Varsity Letter: 20 Years After Julie Croteau, Girls Play Ball

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Wilson sophomore Della Romano plays varsity baseball. Her involvement is so low-key that she said some school officials didn't even realize there was a girl on the team until it was brought to their attention. She took a no-hitter into the seventh inning this season and is a part-time second baseman.

Lee senior Jordan Cox, a standout softball player, wanted to give baseball a try this spring. She consulted with the coach, reported to tryouts and made the squad. She cut a hole in the back of her baseball cap to pull her ponytail through. She has started some games at second base, helped execute a 5-4-3 double play recently and is learning to hit curveballs.

It's no big deal that Romano and Cox are girls playing high school baseball. And that, in itself, is a big deal, particularly in 2009, the 20th anniversary of Manassas native Julie Croteau's becoming what is believed to be the first woman to play in an NCAA baseball game when she started at first base for Division III St. Mary's College of Maryland.

The opportunities that Romano and Cox can take for granted did not exist for Croteau when she attended Osbourn Park High School. In fact, when she told school officials of her desire to play baseball, the sport she had participated in since she was 5, they offered her a cheerleading or softball uniform.

She made the junior varsity baseball team as a sophomore. Her senior year, when she tried out for the varsity and thought she had shown enough talent to make the 17-member team, she was cut. Croteau and her family, thinking she had been let go because of her sex and not for a lack of ability, sued the school, citing discrimination.

Team members wrote a letter to the newspaper backing the first-year coach. Croteau listened in court as the coaches derided her ability; she said at the time that the Osbourn Park coaches "humiliated," "degraded" and "discouraged" her.

A Post account of the trial said that "students reacted to testimony by smiling, snickering or punching their laps." When U.S. District Judge Tim Ellis ruled against her, the dozen or so Osbourn Park players in attendance erupted in cheers. It was official. There would be no girl on the team.

"These were the public gestures," said Croteau, who chooses her words carefully to avoid coming across as though she were still chewing on the case two decades later, which she is not. "You can imagine the more private ones."

At the time, Catholic University Coach Ross Natoli said in a Post article that he thought, based on Croteau's performance at one of his clinics, that she would have made most high school teams, although he had no way of knowing whether she was good enough to make a specific team. Osbourn Park finished 9-8 that season.

Croteau, not good enough to crack the roster of a high school team that had totaled four victories the year before, instead played for the semipro Fredericksburg Giants and was skilled enough to play for three years at St. Mary's College, where she posted a career .171 batting average, .222 her freshman season, when she went 10 for 45.

So when Romano, who grew up playing baseball in the District, says, "The only thing I've ever gotten is support from people," and Cox offers similar impressions from her short baseball stint in Fairfax County, those are words of comfort to Croteau, 38, a mother of two young children who lives in the San Francisco area. She works in marketing at Stanford University and coaches her daughter's T-ball team.

"I'm really glad to hear that girls who are playing now aren't experiencing barriers, aren't running into those closed doors," she said. "I feel now and felt then that they shouldn't have to. It wasn't necessary. It's just a game."

Romano, like Croteau, grew up playing baseball, even though her older sisters played softball. There were several girls on many of her youth league teams; almost all of them gave up baseball or switched to softball at some point.

When Wilson classmates tell Romano how cool it is that she plays baseball, she shrugs it off.

"It's not really out of the ordinary for me because I've done it for so long now," said Romano, whose team has won 16 consecutive D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association titles. She also plays for the Montgomery County BarnCats in the five-team Eastern Women's Baseball Conference, for players 14 and older.

Cox, who plans to play softball at Longwood University, decided to give baseball a try after the Lee softball coach resigned. She said opponents don't usually say much to her, although at times the opposing pitcher will break out in an awkward smile when she steps into the batter's box, prompting the catcher to jog out to the mound and refocus his battery mate.

At times, she hears opponents quiz her teammates. What's it like to play with a girl? Is she good? How long has she played? Can she hit? Can she field? Other times, she'll hear whispers in the bleachers. Mom, is that a girl? What's she doing there?

As Cox walked to get a rake to help tend to the Lee field after a game against Annandale, a mother stopped her so her girls could get autographs. The thrilled Cox signed their Nintendo DS covers.

Croteau would have relished that same varsity baseball opportunity. She went on to cross gender lines as well as base lines -- 11 news organizations were on hand to cover her college debut -- played in the previously all-male Hawaiian Winter League and was an extra in the 1992 women's baseball movie "A League of Their Own." She played professional women's ball for the Colorado Silver Bullets. She was the first woman to coach Division I baseball (as a volunteer at the University of Massachusetts). She worked for Major League Baseball and in broadcasting. She managed the U.S. Women's National Team to a gold medal in Taiwan in 2006 after coaching on the 2004 gold-medal-winning team. Her college glove and photo are in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Given her ability, Croteau found baseball opportunity just about everywhere except the one place it should have been guaranteed, on her high school team.

"Baseball, in hindsight, has been very good to me, and I've gotten the opportunity to do a lot of amazing things because of my experiences in baseball," she said. "I feel like I paid for those opportunities in a different form of currency."

Varsity Letter is a weekly column about high school sports in the Washington area. E-mail Preston Williams at williamsp@washpost.com.


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