All-girls baseball teams find a future of their own at national tournament

ROCKFORD, Ill. — It was 6:30 p.m., but the sun was still hot and bright. A crowd had gathered at Rockford’s Beyer Stadium, waiting for something to start as familiar baseball diamond dust swirled in the air.

A sudden cheer rose up from the far side of the field and the parade began.

Holding team banners and homemade signs with slogans like “GIRL POWER,” 200 baseball-playing girls began marching around the field, trodding on the baselines of history. They were here for Baseball For All’s 2017 National Tournament, the largest all-girls baseball tournament in the country. Fittingly, the girls were walking on the same field that the trailblazing Rockford Peaches had once called home.

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It was no mistake that Baseball For All’s third-ever tournament was being held in Rockford. 2017 is the 25th anniversary of the film “A League of Their Own,” a fictionalized account of the real life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and the Rockford Peaches, one of the AAGPBL’s original teams. The movie mostly used Bosse Field in Evansville, Ind., for filming, but the real Peaches played their home games at Beyer Stadium.

Rockford was an important destination for the tournament beyond just “A League of Their Own.” Nationals was co-hosted by the Rockford Parks District and the International Women’s Baseball Center, and they have an important relationship: the new IWBC museum, dedicated to the history of women’s baseball and slated to open in 2019, will be built across the street from Beyer Stadium, in the exact spot where hundreds of girls, parents, coaches and friends were gathered to open the tournament.

The Texas Blacksox parade into Beyer Stadium as part of the opening ceremony for Baseball For All’s 2017 National Tournament. (Facebook/@baseballforall)

Former AAGPBL players Shirley Burkovitch and Maybelle Blair were seated on the stage during the post-parade portion of the opening ceremony. Both are IWBC board members, and their presence was affecting. From their seats on the grass, the girls could look up and see links to their baseball past, and hear the words of other advocates and role models. But it was Dr. Kat Williams, president of the IWBC board, who said the phrase that set the theme for the week. It wasn’t the first time the girls heard it, and it wouldn’t be the last. But considering that most of the 200 girls rarely play on all-girls teams, hearing it a lot can only help.

“You belong. You belong in baseball.”

***

The reason that Justine Siegal started Baseball For All, an organization dedicated to empowering and supporting girls who play baseball, came from a formative experience in her adolescence. At 13, her baseball coach told her that he didn’t want her on his team anymore. Since she was a girl, she should quit baseball and switch to softball.

“That was the day I decided I would play baseball forever,” Siegal said.

Siegal started Nationals for a similar reason.

“I was thinking, what would I have liked when I was a girl playing baseball?” she said. “And that was to have other girls playing baseball, because I felt really alone.”

Siegal, 42, is a baseball trailblazer. She’s the first woman to throw batting practice for a major league team (the Cleveland Indians in 2011), and the first female coach employed by an MLB team (the Oakland Athletics for two weeks in 2015). She’s also trying to improve the baseball landscape for young girls, a landscape that hasn’t changed much since she felt so alone as a teenager.

Girls playing baseball is more common now, but girls playing together is still rare. Of the 17 teams at Nationals, just 5 play together outside of the tournament, and none play in an all-girls league. Nearly every girl at Nationals, whether or not she plays on a local all-girls team, plays on a co-ed team. Most are the only girl, or one of just a handful. Some had never played on a team with all girls until they stepped on the field in Rockford.

The 200 girls at Nationals got to experience playing with other girls, but girls who didn’t go to Nationals are seeing women play baseball more than ever.

Mo’ne Davis, who became famous for her virtuoso performance during the 2014 Little League World Series, burst back onto the scene in early August as a pitcher with Philadelphia’s team in MLB’s RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program. And almost a year ago, Fox premiered “Pitch,” an hourlong drama that centered around the first woman to play in Major League Baseball.

