Baseball Sisters in Australia
by A.J. Richard
April 3, 2016
My short term goal was easy. I aimed to be well conditioned and prepared to play baseball respectably at fantasy camp. The long term goal was more difficult. What kind of long term goal would be realistic for a 44 year-old just getting started actually playing baseball? Eventually, I decided my long term goal was to play in a women’s baseball tournament.
I had no idea my long term goal would be achieved just two months after the short term goal. My roommate at fantasy camp, Semira Abdallah, lives in Melbourne, Australia. I knew of an upcoming women’s baseball tournament in Melbourne. Semira graciously invited me to stay with her family while playing in the tournament. Most tournaments require teams to register. This open tournament allowed individuals to register. Ninety women signed up to play.
My “purple” team (which pretty quickly became known as the Purple Pandas) ranged in age from about 15 to 54. Players ranged from Division I which included World Cup caliber players to Division III which included players new to baseball. Every team included a mixture of players. More experienced players readily stepped up as mentors to less experienced players. Each of us have obstacles to overcome. A teammate has a nervous system disorder and still plays. Baseball is for all, and one for all.
The mentoring was immeasurably beneficial. In a game, I caught a fly ball at second base. I had been thinking “double play”. The runner had boldly tagged and advanced. I started to throw to first base. The look on Semira’s face made me realize it was not the right move. I heard my teammates yelling, “Second,” so I wheeled around and threw the runner out at second base. Technically it was an unassisted double play. However, it only occurred due to the assistance of my teammates. Mentorship is priceless.
I learned as much in the stands or bench as on the field. The primary coach of the Pandas was Mick Wearne, a Canadian baseball legend. He initially didn’t want to coach women’s baseball. His daughter, Simone, recently became the first woman elected to the Australian Baseball Hall of Fame, and the youngest ever elected. I sat and listened to Mick artfully strategize every move in each game. He said, “You can’t defend against walks.” Don’t hand them an advantage.
I joyfully got to hit against a pitcher who had won silver at the Women’s Baseball World Cup. I was eager to see what her pitches looked like at the plate. I had been given several great pointers from teammates. I didn’t get a hit. I did make contact which was thrilling!
Veteran and skilled players Shae Lillywhite, Ursula Howard, and Simone Wearne led a clinic one morning. It was mostly attended by Junior players but open to all. Shae played professional ball in Japan and has worked with some of the top hitting coaches in the world. The fact she is so readily approachable and willing to mentor younger players is inspiring. As I watched the Junior players running the ladder, catching, throwing, and hitting I was overwhelmed by emotion. It was such a positive atmosphere. It also drove home how much girls have missed out because these opportunities are lacking.
In Australia girls and women’s baseball clubs exist throughout the country. An all girls nationals tournament is played annually. They also play an organized women’s club championship. In the USA we have the baggage of over 100 years of being told baseball is a boys’ sport and over 40 years of girls being steered into softball instead of baseball to qualify for scholarships. Although Australian girls and women have not been hampered by this baggage, Australian women’s baseball (like women’s sports everywhere) still lacks essential support. Once selected to represent Australia in international play, players have to pay thousands of dollars out-of-pocket to cover expenses.
The evening social events enabled players from different regions of Australia to reunite and build bonds. One evening Jeneane “Lefty” Lesko, who played for the real A League of Their Own, (the All American Girls Professional Baseball League) talked to us about her experiences. She played softball before playing baseball. In considering the smaller size of the baseball she told her coach, “I think I can throw a baseball better than a softball.” Lesko turned 81 during the tournament. She threw the first pitch. I watched her throw batting practice and shag balls. Lesko is a living example of how baseball brings people together. Baseball slows down the aging process. Baseball also brings generations together. Baseball is universal.
The sixth game was a “must win” so the Panda could get into the Final Game. We were down to nine players due to injuries and other engagements. Tournament play meant we got plenty of playing time. I knew I was far from being one of the top players. Knowing I would be playing every minute of a do-or-die game was nerve racking. I had to give my best effort, complete focus, and every ounce of energy. It was extremely invigorating.
Before the game, I borrowed a bat and went into the batting cages. I practiced my swing making sure the mechanics I had been taught were solid. For me, the key is rotating from the hips before following through with the hands. Size is not an issue in baseball. The power comes from the hips not huge biceps. I went through the steps until it felt completely natural.
The pitcher for the opposing team had played for Team Canada at the World Cup. I struck out both times I faced her. However, I fielded a ground ball she hit cleanly and threw her out. My confidence grew. During the game, a teammate said, “You know what I like about you A.J.? Even though you don’t have much experience playing you still get right up there and give it a go.” Another teammate added “Yeah. You are like the opposite of a coward.”
We entered the Final Game with a record of 6-1. We lost the Final Game by a large margin. We ran out of steam. At the end of the game, I was put in to pitch for a teammate with a bleeding finger. After four days of play I had trouble throwing a strike. Sometimes you just go in and give it your best even when you feel like you’re running on fumes. Baseball is a game where the best only succeed in hitting 3 out of 7 times. Losing is an invaluable life lesson. It was a huge consolation to receive a medal with my teammates for taking 2nd place.
These amazing Aussie women taught me much about skills, determination, strategy, and what it means to be part of a team. They also taught me what it’s like when women stick together for a common cause. Anything can be accomplished when we build each other up instead of tearing each other down.
Why are people making such a big deal about girls playing baseball? A Forbes study recently found 80% of women in high ranking, traditionally male jobs played sports. The question becomes, “What happens when a girl is denied an opportunity to play the sport that drives her passion for life?”
Many ask, “Why not just play softball?” Softball and baseball are not equivalent sports. The equipment is different, the manner of pitching is different, and the strategy is different. If a girl loves baseball, she should have every opportunity to pursue the sport.
Fewer youth are participating in team sports. Team sports build individual and leadership skills. To be a team player means striving your best individually to contribute to something bigger than you. It requires being completely in the game by retrieving bats, filling in as a base coach, and actively cheering for your team especially if sitting on the bench. When you’re on the field you are backing up a teammate if not directly involved in a play. All of this transfers directly into other life pursuits. Once you understand how much is at stake you can begin to understand why it is so important for girls to have an opportunity to play baseball.
My new long term goal is to see every girl in America have an opportunity to play baseball with other girls. Baseball For All must be as accessible for girls as Little League is for boys. Girls have a right to the benefits of playing a team sport they love. When I see young girls playing baseball it feels me with joy because I see their joy in playing. It helps to heal the old wounds caused by being denied the right to engage in my greatest passion. We must be fearless in the pursuit of what sets our soul on fire. The Aussie women taught me how we can help each other in this process. When it comes to baseball our politics, religion, and differences in personality should all pale in pursuit of a larger goal.