Tenn., in 1956 and went on to graduate from Tennessee Tech with a certificate in health education. She wanted to coach high school baseball but says she was told that "women don't coach baseball." She settled for coaching little league, later advancing to junior and senior Babe Ruth leagues.

But she didn't grow bitter. Patton moved to Sarasota to chase her dream. She became a lifeguard and met Bill Marovitz, an Illinois state senator who helped her get an interview with White Sox owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn.

"I was impressed with her enthusiasm and knowledge of the game," Marovitz said. "I liked her commitment to kids and her dedication to teaching young kids."

So Patton, Reinsdorf and Einhorn went to a baseball game and got to talking philosophy. "Of course everything I said was wrong," Patton said. "I knew before I went it was going to be like this, but I kept my head and said what I thought."

Reinsdorf was impressed and sent Patton to Al Goldis, former director of scouting and player development for the White Sox. He offered Patton a job.

"I thought he was giving me an interview just to be nice," said Patton. "Al told me that he didn't think Major League Baseball was ready for a woman coach, but he didn't see why I couldn't scout."

Patton was hired in December 1988 as an associate scout, which came with very little pay and no contract. She was to call her supervisor if she saw anything in the way of talent. She was intimidated in her first year, she says, and didn't get out much.

But the next year, Patton was promoted and signed a contract as a part-time scout.

"I decided my second year I was just going to do this like I was coaching," Patton said. "I'm just going to do this and be visible and do it right. And if people want to say something, fine, and if they don't, fine."

Most people have been receptive.

"I don't worry about anybody but me," Patton said. "This is not a thing of me being a woman or him being a man. This is a thing of where I love baseball and I'm lucky to be having a chance in the game."

Luke Wrenn, a scout for the Boston Red Sox, sees Patton at games and was skeptical at first. "I admit a female scout breaks tradition," Wrenn said. "But she's a hard worker and she wants to learn and those are two prerequisites to being a good scout. Now, she's considered as one of the guys."

Patton says through mid-May of this year, she had seen more than 200 high school and college teams in the Southeast, assessing nearly 2,000 youngsters.

White Sox scouting director Duane Shaffer says she could advance through the scouting ranks in three to five years. Patton's next promotion would be to full-time scout. "J.D. is one of the hardest-working scouts we have," Shaffer said. "We definitely will retain her, and if she does well we will get her car taken care of."

Her car is an '81 Ford Fairmont with 142,000 miles on it, minus air conditioning and heat. It is always loaded with an extra water hose, a toolbox, four jugs of water, battery cables and a can of Mace.

But for all the hardships, Patton's biggest payoff is helping the youngsters. "I enjoy trying to help the kids improve their life no matter what it is.

"I think in my own way I teach a few people it's okay to be different. I tell the kids to get your life together and not worry about what other people think. Just work hard."