Between Mo’ne, “Pitch,” and the 25th anniversary of “A League of Their Own,” there is an increasing fascination with girls and women playing baseball. While some people still scoff and roll their eyes at the very idea, it’s clear that it’s not so farfetched anymore. No matter what happened to inspire them, more girls are playing baseball. In Mo’ne Davis’ hometown of Philadelphia, the inner-city Anderson Monarchs baseball program signed up 20-25 girls out of 160 seven to eight-year-olds. While Little League Baseball says it does not track demographic information from their local leagues, Baseball for All’s website says that 100,000 girls play youth baseball across the country.

But once kids start getting older, seemingly the only path forward for a girl who loves baseball is essentially to switch to softball. And that’s not an idea that has much traction with the girls at Nationals. Some of the older girls recognized that it would be the only way for them to play in college and get scholarships. But mentioning the idea of switching to softball in front of most girls resulted in a chorus of loud, passionate BOOOs.

These girls want a future in baseball, and they seem ready to fight for it. Which means that Major League Baseball is going to have a problem on its hands soon. They’re encouraging girls to play in their RBI program, and girls are continuing stake their claim on co-ed and boys’ teams. But the roadmap will run out of real estate eventually. There are almost never enough girls for a team, and as they get older, their chances of making boys teams get smaller and smaller. Girls will play on boys teams for as long as they’re able, but soon they’re going to demand that baseball give them a place.

A place to play their sport together.

The sign that greeted players, parents, and friends as they attended the five-day national tournament. (Liz Roscher)

For these girls who play baseball almost entirely with boys, the experience of playing with other girls is eye-opening, even life-changing, and the significance to them is staggering.

Cameron Ely, 11, said she has seen a whole new world after her trip to Rockford.

“For most of my life, I thought there were only three girls ever playing baseball,” Ely said. “Now that I’ve come to Nationals, it’s crazy. I feel like I’m part of two big families.”

For Destiny Campos, 17, the experience means a lot.

“I feel so comfortable playing around girls who have the same talent,” Campos said. “Playing around boys is okay, but playing with girls is the best feeling ever. I feel like nobody judges. I can’t explain it.”

It’s a natural reflex to downplay how tough it can be to be one of the only girls in a sport that’s dominated by boys. Most of the girls initially said they had no issues playing on co-ed teams where boys were the vast majority. But no one had to reach far to find a less-than-great experience, even though those experiences are viewed as being simply part of the deal for girls who play baseball.

“The boys on other teams sometimes make assumptions, and that’s really annoying,” said Shalvah Lazarus, a 10-year-old from Washington, DC. “I heard the catcher telling the pitcher not to go super hard on me because he shouldn’t waste his arm.”

Even parents can be a problem. Stephanie Smith, 14, recalled several incidents.

“It’s difficult when the guys’ dads or moms come up to you and say ‘I’m going to get you softball gear.’ I don’t want to play softball,” Smith said.

The instinct to help and to lead is apparent even in the youngest girls. When 10-year-old Sophia Trendl was joined by a second girl on her co-ed team, she immediately made friends and gave her the lay of the land.

“I was sort of teaching her, and telling her that boys aren’t always saying ‘you can’t play baseball,’” said Trendl, who was delighted that she wasn’t alone anymore.

The older girls focus on leadership in a different way. They know exactly why what they’re doing is important. When Sophia Mathewson, 15, was asked why she loved baseball, she said “I love to help other girls, the next generation of girls baseball, so they have a path. And we can pave it for them.”

Fighting to play and paving a path have always been themes in women’s baseball, and these girls are ready to join the battle.

The desire to push forward through the prejudice against girls playing baseball comes from a genuine love of the game. Some wanted to play after watching their brothers in T-ball and little league. Others were exposed to the game from birth. Maya Schindler, 11, went to her first Nationals game at age 4, and when it was over her dad couldn’t get her to leave. That was the moment she fell in love with baseball, and she hasn’t stopped since.

Maya is a member of DC Force, one of the few teams in the tournament that plays regularly outside of Nationals, and the winner of the 13-and-under division at Nationals. One look at DC Force should show anyone why girls playing together isn’t just important, but vital. DC Force was named as the ambassadors to Nationals this year due to their work promoting girls baseball in their community.

