Kelsie at the bat

In the Atlantic League, a 24-year-old baseball player knows what she wants.

“Everything she has set her mind to she has achieved, when given the opportunity,” FerryHawks pitching coach Nelson Figueroa said of Kelsie Whitmore. “It would be a shame just because she’s female to not give her the opportunity." (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
17 min

NEW YORK — Kelsie Whitmore always wanted to play in the major leagues. She did not always want to admit it.

“Are you sure?” people would respond after they asked what she wanted to do.

Even at an early age, she knew what they really meant: “You know you can’t do that, right?”

They would — and still do — tell her how hard she would have to work, as if a girl who played baseball with the boys from the moment she started Little League didn’t know that already. She knew they thought she probably couldn’t do it. In fairness, they had never seen anyone try.

Whitmore was never afraid that that skepticism would make her question whether she belonged. As the first woman to start a game in the Atlantic League, an independent circuit, she had never exactly blended in. But she has stood in the same outfield as former major leaguers, tracking and catching the same flyballs. She has taken leads against former major league pitchers, inching toward second base, watching for the same tells as the guys, scoring on base hits just as they do. She has faced elite pitching and velocity, struck out, adjusted and done better next time.

She understands that it has been generations since anyone has seen a woman pull this off, that their doubt isn’t personal but empirical. So, starting young, she changed her answer.

“I just want to continue playing baseball,” she would tell anyone who asked about her hopes and dreams.

“Oh, you mean softball?” they would counter.

“That’s probably the statement I’ve probably heard most in my life,” Whitmore said. “ ‘Baseball? You mean softball?’ ”

Kelsie Whitmore never meant softball. At 24, she is the first woman to play in the Atlantic League, which is often considered the competitive equivalent of Class AA or AAA. Better than most, she knows what is possible and what isn’t.

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“Everything she has set her mind to she has achieved when given the opportunity,” Staten Island FerryHawks pitching coach Nelson Figueroa said. “It would be a shame just because she’s female to not give her the opportunity. You have to give people the opportunity to fail. You don’t have success without failure, and I can point to every other guy out here and say: ‘Have you failed? Yes.’ Maybe she will, too. But she has to have the opportunity.”

The opportunity

The Atlantic League is a place several baseball players have found opportunity over the years, though for many of them it was one last shot, not their first. But for Whitmore, it represents a chance.

Not since Toni Stone, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson and Connie Morgan played in the Negro Leagues in the early 1950s has a woman played alongside some of the world’s biggest professional stars. As recently as the 1970s, girls were not allowed to play Little League Baseball, a rule the organization argued was not based on sexism but rather physiological differences.

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Most baseball-obsessed young girls wind up playing softball — a game played on a smaller field with a bigger ball — which is sold as better suited to their size and strength. Softball is not the same as baseball, though. And Whitmore has always wanted to play baseball.

She has never been the biggest or the fastest. At a generous 5-foot-7 and about 50 pounds lighter than any of her FerryHawks teammates, Whitmore is a two-way player with a fastball she and Figueroa think could hit 80 mph in time. On women’s teams, she closed. On the FerryHawks, she waits, hoping to have a chance to unleash her fastball, breaking balls and a baffling pitch they call “The Thing” on opposing hitters, testing it in batting practice sessions with her teammates. Former major league starter Julio Teheran asked her to teach it to him. She has thrown 5⅓ innings and allowed 14 runs this season, though in one of her appearances she pitched out of a bases-loaded jam.

“Pitching isn’t always about [velocity], and good pitchers can pitch without the velo. She’s very good at repeating her delivery, mixing up her pitches, and she’s going to be pitching below the hitting speed,” Figueroa said. “These guys are used to seeing 95-plus, 90-mph sliders. When her slider is somewhere in the 70s, it’s going to be a shock to the system because what they’re used to seeing at 70 mph is batting practice, down the middle. They will not see down the middle from her.”

Whitmore is quick, and Manager Edgardo Alfonzo often uses her as a pinch runner late in games. When she takes batting practice, she hits line drives, never threatening to put the ball out in New York Harbor beyond the Richmond County Bank Ballpark wall, though as one of her teammates recently joked, anyone who could hit the ball that far should be in a cab to Yankee Stadium.

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“I haven’t felt overwhelmed with the competition. I haven’t felt overwhelmed with the game. I think maybe certain outings, maybe certain at-bats, I am maybe a little nervous. I feel like I need to be perfect and be nervous that I have to do my job anytime,” Whitmore said. “If I’m on the mound or in the outfield or hitting, at the end of the day, I still have to put the ball in play. I still have to run the bases the right way. I still have to catch the ball in the outfield and hit my cut. If I fail, I still have to go out there the next day.”

