The last year my brothers played Coach Pitch in Little League, their team was assigned two girls. This was no big sweat for the head coach (my dad) — not only had he begun his long and varied youth sports coaching career with a stint as my soccer coach, he’d also coached kindergarten teeball, which in our area was co-ed. What did surprise him, though, was that only one girl showed up to practice. After a week or two, Dad mentioned to this girl’s mother that she wasn’t supposed to be the only one on the team.
“Oh, I know,” the mom said, “she didn’t want to come after what happened last year.” Apparently the girls had also been assigned to the same team the year before – only that head coach had done everything he could to make it clear he did not want girls on his team, from making them go last in every single drill to only playing them the minimum amount of innings required by Little League rules. Both girls (who, I remind you, were eight years old at the time) stuck it out the full season, but now the other girl couldn’t bear to even try again.
“We’ve tried to tell her you’re not like that,” the mom continued, “but she just can’t do it.” And thus, as my dad recounted the story at dinner that night, ten year-old me received my first object lesson in sexism.
Why am I bringing this up now? If you’ve been watching ESPN this week, or follow Gawker, you may have seen this video segment, featuring Chelsea Baker, a 13 year old girl who is not only the star pitcher for her Florida Little League team, but may possibly be the best Little League pitcher in the entire US. Period.
Yes, Chelsea’s got a few advantages over your average everyday Little Leaguer. For one thing, she has a knuckleball. A knuckleball taught her by Joe Niekro, no less. Additionally, it’s pretty clear from ESPN’s video that she’s already started puberty while many of her male teammates and opponents have not (the level of Little League she plays at includes kids who are 10-12 at the start of the season). These advantages aren’t exactly gender exclusive, however: I still remember the 11 year old on my brother’s team who was already nearly 6 feet tall (his parents had to carry around a birth certificate to prove how old he was at tournaments). And I can’t remember the last time I watched the Little League World Series where there wasn’t at least one boy (usually one of the better athletes) who was the son/nephew/younger brother of a former MLB player.
But here’s where advantages only get you so far: Chelsea has not lost a Little League game in four years. Since Joe Niekro’s death, as a matter of fact. During that period she’s also pitched two perfect games. And while the combination of tragedy and athletic accomplishment may be helping drive the growing publicity surrounding Chelsea, it also makes it more impressive that she’s been able to maintain her focus.
It remains to be seen whether Chelsea’s dominance signals some kind of leveling of the baseball diamond where girls are concerned. It’s not even clear whether Chelsea will continue playing with the boys into higher levels of the sport. There are several high school varsity squads with female players, but those who stand out (or even get much playing time at all) are few. And the prospects for advancing beyond that are even slimmer. Rivals.com has recently highlighted two female baseball players: Melissa Maxwell (a catcher in Oklahoma) and Marti Sementelli (a pitcher in California). Melissa, a converted softball player, is going back to softball for college; Marti wants to play baseball at an NCAA school, but will likely have to opt for a Division II or III college. Eri Yoshida, who like Chelsea has a wicked knuckleball, has played in the minor leagues in both Japan and the US, but it’s not insignificant that her US team belongs to an Independent League with no ties to Major League Baseball. Girls on a Little League team aren’t that uncommon (and Chelsea’s teammates seem adorably unfazed about her gender in the ESPN segment), but resistance seems to build as the level of play increases and competition for spots means any possible distraction, even a genetic one, can push a player off the roster. If there is ever a female baseball player who can maintain a level of play high enough to compete with mature male players, she may have to dominate college and the minors as thoroughly as Chelsea is currently dominating Little Leaguers to even get a chance at the majors. Maybe that day will never come.
Still, when you love a sport deeply despite the fact that you never got to daydream, like your brothers did, about playing that sport at its highest level (I remember engaging in one now embarrassing flight of fancy with my brother, envisioning a future Cardinals-Mariners World Series where he would be anchoring the Mariners outfield with Griffey and I ….would be married to Rick Ankiel), there’s just the tiniest bit of hope that creeps in whenever someone like Chelsea Baker, or Eri Yoshida, or Michelle and Marti come along. Because maybe our granddaughters, maybe even our daughters, will grow up loving baseball in a way we never could have imagined. Maybe they’ll be the star outfielder in their own fantasy World Series. Maybe their dream teammate will be Chelsea Baker.
And to that long ago Little League coach (whose name I never knew): suck it.