Members of the DC Force all-girls baseball team spent the last year promoting girls baseball in their community. (Liz Roscher)

Ella Comfort-Cohen, 12, approached the athletic director at her school and asked if she could start a co-ed baseball team. She got the green light, and now there are four girls on a team of 14 players. Alice Stillerman, 10, Paloma Benach, 13, and their coach (and Paloma’s mom) Ava Benach went on a local radio show to talk about girls baseball. Maya took her creative writing skills and applied them to baseball. Inspired by her teammates, she wrote a play about a girl playing baseball called “I Got This” that was performed at a young playwright’s festival.

That’s just a small sampling of the work that the DC Force undertook in the name of girls baseball.

But despite these benefits, girls playing together is rare. And Justine Siegal said the reason is simple.

“It’s rare that girls play together because there are so few opportunities for them to play together,” she said.

Communities typically don’t offer all-girls leagues (or even all-girls teams), so they play with boys or they’re shuttled into softball.

“We live in a society where softball is presented as a girl’s alternative to baseball. And as long as we believe that myth, girls are always going to get the short end of the stick,” Siegal said.

Nationals was meant to be a be a catalyst for communities to start their own all-girls teams, and that’s a goal it is accomplishing. Five of the 17 teams at Nationals this year were formed in direct response to the tournament. DC Force and the San Francisco Baysox are particular success stories. Both were formed three years ago specifically to compete at the very first Baseball For All National Tournament, and both have continued to play ever since. But while the girls play on a team together, it’s especially rare for them to play against teams of other girls. These teams are mostly scrimmaging against boys, independent from youth baseball leagues in their communities.

It’s progress, though. And as DC Force shows, girls who get a chance to play with each other can become vocal advocates for girls baseball. And that’s what Baseball For All and its National Tournament was meant to do: provide that spark for girls to go into their communities and make change. That change is happening, and at a grassroots level, but it will take time for a region to have enough teams for a league. In an ideal world, Siegal would want all the national youth baseball organizations to provide girls baseball leagues — especially after ten years of age, when opportunities for girls to play start to disappear.

Four members of the Windy City Huskies roll out their banner before the parade. (Liz Roscher)

If the girls knew how hard it would be for them to continue playing baseball beyond middle school, they didn’t care. They have big dreams, and spending five days playing baseball on the same field where the Rockford Peaches played made anything seem possible. Dreams like that are the whole point of Nationals. Nothing should limit these girls, in baseball or anything else.

Katrina Surcel-Debes, an 11-year-old from Baltimore, has an appropriately big dream about her baseball future.

“I hope to get up to the majors,” she said. “Hopefully I’m not the first, because that would be too hard. I hope there are more before me.”

Getting to the major leagues is the goal of millions of little boys, and for them, it could come true. But for girls like Katrina, there’s no big women’s league for them to dream about. So they dream of the majors too. But it’s heartbreaking that Katrina already knows how impossibly tough the road ahead of her will be. She doesn’t want to be the first, and who could blame her?

There is no roadmap for what Katrina wants to do. When girls get to high school, the directions simply read “switch to softball.” If that’s not where a girl wants to go, she has to find her own way forward in largely uncharted territory. The TV show “Pitch” existed in a world where it was possible for a female pitcher to get to the majors, and go through the minor league system. But at every opportunity, the show mentioned that she survived mainly using a nearly-extinct low velocity pitch called the screwball.

Even in the world of “Pitch,” which was cancelled after just one season despite solid reviews, a woman couldn’t be as good as men on their terms — she had to get by on craftiness.

We don’t live in the world of “Pitch.” A woman playing in the majors feels like something we’ll never see. And opportunities for women and girls to play baseball together are rare. They shouldn’t be, but they are. But it may not be that way forever. The 200 girls at Nationals spent five ecstatic days together playing their favorite sport and being told they belong in baseball. They envision a future where they can play baseball forever. And they could be the ones to create it.

Sophia Mathewson said it best: “No one can tell us no.”

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Liz Roscher is a writer for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at lizroscher@yahoo.com or follow her on twitter! Follow @lizroscher