Batter Up for the Girls
Thursday, June 28, 2007
One of the most satisfying scenes in the baseball movie "A League of Their Own" occurs at the Rockford Peaches' opening game, when an oaf of a spectator calls out in falsetto, " Girls can't play ball!" Outfielder Ellen Sue glances at her teammates, then silences the lout with a fastball to the kisser. Message received. Girls can play ball.
And yesterday, they played at the White House.
The 22 girls from Luray, Va., and Cumberland, Md., spent the afternoon on the South Lawn for the 16th White House Tee Ball game. President Bush began hosting the event in 2001 to try to boost interest in youth sports. Though past games have included mixed-sex teams, the Luray Caverns Red Wings and the Allegany County Bobcats were the first all-girls T-ball teams to be invited, and this was the first softball T-ball game. The event was organized to celebrate the contributions of women in sports.
"It's in the nation's best interest to promote women's athletics," Bush said in his opening remarks. His daughter Barbara was a member of her high school softball team. Bush himself famously played Little League baseball in Midland, Tex., and is now enshrined in the Little League Museum Hall of Excellence.
He concluded his introduction by instructing the girls to "play hard, play often and play good."
The Girl Power theme of the day was reflected in the lineup of women assisting with the afternoon's events: Members of the University of Arizona's championship softball team were drafted to be base and bench coaches for the 5-to-7-year-old girls. Michele Smith, a two-time Olympic medalist with the U.S. softball team, acted as honorary commissioner.
In these days of Michelle Wie and Maria Sharapova fever, it's easy to ask why a single-sex T-ball game would be needed. But according to the Women's Sports Foundation, the vast majority of sports coverage is still reserved for males -- a ratio of 20 to 1 on ESPN's "SportsCenter." Girls-only events are a way to spotlight female athletes and to encourage more girls to pick up a mitt, a racket or a pair of goggles. The foundation also makes the case that girls who play sports are less likely to suffer from maladies such as depression and eating disorders. More than 360,000 girls participate in Little League softball, and girls make up 35 percent of T-ball players.
The girls of Luray and Cumberland weren't focusing on those statistics yesterday. They just wanted to play. Audrey Jones, 6, who plays for the Bobcats and wore a blue and white uniform, said that being a member of the first all-girls teams to play at the White House was "pretty cool," that meeting the president was "pretty cool," but that spending a summer afternoon playing T-ball was "totally awesome!"
Chris McKnight, the coach of the Bobcats (who moonlights as the head baseball coach at Frostburg State University), was slightly more aware of the game's magnitude.
"The girls don't understand the significance of today, but I have two daughters at home, and I know how important it is," he said.
McKnight cited a lack of sports opportunities (no field hockey, no lacrosse) for girls in his community, saying that softball had played a large role in his daughters' lives. His 5-year-old, Nicolette, plays for the Bobcats and wants to pitch someday. Despite the afternoon's import, McKnight said he was concerned only that everyone on the team have fun: "As long as our girls hit the ball without hitting the president, I think we'll be okay."
No score was kept during the one-inning game, no batter was allowed to strike out, and each player made it all the way home. Pigtailed girls from opposing teams congratulated each other on hard hits, and Hannah Storm, the "Early Show" anchor who announced the game, included personal tidbits about the players as they went up to bat: Paige Dugan, 7, bats right, likes to run, and her favorite school subject is: dismissal. Hayley White's favorite TV show is "Hannah Montana." Hannah Kenney loves cheese steaks.
After the game, team members posed for photographs with Bush and answered reporters' questions. So just who makes better ballplayers -- boys or girls?
Audrey Jones and Nicolette McKnight shared a conspiratorial glance and giggle before answering in unison:
And why is that?
"Because," said Audrey, as if the answer was painfully obvious, "girls got to go to the White House."