Move over, boys of summer.
The girls are here.
And thanks, but no thanks. They’re not interested in softball. They’re baseball players.
“I watched a middle school softball game once, and it was just so slow,” said Tess Usher, 11, who plays first base for D.C. Force, the all-girls baseball team that just killed it at a national tournament. “I love playing baseball. That’s not going to change.”
Tess hit her first home run in Rockford, Ill., last week, on the same field where the Rockford Peaches played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League way back in the 1940s when women showed the world they could play baseball.
Tess’s 11-and-under division had a good showing at the nation’s third-ever all-girls baseball tournament. The 13-and-under girls from the District? They won the whole darn thing.
“All these girls are awesome in and of themselves,” said the 13-and-under girls’ coach, Ava Benach, an immigration lawyer in Washington when she’s not coaching baseball. “They all play on teams that are coed, they hold their own, they’re usually the only girls on their teams.
“They’re trailblazers, because they get a lot of messages telling them to get out of baseball and go to softball.”
Sure, plenty of Little League teams are coed. Mo’ne Davis became a national sensation when she pitched a shutout in the Little League World Series in 2014, also becoming the first Little League player to land on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
But, looking toward sports that give her a better chance at a college scholarship, she started playing on her high school softball team and hitting the basketball court hard.
The way Benach sees it, “baseball let Mo’ne down.”
“Girls should be able to play baseball as long as they want to,” Benach said. “Don’t stop playing because there isn’t opportunity, but because they maybe lose attention, or find other interests, the same reasons that some boys stop playing.”
More than 100,000 girls are playing youth baseball. But only about 1,000 play it in high school.
“What happened to those 99,000 players?” Justine Siegal, the first woman to throw batting practice for a major league baseball team, the Cleveland Indians, asks on her Baseball For All website. The nonprofit organization sponsored the national tournament for girls — its third — in Rockford.
“We have this cultural myth that baseball is for boys and softball is for girls,” Siegal told USA Today.
And softball and baseball are not equivalent sports, as a flurry of recent Title IX lawsuits have argued.
But why should baseball be all-girls? Why not emphasize coed a little more?
Benach said that because there are still so few girls in Little League, the pressure of performance can eclipse the pure experience of the sport. “Every time a girl is up at bat, she’s representing an entire gender,” she said.
Plus, when it’s just girls on the field, there is a different dynamic, said Paloma Benach, 13, the coach’s daughter and a left-handed pitcher.
“When it’s all girls, it’s just as competitive and intense as far as the baseball, but there’s a bigger picture in teamwork, loyalty and being united,” Paloma said.
Major League Baseball is starting to figure this out. And it’s an old story on how it may have come to this conclusion.
The organization, together with USA Baseball, held its first all-girls tournament in Compton, Calif., this spring. About 100 girls played in the Trailblazer Series tournament. and they all cheered its success.
The baseball powers are the same folks who have bemoaned the sagging numbers in youth baseball participation these past few years.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred had said he would make expanding youth baseball a priority when he took over in 2015, launching a “Play Ball” initiative to increase casual games. It was “just to remind people that you can engage with baseball without having nine guys on each team, uniforms and umpires,” he said.
Bingo. “Guys.” Maybe one of the reasons that soccer and basketball have been surpassing baseball is that it’s forgetting about 51 percent of the nation’s population.
Only after the guys leave — as they were forced to do in World War II, spawning the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League — do women get a real shot.
This is the league memorialized in what I believe is the greatest baseball movie ever, “A League of Their Own” (1992). And the tournament that Paloma scorched the field in was held in Rockford. Playing on that field surprised Paloma.
“It was a bigger deal to me than I had ever expected it to be,” she said. “This was my second time going to an all-girls tournament. I thought it would be a repeat.”
But when there was a big announcement that a women’s museum and baseball center would be built in Rockford, and when some of the original Peaches came out to meet the girls, the arc of history hit her — hard. “There were women years before me playing on those fields,” she said. “And I felt like I owed something to these women.”
After Paloma and her team won that tournament, D.C. Force tweeted at the Nationals, hoping the hometown team would give a shout-out to a local team that brought home a national championship:
“Hey @Nationals! These DC girls won a nationwide girls baseball tourney! They start school soon but there is still time to visit the Park!”
So far, the Nationals haven’t responded.
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