A female knuckleballer will be joining the ranks of college baseball players hoping to make an impact this summer in the West Coast League. Claire Eccles, a 19-year-old who plays softball for the University of British Columbia, will play for the Victoria HarbourCats in the 11-team league that attracts some of the best collegiate players in North America.
“I never thought I could get an opportunity like this,” Eccles said (via ESPN). “I’m obviously not going to be the fastest pitcher in the league, but I have some good off-speed pitches that will keep hitters on their toes.”
Eccles, who has a baseball tattooed on her right ear, is a lefty who relies on the difficult-to-control knuckleball (here’s a look at unpredictable pitch) as her primary pitch, and her fastball reportedly tops out at 76 mph — well below that of the average college pitcher. But Eccles isn’t the average college pitcher. In fact, she isn’t a college pitcher at all, playing the outfield for UBC’s softball team.
She played baseball on boys’ teams growing up but was made to switch to softball when she reached high school. But she picked up the sport again as a player in Baseball Canada’s women’s provincial program. A spot on the Canadian national team soon followed, along with appearances in the Women’s Baseball World Cup and Pan-American Games.
Eccles isn’t the first woman to break into men’s baseball, but it’s still a rarity. In 2016, there was just one female player in the college ranks, also a pitcher, who played for a school in the NJCAA, an organization similar to the NCAA, but for two-year schools and junior colleges. In 2014, Mo’ne Davis garnered national headlines for her performance at the Little League World Series (although has since shifted toward pursuing a basketball career.)
“A hundred percent Claire is good enough to play on our team,” HarbourCats General Manager Brad Norris-Jones told the Globe and Mail. “Is it going to be a challenge for Claire? Absolutely.
“We’re just going to get everyone involved and show that in 2017 this isn’t different, this isn’t weird. It’s normal.”
Normal might be a stretch, which is what makes this pretty cool. Eccles will be the only woman in a league that counts several notable MLB players as alumni, including the Orioles’ Chris Davis, the Royals’ Jason Hammel, the Angels’ Bud Norris and the Yankees’ Jacoby Ellsbury.
“You have to wonder: ‘Is this just for their own publicity?’ ” Eccles said, also mentioning that she thought of the recently canceled TV show “Pitch” when Norris-Jones reached out to her. “[But] Brad said I’d get fair opportunities and it’s not just for show.”
The knuckleball gives Eccles a wrinkle most pitchers won’t have. The erratic pitch, which Eccles said took her about a year to develop, “dances” as it leaves the pitcher’s hand and can be difficult to read for batters. It’s a difficult pitch to master, and there have been relatively few knuckleballers in the major leagues. Only one pitcher, R.A. Dickey, has been awarded the Cy Young, and the all-star pitcher was one of the first to jump on social media to wish Eccles luck following the announcement.