Spending a Sunday morning at a baseball clinic for kids 13 and under doesn’t sound like a radical proposition. Make it a girls’ baseball clinic, however, and suddenly it sounds a bit more unusual. This past Sunday, the Lake County Captains sponsored a baseball clinic for girls ages 9-13. The clinic was run by Justine Siegal, the founder of Baseball for All and the first woman to throw batting practice to a major league team (our own Cleveland Indians) and the first woman to coach for a major league team (the Oakland A’s). I went as both a parent (I brought my ten-year-old daughter and her best friend) and as an assistant coach.
I spend a lot of time with tweener girls. They can be noisy, silly unstructured goofballs. You get used to excessive shrieking and giggling. What struck me more than anything was how focused this particular group of girls was. They were there to learn. I met families who showed up at Classic Park in Eastlake, Ohio, from Cuyahoga Falls, from Brunswick, from somewhere an hour outside of Pittsburgh to attend the clinic. They drove an hour because their daughter loves baseball, because she wanted to be there. While the skill levels of some of the younger kids was variable, the enthusiasm level went to eleven across the board.
Two of the kids who most impressed me were 13-year-old Marissa Brigger, who plays on a travel team in the Stark Summit Baseball League, and 16-year-old Emma Gurley, who plays for her high school team. Emma participated in Baseball for All events when she was younger and, as part of the nonprofit’s mentoring ethos, was there as an assistant coach to help the younger girls. Both Marissa and Emma are the only girls on their respective teams. Both started their playing career in the somewhat usual way–T-ball and/or coach pitch leagues. Boys and girls start out playing together, but girls are typically steered to softball around age seven (because except in very rare cases, there is no equivalent girls’ baseball league). I asked them if they could remember the moment when they said “No” to softball. Marissa said that for her it wasn’t necessarily saying “no” to softball as much as saying “yes” to sticking with baseball.
To stick with baseball means getting used to being different, to being the only girl, to having a target on your back every time you step on the field. Emma said she’d played in games where she had four at-bats and was hit by a pitch every time. As a 12-year-old, she joined her (all-boys) team at the Cooperstown Field of Dreams tournament. She said she went back to her dormitory one night during the tournament and, stuck in her window, were the phone numbers of “a bunch of boys.” A boy from another team said that was because girls should be girlfriends cheering on their boyfriends or their brothers, not playing. “As luck would have it,” she says, “we played his team the next day. And he grounded out to me” (she was pitching). Oh, sweet karma.
While their opponents haven’t always been welcoming, for the most part it seems like both girls have had supportive teammates and coaches. Marissa talked at length about “the feeling when you finally gain their respect.” And they have incredibly supportive families. Marissa’s father is one of those parents who has his daughter’s back in a quiet but steady way. Emma’s role model is her aunt, Katherine Gurley, who played on the in 2001 on the U.S. National Team (did you even know the United States had a women’s national baseball team?).
The girls did fielding drills, pitching drills, and hitting drills. Some sports clinics end with a sales pitch–sign up for more clinics, sign up for our league, sign up for private lessons! Not here. Siegal reserved the end of the clinic for talking to the girls and their parents about options: They could get together and start an all-girls team and play against boys’ teams. They could get together once a week just to play baseball together. They could form a team and enter Baseball for All’s National Tournament. No sales pitch, just a discussion of options.
Maybe someday there will be a critical mass of girls in Greater Cleveland who want to play baseball, enough to start a league. Maybe. So Indians/Captains fans, if you’re reading this and know of a girl in the Cleveland area who wants to play baseball, email Tom Fuerst, who coordinated Sunday’s clinic. There are plans in the works for more opportunities for girls’ baseball events. If we build it, will you come?