Ballplayers take field in all-girls event
COMPTON, Calif. -- More than 1,200 girls played high school baseball last season. Most were in a solitary and sometimes lonely role, the only girl on a team full of boys.
"The opportunity to play baseball with other girls, it's nice to see I'm not alone," said Lucy Grant, a 13-year-old from Bethel, Conn.
More than 30 girls from around the country gathered over the weekend at Major League Baseball's Urban Youth Academy south of Los Angeles to play in a three-team, all-girls tournament organized by the nonprofit Baseball for All.
From a distance, the girls and young women, ages 12 to 19, looked much like other youth players in their mannerisms and skills.
Up close, you saw ponytails and chipped nail polish.
"Being a ballplayer, you can't keep pretty hands," said Irina Kovach, 19, a left-handed pitcher from South Bend, Ind., whose best pitch is her slider.
Grant's polish choice was green.
"Bright colors," said the sometimes-catcher. The better for the pitcher to pick up the signs.
They are clear on one thing: They want to play hardball.
"Mainly, the girls are told to go and play softball," said Justine Siegal, 38, the founder of Baseball for All who is also believed to be the first woman to throw batting practice for a major league team, the Cleveland Indians during spring training in 2011.
"It's not the same game," Siegal said of softball. "It's a smaller field, a bigger ball, and the pitcher throws underhanded."
Siegal, the director of sports partnerships in Northeastern University's Sport in Society program, has worked as an assistant men's baseball coach at Springfield College in Massachusetts, but much of her focus is on young girls.
"You have 100,000-plus playing Little League, etc., and 1,000 playing high school baseball. I want to know what happens to the other 99,000," Siegal said. "Their love of baseball didn't just go away."
Though many girls long to play in the major leagues, Siegal's goal for them is different.
"I would like to see a women's pro baseball league because it would service more people," she said.
Women playing baseball is nothing new. The 1992 movie "A League of Their Own" showcased women playing professionally during the World War II era.
In 1998, left-hander Ila Borders became the first woman pitcher to start a professional game, playing for the independent league Duluth-Superior Dukes. Her career ended in 2000, and today she is a firefighter and paramedic in Gilbert, Ariz.
Among her current colleagues are former major league pitcher Andy Larkin and former utility player Clay Bellinger. Her job didn't come easily: She had to drag a 175-pound dummy and lift a 210-pound ladder.
"It's very similar to baseball, actually. I'm working with men and we all have our role," said Borders, 38.
She is more open now about the obstacles she faced than she was in her playing days.
"You get your death threats," Borders said. "I got a lot of fan mail. I didn't open it. I'd ask somebody else to and if it was a little kid, I'd send something back. Other things, I told them to just throw it away."
At 5-foot-9, Borders had the advantage of being similar in height to some of her male competition and of being a left-handed pitcher. While Siegal's focus is on opportunities for women to compete against women, she knows many girls hold tight to a major league dream, something they got a tiny taste of wearing caps with the MLB logo during the tournament at the well-funded complex adjacent to a junior college in a tough L.A. neighborhood.
"Myself, I feel the greatest chance to play major league ball is as a pitcher, because one of the principal roles of a pitcher is to deceive the batter with location, change of speed, delivery," said Siegal, a graduate of Major League Baseball's scouting school. "You don't necessarily need to throw 90 mph. Look at Tim Wakefield or other knuckleballers throwing 75."
Other positions demand more power at the plate, or more speed.
Every position requires thick skin.
Grant, the 13-year-old, once dropped a ball for an error that allowed the winning run to score. She got the deep freeze from her teammates.
"They didn't talk to me for a week and a half because I missed a ball," she said.
There are other forms of intimidation.
"All these girls know that's a possibility, that they'll be thrown at because they're a girl. That's a reality," Siegal said.
For some, the tournament in Los Angeles was the first time they had faced a pitcher who was a girl.
Kelsie Whitmore, a 15-year-old pitcher with a big leg kick from Temecula, Calif., was the tournament's MVP, pitching for the winning Team California.
Everybody on the field knew one thing. Nobody was throwing at anybody because she was a girl.
"Here, they can exhale," Siegal said.