How girls and women are challenging sexism and Ignorance so they can play Baseball at the highest levels

Changing 

the Game

By Natalia Weiner
August 22, 2018

Repost of Natalie Weiner's article, "How to make the Team USA women's baseball team" SBNation 

“Get off the field!”

Five years ago, Emily Tsujikawa stood on the mound at a baseball tournament in eastern Washington as members of the opposing team, along with their parents and grandparents, shouted at her. They were refusing to step up to the plate and let her pitch because she was a girl.

Even after her opponents acquiesced to the umpires’ threat of a forfeit, the heckling continued. “If you strike out, you won’t eat dinner tonight,” one parent yelled down to their on-deck son, 17-year-old Tsujikawa recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s kind of strict.’” Her team won. ”I honestly had a pretty good game, but it was just strange to encounter that — especially being only 12.”

That memory lingers even as Tsujikawa takes the mound this week to compete for the first time as a member of the USA Baseball Women’s National Team. The United States is one of 12 countries looking for gold at the eighth Women’s Baseball World Cup, which begins Aug. 22 in Viera, Florida — the first edition of the tournament ever held on U.S. soil. It’s been over a decade since the Americans last claimed the top honor at the world’s biggest baseball tournament for women (they did, however, win gold at the 2015 Pan-American Games), and in the 2016 Women’s Baseball World Cup, they didn’t even advance out of pool play.

In countries like Australia, Canada, and the unshakable Japan, which has won the last five World Cups, teams and leagues exist specifically for girls and women. Their national teams are made up of professional athletes. In the U.S., not only are there are no reliable opportunities for women to play professional baseball, but the sport is still considered taboo for women — even though they’ve been playing it for over a century. Thanks to a uniquely ingrained variety of sexism, Team USA are underdogs at their own game — yet the motley crew of amateur women and girls from ages 17 to 44 still have a serious shot to win it all.

How can the U.S. not dominate its own so-called national pastime? Because for decades, American girls have been told both implicitly and explicitly to get off the field. “The United States still doesn’t let girls play baseball,” explains Jennifer Ring, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno, and author of Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball. “The girls who are on this team are just two-fisted fighters for the game they love.”

Team USA shortstop and pitcher Jade Gortarez. USA Baseball Women’s National Team

According to veteran Team USA infielder and two-time gold medalist (2006 Women’s Baseball World Cup, 2015 Pan-American Games) Malaika Underwood, women who play baseball stateside have had some variation of the following conversation more times than they can count.

“When I tell people I play baseball, the first thing they try to do is correct me,” says Underwood.

“‘You mean softball?’”

“No, no, baseball — the same sport as the guys.”

“‘Wait, they throw overhand?’”

“Yes. Big field/small ball, not small field/big ball.”

Usually, the questioner still looks confused.

“‘Like, real baseball? How fast do they throw?’”

 

“Mid to upper 70s. Not a 90-mile per hour fastball

like in MLB, but it’s good.”

 

“‘Do any girls hit home runs?’”

“Yes.”

“‘Over the fence?’”

“Yes, over the fence.”

And so on and so forth, until it has been confirmed that, yes, the rules of baseball are identical for men and women.

The team’s current manager, Matt Weagle, admits that before he started working with the women’s national team, he was on the less-informed side of that conversation. “I was the person who aggravates me and the players now, in that I had the same questions as everyone else,” says Weagle, who was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the sixth round in 2003  and now coaches for the men’s team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “They’re questions that seem silly now that I’ve been a part of it: Do they throw across the diamond? Do they play on big fields?”

But Weagle wanted to work with USA Baseball, so in 2013 when he was asked to be a pitching coach at a developmental camp for women, he jumped at the chance. “To be honest, I was shocked at the skill level that some of these women had,” he says. “From Day 1 I knew it was something I wanted to be involved in.”

As of now, women in baseball have received more screen time via Hollywood than on ESPN: A League of Their Own memorably captured the World War II-era All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, while the prematurely cancelled Fox series Pitch imagined a present where a woman plays in the majors (according to U.S. national team players, the show was highly relatable). An international victory on home turf could finally get America’s nonfictional women baseball players some mainstream airtime.