According to league officials, as of mid-June, 2,333 players had played the field in an Atlantic League game since it began operations 24 years ago. As of mid-June, 2,617 players had pitched. When Whitmore batted ninth and played the outfield in Gastonia, N.C., on May 1, she became the first female position player in league history. When she pitched a few days later, she became the first woman to do that, too.

Whitmore is doing it all just outside the brightest baseball stage in the country. Her new home field used to be the home of the Staten Island Yankees, the Yankees’ former short-season Class A affiliate, a casualty of minor league contraction after 2020.

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So when Whitmore walks into the long, dingy corridor with the cinder-block walls, past the manager’s offices and the coaches’ locker room, and turns right each day into the hall that spills out into the clubhouse, she is taking the same route Robinson Canó, Brett Gardner, Mark Melancon and others took — the same route Teheran and Roger Clemens’s son Kacy and others are taking now.

Whitmore doesn’t walk all the way into the clubhouse, though. She stops at a door with her nameplate on it. This small utility room is her changing area, with a full-length mirror hanging from a wall and a tiny fridge filled with water. Her uniform sits neatly folded on a chair in the corner. She has a TV and a couch, a space of her own with the kind of privacy the clubhouse doesn’t afford. Not every Atlantic League stadium has room for that, so on the road, Whitmore often signals to the coaches, who leave their locker room to let her change in private. They have a routine, one that has become so regular as to consume any awkwardness.

“I would have been fine with anything,” Whitmore said with a smile. “But now that I have the room — pretty solid.”

To be clear, Whitmore doesn’t want to be pampered. Staten Island General Manager Gary Perone and Figueroa knew that from the first time they spoke to her, months before the Atlantic League season. Whitmore had been working with Joe Beimel, a no-nonsense former major league reliever, which was the only recommendation Figueroa needed.

“He’s pretty old school when it comes to life. For a woman to come his way and him to take her under his wing, right then and there I said, ‘If he’s working with her, that means she has something,’ ” said Figueroa, who has become one of Whitmore’s biggest advocates.

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Semiprofessional teams in less prestigious leagues offered her spots that she was considering a few weeks before the Atlantic League season began. Her college career was over, so Whitmore was free to pursue a short-term goal — to get on someone’s radar so she could earn a spot in affiliated minor league baseball.

But just as she was deciding between lesser opportunities, she received a text message from Perone. He, with help from Figueroa and Alfonzo, vetted Whitmore for more than a month, talking to those who knew her, weighing the pros of giving her a chance with the inevitable suggestion that they were just doing so to sell tickets, wondering what kind of adjustments her teammates would have to make, trying to sort through the logistics of having a woman on the roster.

“We were just like, ‘Be cognizant that she will be around.’ It’s just like having female reporters in the clubhouse. I just told them, ‘Don’t be gross.’ But there was definitely a little gray area in the beginning,” Figueroa said. “But she’s got thicker skin than we do.”

Whether Whitmore could handle being the first was never in question. Figueroa and Perone made sure she knew she would have to earn every second of playing time — and to this point, she hasn’t had much of it. But she made it clear that she intended to do just that.

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In the months since she joined the FerryHawks, Whitmore is hitless in 16 plate appearances, has been hit by a pitch and scored two runs. She has made seven appearances on the mound. Figueroa admits Whitmore gets frustrated now and then. She has been a star elsewhere. With the FerryHawks, she is fighting like the rest of them, trying to be perfect in every at-bat.

Whitmore is always easy to spot on the dugout railing, where she is sometimes obscured by larger teammates, or on the field. She is slighter than most of her teammates but identifiable by the long hair visible under her flat-brimmed fitted hat. She has impressed teammates and coaches with her commitment to working out, as well as the precision with which she considers each batting practice swing and the energy with which she throws herself at sinking flyballs in the outfield during batting practice when others might let them drop.

“She can play. I just know she can play. And she’s showed everybody she can hit and run and pitch,” said Dilson Herrera, a former major leaguer who spent time with the FerryHawks this spring and said he was “blessed” to have the chance to play with Whitmore. “She probably had to prove herself a lot more. I don’t always know what she’s thinking. But I do know she is thinking, ‘Now that I’m here, I’m going to show them I can do this.’ ”

Whitmore has intricate handshakes with multiple teammates. They hoot and holler when she hits a ball deep in batting practice, having moved past the awkwardness of the first few days when Figueroa remembers hearing more than one player start to say “Attaboy” before cutting himself off mid-sentence.

When her teammates jog over to a nearby deli for a pregame snack, Whitmore goes with them and brings back a few extra Gatorades. When the mostly positive social media response to her chance started turning negative, one of her teammates helped her change the settings on her feeds so she wouldn’t see any of it. When one of the dozens of pregame interviews she has done over the past month was going to make her late for a team meeting one day in mid-May, they waited until she was done — no jealous quips, no rolls of the eyes.

