Tuesday, February 22, 2011

making her pitch

<a href="http://msn.foxsports.com/video?vid=50a79c78-3053-4493-bf8b-7291f43b62fe&from=IV2_en-us_foxsports_articles" target="_new" title="Ladies first">Video: Ladies first</a>

The last throes of February are upon us, which can only mean one thing: Major League Baseball's spring training is officially in full swing. It's a time when fans of our national pastime can get up close and personal with the sport's biggest stars, hottest prospects, and the support staff who whip them into shape. It's a time when anything is possible; there are no winners or losers, only players and coaches with an eye toward Opening Day. But yesterday, at a training facility in Goodyear, Arizona, one individual shone above all the rest when she became the first woman to throw batting practice to an MLB team.

For most of her adult life, Justine Siegal has been an outspoken supporter of girls and women who want to be involved in the world of baseball. She is the founder of Baseball For All, which seeks to empower girls to play hardball. In case you're unaware, some of the earliest baseball players were women, but by the middle of the 20th century, the sport was mostly considered off-limits for girls. In 1973, a judge opened the way for girls to play Little League ball, but Little League organizers decided that while it could no longer deny them from participating, it would encourage them to play softball, a very different sport. Today, relatively few girls get into baseball, primarily because they think they can't. Justine Siegal is trying to change that.

Siegal grew up playing baseball in Cleveland, Ohio, and dreaming of one day donning the uniform of her hometown Indians. At 13, her coach told her he didn't think girls should play baseball and suggested she quit. He clearly didn't know who he was dealing with! Siegal ignored him and continued playing for another two decades. In the late 1990s, she started Baseball For All as a way to encourage others like her who wanted to enjoy the experience of participating in our national pastime. She eventually became a coach for the men's team at Springfield College in Massachusetts. And in 2008, filmmaker Max Tash released a documentary film about her attempts to bring an all-girls' team to the Cooperstown Dreams Park Tournament, a prestigious tournament for youngsters near the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A year later, Siegal became the first woman to coach in the pros when she spent part of her summer with the Brockton Rox (pictured) of the Can-Am League. Since then, she's been seeking out and gaining an increasing amount of national support for her girls-in-baseball projects.

A few weeks ago, I found out that Siegal had been invited to throw batting practice for both the Oakland A's and her hometown team, the Cleveland Indians, at their spring training facilities in Arizona. Justine has been a great inspiration to me, a former ballplayer who's long been frustrated with the marginalization of girls and women in the baseball world, from the majors all the way down to tee ball. When I attempted to start up a girls' baseball program in New York City last year, Justine served as a valuable mentor, and she even came down to host a clinic for a number of young girls who were eager for more than they were getting with their local teams. (My project eventually stalled, but I'm hopeful that girls in the NY area will soon have a new baseball outlet thanks to a new initiative, led by Justine, that partners players with various RBI Baseball teams in cities around the country.) So I was thrilled to hear the news about her Major League assignment, and I enjoyed reading about her preparation for the big event. I was also not surprised to learn that Justine would be dedicating her outing to the late Christina-Taylor Green, the youngest victim in last month's tragic Tucson shooting spree. Green had been a second-baseman on her Little League team, and, like Justine before her, had hoped to break the so-called "grass ceiling" by becoming the first woman to play in the majors.

If you'd like to know how it went, Glenn Swain in The New York Times and Tim Brown at Yahoo! Sports have good recaps of yesterday's historic session. And I highly recommend Justine's own stirring posts relating to the event on her new blog, Justine's Baseball Journey. Her writings are the kind of thing I wish I'd had available to me growing up, when coaches, players, and parents were telling me in ways both subtle and explicit that baseball is for boys. So if you know of a girl or woman who could use some baseball inspiration, please pass it on! You can also follow Justine on Twitter.

Anyway, congrats on your awesome accomplishment, Justine! Can't wait to see what's next.

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