MLB itself is supporting the team via in-stadium promotions and on social media, and while the tournament will be streamed in its entirety on YouTube, MLB will be featuring some of the games on its site.

“From a high-level standpoint, we believe it’s important to support women and girls playing baseball,” says Tony Reagins, executive vice president of baseball and softball development at MLB, and a former general manager for the Angels. “It’s part of our

bigger mission to get more young people involved in the game at every level.” The league is also in the preliminary stages of planning a girl’s baseball tournament for 2019 in what Reagins calls “a big venue.”

Meanwhile, everyone on the team keeps answering those same questions, though women have been playing baseball since its genesis. “It’s always the same: ‘You mean softball, right?’” says 20-year-old pitcher and outfielder Kelsie Whitmore, whose batting helmet and bat were claimed by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2016 after she got her first hit in the pros as a member of the Sonoma Stompers. In Sonoma, she was part of professional baseball’s first all-woman battery since the days of the AAGPBL. “I would know if I played softball! But you’ve just gotta get used to hearing that and be respectful back. Like, ‘You know, I’m a girl and I play baseball and that’s just how it is.’”

Whitmore, who is back for her fourth stint on the national team, needed time to get to a place where she could let the skepticism roll off her back. She spent her entire youth playing baseball in her native Temecula, California, from Little League to an all girls travel team in middle school. (Yes, they played against boys and, yes, they beat them). But high school, where she played on the varsity baseball team, was when she first noticed people staring.

“That’s when I started to notice like, Oh wow, people don’t like this,” Whitmore says. “There’d be this look — like, Oh, is that a girl? Yes, I’m a girl. Then the second look is, Oh, you shouldn’t be here. This isn’t your place. You just know that people aren’t supporting you. It’s hard to see that when you’re the only girl — you can’t lean on anyone else and know that she feels the same way. You really feel like you’re stranded on an island, and there are sharks all around you. So you’ve gotta be strong and hard.”

Tsujikawa, in contrast, had an ally on the bench for most of her youth: her twin sister Lindsay, who also played baseball. Lindsay provided emotional support, but her presence also provided practical help.

“They’d kind of avoid me,” Tsujikawa says about the boys on the team. “I’d be like, ‘You want to throw?’ and they’d say no, but then I’d see them throwing in a three-way off to the side. I don’t really mind, but having my sister definitely helped, because I’d always have a throwing partner and someone to be there with me.” Once they got to high school, Lindsay switched to softball. Once again, Emily was the only girl.

“It’s the only sport where we’ve allowed the equivalent for women to be something totally different. … No one was telling Serena Williams to play ping pong.”

       

Malaika Underwood, infielder

Veteran Team USA infielder Malaika Underwood at bat.

USA Baseball Women’s National Team

Every member of the women’s national team is intimately familiar with words like “first” and “only”. Firsts grow ever more specific as women break new baseball barriers every year. For example, Ashton Lansdell, the youngest player on the women’s national team, is “believed to have become the first girl to start a varsity game at pitcher in Cobb County,” according to the Marietta Daily Journal.

Those milestones are often emphasized with well-intentioned glee by sports sections, but that specific attention, according to the women on the team, can discourage other girls and women from trying the sport, making it harder for women to stop being an “only”.

“If we continue to frame it as this novel story — like, A girl can play baseball? Who knew?! — then that’s how we’ll be treated,” Underwood says. She cites the coverage of Mo’ne Davis’ historic Little League World Series win in 2014, which overlooked the fact that the USA Baseball Women’s National Team was preparing to compete in the Women’s Baseball World Cup the following week. The team took home a silver medal. “They chose to cover [Davis] as an anomaly,” she adds. “Without the history and the context, any girl who sees that feels like Mo’ne is the exception, and so she would also have to be the exception. But that’s just not the case.”