“Anywhere I go, I keep my guard up at first. I don’t trust anybody. To be honest, I think the worst. I expect the worst, but as a girl, that’s all you can do. It sounds bad, but it’s real,” Whitmore said. “I came in here expecting the worst. But what’s crazy is of all the different people, for some reason the guys on my team, they’re the ones that have my back. I feel close with them.”

“Who knows? The relationships could be fake,” Whitmore wondered aloud a moment later. “But the only people I feel like I can trust at this moment are my teammates.”

Baseball over everything

Whitmore doesn’t have to explain her dream to her teammates. They are here because they have the same one. The only difference is that no one asks them to justify it.

Her parents didn’t need her to explain, either. When she was young, she loved playing catch with her dad every day. He told her they could do that forever, play catch there in the backyard, but also that she could play in a competitive league if she wanted. Whitmore didn’t ask whether she would be playing with boys or girls, or whether girls were supposed to play softball. She had a more pressing concern.

“I was like, ‘Do I have to wear my hair up?’ I thought I did,” Whitmore remembers. Her father said she could do whatever she wanted. So I was like, ‘Okay, let’s go!’ ”

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Her parents didn’t ask her about softball after that. She said no one tried to force her to switch, even when she reached the age when many female ballplayers decide they need a few years of high school softball under their belts to have a chance at a college scholarship. Whitmore didn’t choose baseball over softball. She chose baseball over everything.

She played on women’s national teams in the USA Baseball program, played on her high school team and on all-star teams — all baseball, never softball. She wanted to play college baseball, too. But college baseball programs were less certain they wanted her to play for them.

As her senior year neared and elite programs filled softball scholarship spots, Whitmore headed to a showcase tournament, to one last chance to get herself in front of college softball coaches, just in case. They were interested, and for the first time, Whitmore felt she had no choice.

“When you get that interest, it’s kind of hard to ignore,” she said. So she decided on Cal State Fullerton, a Division I program but not an all-consuming one. She wasn’t choosing a school based on the quality of the softball program. Whitmore was evaluating institutions based on where she would have time to practice baseball, too.

She blasted her way to Big West player of the year honors and a .395 batting average, a .507 on-base percentage and an .824 slugging percentage as a senior. Late at night, she would stay back in the baseball batting cage, throwing bullpen sessions to a bucket she used as a strike zone. The only baseball-related feedback Whitmore got in those days was the echoing thud of the ball hitting the bucket, proof that throwing a softball hadn’t dulled her ability to throw a baseball 60 feet, 6 inches.

“To be honest, I was mad being there. I wanted to play baseball. I was mad because I felt like my baseball career was over,” Whitmore said. “I thought, ‘No one’s going to trust my skill set if they know I played college softball.’ ”

But Perone, Figueroa and the FerryHawks trusted her skill set. More importantly, they say, they trusted the person.

“Everyone who meets her becomes a Kelsie Whitmore fan,” Figueroa said. “All her teammates, we all have her back like she has ours.”

But there’s only so much her teammates can do. Being the first means being alone.

“There’s this feeling — I know every other girl who does this knows the feeling: You want to throw up. You want to throw up because you’re the only one and everyone is staring at you. You want a friend to walk by you — even if you’re not going to talk to them — you want someone by you so you’re not alone,” Whitmore said. “That’s when you have to tell yourself, ‘Stay you, stay you.’ You become your own best friend.”

That’s part of why Whitmore started holding back when people asked about her goals. She is her own sounding board, the one who has lived this life like no one else. She is the one who knows what it’s like out there. And she’s the one who knows what it takes.

“There hasn’t been anyone, so there’s going to be a first. Not so I can say I am but to test myself. In my offseason training, you train every day — that’s all you think about. In between every rep, you have to max this day out because I want to get there. And if I don’t, I’m not getting there,” said Whitmore, who admits she is only marginally more comfortable admitting her major league dreams than she used to be. “The phrase I always say is: ‘Keep your grind to yourself. Keep your grind secret.’ You visualize. You dream. You work for all of that. But at the end of the day, it’s just you.”

Whitmore understands that this is becoming about more than just her. She understands the impact she has on girls like her, who might not hear “You mean softball?” quite as often now. But if she’s being honest — and she is rarely being fully transparent because being the first of your kind requires saying the right thing to everyone and being the right thing for everyone — she isn’t doing this for them. Not entirely.

“It’s 50-50,” Whitmore said. “It’s trying to pave the way for other people, but it’s also trying to pave the way for my own life, making my own choice for my own future.”