Jessica Luther column: Kelsie Whitmore, Justine Siegal and Baseball for All

If you didn’t know that the U.S. has a women’s national baseball team, join the club. Plenty of people in this country don’t even know that women play baseball; softball, it’s believed, is the equivalent sport for women. But enough women play that last week, the team held tryouts. On Thursday, they announced the 20-player roster for the upcoming Women’s Baseball World Cup in South Korea, which will take place from September 3-11. You probably didn’t know about that, either. But maybe all of that’s about to change.

Last on the alphabetical roster for the U.S. team is 18-year-old Kelsie Whitmore, an outfielder and pitcher. Whitmore, along with pitcher Stacy Piagno, made news earlier this year when she signed to play with the Sonoma Stompers, a professional team that is part of an independent league, the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs. Whitmore and Piagno were subsequently joined by Anna Kimbrell, a catcher, and together the three created the first female battery in pro baseball history. Piagno and Kimbrell will also be going to South Korea with the national team.

Whitmore spent last week balancing her first week at college with the tryouts. “The first day of school was the first day of tryouts for me,” she told me when we talked one night last week. Heading to South Korea with the team means that Whitmore will soon miss a couple weeks of class, something she’s already discussed with her professors. It’s all worth it. She’s worked very hard to get to this point in her career.

Whitmore has often been the only woman on the team she plays on, which is normal for any girl who wants to play baseball once their age hits double digits. Justine Siegal, the first woman to ever coach on an MLB team, told me that 100,000 girls play youth baseball in the US but only 1,200 play in high school. In the 2015-2016 school year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 488,815 boys played high school baseball, compared to 1,290 girls. When I asked Siegal what happens between youth baseball and high school, she says, “That’s when the discrimination occurs.” Part of it is that “a lot of girls are told that they need to switch to play softball.” Some just leave the sport. For those who soldier on, they join teams where they are the only girl, which will remain true for many through most of their career. That can be very difficult. “Some quit altogether,” Siegal says, “because they don’t they don’t feel welcome on their baseball teams.”

Whitmore never had anyone in her life suggest softball to her; everyone knew she played and loved baseball. And when you ask her why she loves the game, she will give you a laundry list of reasons that includes stealing bases, wearing baggies pants, the competitiveness of the sport, and how many different pitches there are. But the first thing she told me was, “when I played pro ball, we used wood bats. And I love hitting off a wood bat. I love the feeling you have when you hit it, a solid ball and it comes off the bat and the noise.” I could hear the smile in her voice as she explained it.

GOODYEAR, AZ - FEBRUARY 21: Justine Siegal pitches for the Cleveland Indians batting practice at Goodyear Ballpark on February 21, 2011 in Goodyear, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
GOODYEAR, AZ – FEBRUARY 21: Justine Siegal pitches for the Cleveland Indians batting practice at Goodyear Ballpark on February 21, 2011 in Goodyear, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

And she’s gotten this far because of that love of the game but also because she is very good. Whitmore said, “I’m fast. I’ve a pretty good arm.” She’s a good contact hitter with a solid batting average. “I run down balls in the outfield pretty well,” she added.

This is the point of it all. Women can play baseball, they just need someone to let them. “I think it’s always it’s always important that women get an opportunity to showcase their skills,” Siegal says. “The hardest part of being a girl in baseball is being able to show what you have.”

In 2014, Mo’ne Davis, got to show what she had. Davis, who was 13 then, became a star when she took the mound in the Little League World Series. In her team’s first match in the LLWS, she pitched a shutout. She was only the 18th girl to play in the championship since it started in 1947 (girls weren’t even allowed to participate until 1974). Yasiel Puig asked for her autograph. She designed a sneaker line, with proceeds from the sales going to Plan International’s Because I am a Girl initiative. She was credited with a bump in girls’ participation in baseball in at least New York and Philadelphia. Davis has since shifted her athletic focus, her eyes now squarely on basketball with dreams of playing in the WNBA.

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 25: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors speaks with pitcher Mo'ne Davis after the game against the Dallas Mavericks on March 25, 2016 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA – MARCH 25: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors speaks with pitcher Mo’ne Davis after the game against the Dallas Mavericks on March 25, 2016 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

But there will be more, other Davises to inspire the next group of girl baseball players.

On August 16, Whitmore tweeted a photo series of herself signing a baseball after a game. In each of the shots, there is a young girl in red.

Whitmore captioned the photos, “The way that this little girl in red looks at me is one of the many reasons that keeps me going with this game.” But you’ll notice that the little girl in red isn’t the only little girl in the pictures; there are at least two others.

I asked Whitmore who her role models were growing up. She talks about her parents, especially her father. She says that Siegal has been important in her life. She mentions the other women she now plays with on the national team and her teammates in Sonoma. But as a kid? “Growing up I never really had one, like not a girl that I looked up. That’s one of the reasons I want to keep playing, it’s not for myself but for those young girls. I want to be that person that I never had.”

And maybe she will be. Someday soon, perhaps people in the U.S. will become more comfortable with the idea that women play baseball. FOX is banking on it with their new show PITCH, which premieres in September and is about the first woman to play in Major League Baseball, something yet to happen. The trailer for the show says it is “a true story on the verge of happening.”

But, in truth, women’s baseball is still in its infancy. As Emma Span wrote two years ago, “Without the development of skills and talent at the high school and college level, a national women’s baseball team that plays in a World Cup will be treated as little more than a curiosity, struggling to find the attention it deserves.”

There are small steps taking place. Siegal says that it’s a good thing that “Team USA plays in Pan Am Games” now because “that’s the first step towards Olympic inclusion.” The team won gold last year at the Pan American Games, the first time women’s baseball was ever included in the event. In her capacity as Chair of the International Women’s Baseball Commission for the World Baseball Softball Confederation, Siegal says, “I can tell you that women’s baseball around the world is growing.” She is also fostering it here in the US with her non-profit, Baseball for All, which “fosters, encourages, and provides opportunities for girls to participate in baseball.”

At the World Cup, the U.S. is seeded second behind Japan, which has won the last four World Cups. Japan also has a professional women’s baseball league.

Perhaps the pipeline between youth and high school baseball will start to be constructed here in the U.S. and girls will no longer be shuffled into softball and/or out of baseball. Perhaps in the near future, girls will not be alone on baseball teams. And perhaps not too long from now, a woman about to leave to play baseball in the World Cup, when asked by an reporter about her role models, will start her answer with, “well, I mean, obviously Kelsie Whitmore.”

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