“The idea of being the ‘first’ is (inaccurate) because there are a million firsts,” Ring says. “It’s just that we have this amnesia, so each girl has to feel like she’s the first. It allows us to see every successful girl as an outlier, when in fact it’s just that we’re erasing girl’s and women’s baseball history.”

Ring’s daughter played baseball throughout her youth, and was a member of the U.S. national team, but she still never totally shook

the pressure of being a “first” and an “only”.

“If she got a hit, it was a fluke — an event — and if she didn’t get a hit, it was because she was a girl,” Ring concludes.

Whitmore, who is now entering her junior year as a softball player at Cal State-Fullerton, thought about quitting baseball late in high school.

“Everyone hits that point where they just feel like they should stop,” she says. “I was very overwhelmed, and tired of people not treating me equally. It gets frustrating, and it gets old, and it’s hard because all you have is your family and yourself. Sometimes that may not feel like enough, because there are so many other people out there.”

Kelsie says she sat in her bedroom and reflected: How badly did she actually want to play baseball? The answer was, “More than anything.”

For Jade Gortarez — a shortstop and pitcher also from Southern California, as well as Kelsie’s best friend — there was never any question of leaving baseball. As with most of the women on the national team, she was in a lifelong love affair with the sport. Hers, she says, started when Shawn Green signed her glove and played catch with her at a Dodgers game when she was four years old.

By the time she got to high school, she was playing varsity at school and with travel teams in the summer. One day after her sophomore year, her team was practicing in the same complex as a travel softball team. After she fielded a ground ball, one of the softball coaches took notice and approached her coach: “Is that a girl out there? Does she play softball?” Gortarez’s coach called her over.

“‘Have you ever tried playing softball?’”

“No, I don’t want to play softball — I tried it before and it was too boring,” Jade said.

“‘Just come out for one practice.’”

“It’s softball, I don’t want to play softball. I’m out here playing baseball.”

“‘Well, don’t you want to go to college?’”

“That’s literally when it hit me,” Gortarez says now. “Like, dang. I have a sister that’s a year younger than me, and a sister that’s two years older — she was just about to go to college. I could really help my family out by doing this, so I’ll give it a try.” A few appearances in summer tournaments were enough for her to earn an offer to Arizona State, where she’s now entering her junior year. The team went to the NCAA Women’s College World Series.

Many women in the U.S. grow up playing baseball and switch to softball, simply because there is no existing infrastructure for them to play baseball at a collegiate level — a uniquely American problem because of the ever-rising cost of higher education. In Australia, Canada, and Japan — the countries with the most established women’s baseball teams and leagues — athletic scholarships are uncommon and college is less expensive. Women who want to play baseball in college have little incentive to switch.

Though switching from baseball to softball is the pragmatic option for women baseball players who might be eligible for an athletic scholarship (the first woman to get a college baseballscholarship was women’s national team alum Sarah Hudek in 2015, who attends Bossier Parish Community College), the mechanical differences between the two sports are not exactly intuitive.

Team USA pitcher Samantha Cobb.  USA Baseball Women’s National Team

“At first I was kind of throwing the ball everywhere because I wasn’t used to having like, a watermelon in my hand,” Gortarez says. “When I started, that’s what it felt like. I actually had to have someone teach me how to hold the ball.”

Hitting is the biggest challenge, because the rhythm of the pitches and angle of the swings are so different. In softball, the ball is pitched underhand from within a circle, not overhand from atop a pitcher’s mound, and the pitches come at the batter much more quickly because of the comparatively short distance between the pitcher and the plate. Both Gortarez and Whitmore insist that their softball and baseball swings are only slightly different — still, to tweak something that needs to be almost automatic requires remarkable acuity.

Staying in good enough shape to play both sports is yet another layer of difficulty. To prepare for this year’s national team trials in June, Whitmore snuck into the Fullerton baseball cages after softball practices and games this spring. She even got onto the practice football field to work on her long toss — “When I want to play long toss with a baseball, it will go further than the length of the softball field so I have to find somewhere else,” she explains.

