Their baseball dreams don’t fit in one box. Oliva Csedrik wants to play in college. Ruby Churches can see herself in a press box. Paloma Benach has plans to study psychology and be a mental skills coach for a major league team. Maggie Heaphy has long known that, no matter what, she’ll keep building her life around the sport.
Doing what? She’s not yet sure. She’s 14.
So Maggie, Oliva, Ruby and Paloma, all players for DC Girls Baseball, were just minding their business Nov. 13. Paloma was sitting through virtual class. Ruby was scrolling on her phone. But when the news popped up — that Kim Ng was the next general manager of the Miami Marlins — emotions rushed in. They were excited, then relieved. They were so eager to be represented in baseball, yet so used to hearing that Ng or another woman was passed over for a job.
“Is this a joke?” wondered Ruby, a 12-year-old utility player who prefers the middle infield or pitching. “That’s what I felt like in that moment: Is this real?”
“It felt right, you know?” recalled Paloma, a 17-year-old pitcher. “I heard it, and I was like, ‘Yep, finally.’ ”
“I was kind of shocked,” said Oliva, a 16-year-old middle infielder. “When I read about her more, I was still shocked but wondering how she could have been overlooked all these years, just considering her résumé.”
“I think I screamed,” Maggie remembered. “I saw it and then, yeah, I screamed.”
None of them ever wanted to play softball. In turn, on dozens of afternoons, they’ve felt the stares from the bleachers, the other dugout, from anyone skeptical — always skeptical — of the girl on the field. That’s why Ava Benach started DC Girls Baseball in 2016. It’s a place for Maggie, Oliva, Ruby and Paloma, Ava’s daughter, to be themselves, make mistakes, worry more about catching a pop fly than blazing a trail. It’s safe.
But there’s a point at which the girls’ baseball world collides with tradition. And that tradition, Oliva noted, is “built for boys by men.” There aren’t enough girls, at least not yet, to form high school teams or leagues without boys. College programs are largely filled, coached and managed by men. The sport does not reflect how many young girls and women are interested in playing or working in it.
That’s why the Marlins hiring Ng, baseball’s first female GM, has resonated so widely in the weeks since. Maggie, Oliva, Ruby and Paloma, and many girls like them, have read about the shattered glass ceiling and forward momentum. Their goals feel closer than before. Their experiences, though, show how pressure stretches from a D.C. park to Ng’s office in Miami. From a young age, girls in baseball carry the burden to not mess up.
“Being a girl in baseball comes with a lot of attention, but that doesn’t mean you’re not still overlooked,” Oliva explained. “Because from the moment you step onto the diamond, people notice you. But they still don’t necessarily see you as a ballplayer.
“That’s why there’s definitely pressure to prove yourself, to go beyond the looks that you get for just being a girl on the field. You definitely don’t want to make an error or strike out.”
Oliva, a junior at School Without Walls in Washington, is one of two girls on the varsity baseball team. She is also one of about 70 members of the DC Girls Baseball program. The organization is part of a network of East Coast teams, stretching from Florida to Boston. Almost all of the girls play baseball elsewhere, too, with Ava Benach, the founder, saying, “We know we can’t supplant high school or travel teams.”
What they do offer is a space that expands opportunity in the sport. They teach their girls to fundraise, speak to reporters, testify in government hearings and use baseball in playwriting or visual art. The teams enter all-girls and coed tournaments. But with the recent growth of girls’ baseball, Benach notes that, in theory, they could play a full schedule without seeing a boy.
“If girls didn’t want to play baseball, then we’d have no reason to exist,” Ava Benach said. “But they do, and there are too many off-ramps, too many ways that they are forced out. It’s by coaches that tell them that they have no future, who refuse to play them.
“It’s parents saying, ‘Why are you taking a spot from our son?’ Which they would never say of a male baseball player who makes the team over their son. And there’s the fact that they don’t see a lot of representation. We hope that’s changing. Every time there’s a first, there’s usually a second, then a third.”
And while Oliva likes the challenge of playing with boys, she feels more at ease, and more comfortable with failing, when surrounded by girls. When she learned Ng was hired — like Ruby, she was on her phone — it was important in two ways. Oliva’s mom is from the Philippines. That Ng was both a woman and Asian American made her tear through the articles and social media posts.
Maggie, who is also Asian American, had a similar rush of excitement. She once played in front of Ng at a girls’ baseball event in California. Ng, then working in MLB’s central office, was a featured speaker and told the girls that, yes, she planned to be a GM one day. Knowing Ng was in the stands later, Maggie was nervous and gripped the bat a bit tighter. She can’t recall if she got a hit.
Now, with Ng running the Marlins, Maggie just hopes she impressed one of her heroes.
“Two of the rarest things, in my opinion, to see on a baseball diamond in the United States are Asians and girls,” Oliva said. “So that’s why this Kim Ng hiring has been really special.”
“Seeing someone who looks like me at such a high level, doing something that I want to do, is awesome,” Maggie said. “I mean, that’s like the dream right there. That’s why I’m playing.”
Ruby, a seventh-grader at Washington Latin, planned to try middle school baseball this past spring. Then the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the season. She has considered switching to softball but is wary of learning new rules and equipment, which would change her swing and the way she throws. Plus, the strategy of baseball is her favorite part. She’s not ready to give that up.
Paloma, a junior at Wilson High, is a junior varsity pitcher with varsity hopes. Oliva is the oldest of three baseball players in her family, lighting a path for two younger brothers. And Maggie, a freshman at Charlottesville High, hopes to earn a roster spot this spring.
Before games and practices, Maggie likes to blast Kanye West into her ear buds. She laughs and, as only a 14-year-old could, says, “I’m just a little old school.” If this goes well, like it does in her head, Maggie will impress coaches with her smooth fielding and quick swing. She’ll stand out for the right reasons. Then she’ll become the first girl to play baseball at her high school.