There are less tangible differences between the games as well. Women’s softball players often put ribbons in their hair; women’s baseball players, who are often trying to fly under the radar on a mostly male team, usually don’t. Even once players arrive to play for the women’s national team, their hair typically remains unadorned. According to Gortarez, the one time a player showed up to the bus with a ribbon, she and Whitmore laid down the law.

“Like, take that out of your hair — what are you doing?” Gortarez remembers, laughing. “It’s definitely not a thing in baseball.”

“The biggest difference for me is the atmosphere,” says Whitmore. “[Softball] is quicker, the girls have their cheers [in the dugout], they do their makeup when they play … it’s just different.” 

“It’s the only sport where we’ve allowed the equivalent for women to be something totally different,” Underwood says. “No one was telling Serena Williams to play ping-pong.”

Underwood, 37, is on the U.S. national team for the ninth time — a USA Baseball record for appearances in international competition, regardless of gender. She lives in Jacksonville, where she has a full-time job in sports marketing. While having a career has never been a major hurdle to her participation on the team, another major life change did make preparing for this year’s tournament more challenging: Underwood gave birth to a baby girl in February.

“I’m not gonna lie — it was harder this time than it’s ever been to leave for training because I had to say goodbye to my daughter,” she says. Underwood worked out while she was pregnant in anticipation of this year’s World Cup — no small feat once she got into the last trimester. “But when I found out it would be in the U.S., it was like it was meant to be,” she says. “That helped motivate me through those tough moments.”

To get back in shape postpartum, Underwood didn’t have a trainer or access to university athletics facilities. Instead, she and her husband worked out together in their garage-turned-home-gym, and he threw batting practice for her in the backyard where they have a net set up. They’d go to nearby baseball diamonds to get more reps when they could.

After the national team trials in June, Underwood invited teammates who also lived in the Southeast to spend weekends at her house in Jacksonville so that they could practice together. They also met up in Atlanta. All the training and travel happened on their own dimes. When they could, players sent videos of their pitches and swings to their coaches, who would try to make adjustments remotely.

“It’s all on us,” Underwood says. “In terms of time and personal investment, we’ve all given up a lot to be here. Guys make sacrifices to play baseball, too, but there’s just a much clearer path for them.”

Ask the members of the USA Baseball Women’s National Team if those sacrifices are worth it, though, and the answers are unequivocal. “It’s just an honor to be competing with women who have been in the game for so long, and who basically created a path for us,” Gortarez says.

“It feels like there’s a super strong connection between us, because we understand each others’ struggles — a lot of us have learned to persevere,” Tsujikawa adds. “All these women are absolutely amazing. Everything they do, they approach it with an open mind — so calm, collected, and brave.”

Regardless of how this year’s World Cup ends for the U.S. national team, its players want to stick with baseball as long as they can. Gortarez plans to use her fifth year of NCAA eligibility to play baseball while getting her Master’s degree. Whitmore hopes to go back to playing professional baseball at some level after she finishes college. If that opportunity isn’t there, she’d settle for coaching baseball at a DI program or becoming MLB’s first woman umpire.

Tsujikawa doesn’t plan to pursue a career in the game, but she says if there were a more accessible way for women to play professionally, she “definitely, definitely” would.

“Right now it just doesn’t seem like there are a lot of options available as a woman in the sport,” she says. “Not because we’re not good enough, but because of discrimination.”

“Sometimes it does feel like two steps forward and two steps back, but at least we’re facing the right direction,” Underwood says. “My daughter will grow up knowing that I played sports, while I grew up knowing my mom didn’t have the opportunity to play sports. Setting a good example for her in terms of following your dreams and doing the things you love, that’s a motivator for me.”

The thing the players share — more than the hurdles they had to overcome, more than the discrimination they’ve faced — is a true love for the game. “Once you step out on that baseball field again, you feel like nothing’s changed,” Whitmore says. “You feel back to normal, you feel comfortable again. That’s the best part of it.

“All I know is I want to stay on the field. Just stay in the game for as long as I can.”

Reposted from original article on SBNATION

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