Real Baseball. Real Women. Diamond Classic

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After Red Sox Women’s Fantasy Camp in January, I ambitiously declared 2016 my “Year of Women in Baseball”. I had no real concept of the amazing journey ahead.

Memorial Day weekend 2016 marked the 11th Diamond Classic Women’s Baseball Tournament hosted by the Eastern Women’s Baseball Conference. The EWBC is dedicated to providing opportunities for girls and women to play organized baseball and preparing amateur female baseball players for national and international competition. Major League Baseball rules are used. Yes, women are pitching from 60’6” and running/throwing 90′ between bases. The league is composed of 4 teams (Montgomery County Barn Cats, Virginia Flames, Virginia Fury, and Baltimore Blues). The DC Thunder represented the EWBC in the tournament. The 11th annual Diamond Classic featured 8 teams, 2 teams from Canada, and at least one player from Australia.

The Diamond Classic has become a fixture thanks to Bonnie Hoffman and the EWBC. For many girls, the tournament (along with two or so other tournaments) is the highlight of their year. Some play on teams with boys. Some play softball the rest of the year. Some only get to play during the tournaments. It’s a time when new friendships are sparked and old friendships rekindled. Camaraderie runs rampant. It’s a chance to talk baseball with other females who understand and feel as strongly about it as you. Parents got to talk with other parents who understand what it’s like to raise an athletic girl who is determined to take the road less traveled.

I had the good fortune of being invited to play for the Great Lakes Lightning. The geographic name of a team does not always represent the homes of the players. Lightning players came from California, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, Iowa, North Carolina, and Connecticut. Jacinda Barclay of Australia played for the Chicago Pioneers.

The youngest player on the Lightning was 14. Only a few players surpassed me in age. All descended on the Baltimore area excited to play baseball.

I got up at 4am on Friday to catch my flight. By the time I reached Baltimore I was primarily thinking of sleep. I couldn’t sleep in the hotel room due to nervous excitement. I got a ride with one of the coaches of the Lightning to Bases for registration, batting cage practice, and to meet the rest of the team. Old friends who live far apart embraced and laughed. Smiles and a bit of nervous excitement hung in the air.

Some of the teams are primarily composed of women who have played together for a long time. Other teams were composed almost entirely of women who didn’t know each other before the tournament.

At dinner, members of the Lightning chatted about our playing experiences. A theme rang true as we introduced ourselves. Girls and women continue to face enormous obstacles to playing baseball. Many girls begin on coed tee ball teams. As they get into Little League they are often the only girl on their team or one of a handful of girls who do not follow the other girls into softball. Once they age out of Little League the options become even more slim. They can be the only girl in the entire league and face tremendous pressure, harassment, and bullying. Or, they can play softball. Some teen players coach younger players or siblings.

I talked to a sophomore in high school. Her story echoed the reality for many girls. She doesn’t play on a team at home. She plays at these women’s tournaments whenever possible. She will travel across the country to play baseball for a weekend. She didn’t try out for the “boys” high school baseball team at home because she didn’t believe she would get a fair shot at tryouts. If she made the team she would likely be benched and receive little opportunity to play in games. If she played better than the boys there would likely be retaliation by not being allowed to play in games and open hostility. The backlash for playing a male dominated sport can be intense.

Another girl went to a private school. Public schools cannot legally disallow girls from trying out or playing baseball. Private schools are another story. Her private school didn’t have a softball team. Often softball teams are held up as “equivalent” sports. This happens even though in softball the equipment is different, it’s pitched underhand, there is no pitcher’s mound, the rules are different, and the space is different. She wanted to tryout for the baseball team. The coach told her, “You will not be on the baseball team. I won’t allow it.” Instead she started playing on women’s tournament teams.

Listening to these life stories and knowing my own was troubling. It made me realize why this tournament was so important to all of us and why we were willing to often make great sacrifices to make the tournament. We share a deep love for baseball and an incessant number of obstacles to playing. These tournaments are the only opportunity for many women to play baseball with other women. For many, it is the only opportunity to play baseball in a live game. For too many, our baseball practices are limited to solo experiences in a batting cage, hitting off a tee, pitching to a net, and fielding rubber balls off walls.

One teammate introduced herself by saying she was the first girl to play in a father/son tournament in her home city. Our team captain had some good exercises to help us get to know each other and get into a team mindset. Each player had a “sock buddy”. We were responsible for lifting up our sock buddy when she was down, making sure she stayed hydrated, and reminding her to be on time. Our captain told me she picked up this trick from Narelle Gosstray when she played in Australia.

The anticipation of putting on the uniform makes me giddy. I brought a royal blue belt, royal blue socks, and my beloved gray baseball pants. We were given an undershirt, jersey, and hat. The logo on the hat was a baseball with a bolt of lightning through it. It reminded me of the Bad New Bears logo. Perfect. I like to wear #21 both to honor HOFer Roberto Clemente and for good luck. I don’t really believe in good or bad luck even though ballplayers are known for being superstitious. When it comes to uniform number it can’t hurt to pick a good one. I will admit I try not to touch the baselines when running on and off the field.

It was a hot, sunny day exploding with blue skies and puffy white clouds. Perfect for baseball. The grass was as green as a crayon. The event organizers had generously stocked the dugouts with cold water, Gatorade, and a variety of snacks to keep us going.

Our first game was against the Chicago Pioneers. Stacy Piagno was pitching. At first I thought, “I’m doomed.” I was excited once I had time to process the notion of facing a Team USA pitcher who threw a no-hitter in the 2015 Pan Am Games. It’s not every day you get to hit against one of the best female pitchers in the world. Baseball is a mental game. My goal was to make contact because Piagno can throw with heat. After emerging on the batting deck, I dove back into the dugout to grab an extra bat. I swung two bats as I watched Piagno throwing. I had never done this before. My goal was partially psychological. I’m certain it did more to lift me psychologically than it intimidated her. I also wanted to gain as much speed on my swing as possible. I had even used eye black to try to look more intimidating. Every advantage counts.

Before going up to bat I asked teammates what she was throwing. “Strikes, and fast,” was the unanimous answer. The batter before me was out. I took a deep breath and walked up to the plate. I smoothed the dirt with my foot. I was striving to focus and take my time. I squinted and concentrated on Piagno’s glove. I swung at the first pitch. Foul ball. I took a step back and regrouped. I had made contact! I could do this. I stepped back to the plate for the second pitch. Another foul ball. Strike two. No balls. I stepped out of the box and took another deep breath. If I could straighten it out I had a chance. The ball pinged off my bat and rolled directly at the first baseman. Easy out. As I jogged back to the dugout I wanted to break into a smile. I had made contact with all three pitches I saw.

Later in the game I was coaching first base. Denae, a 14 year-old who is the only girl in her league in Las Vegas, came up to bat. The girl has skills. She can easily do the splits to make catches at the corners She has a strong, accurate arm. She can hit. Her mechanics are solid. She can also flip a bat in mid swing and catch it to complete the swing. Denae fouled off several of Piagno’s pitches. I thought, “This kid has a chance of getting on base.” Finally Piagno threw a pitch which must have moved a full foot when it reached the plate. Denae swung and missed. She had a look of both amazement and disappointment on her face.

In the afternoon we faced the Toronto Fusion. It seemed every pitch we hit went directly at a fielder. As I ran off the field I told the shortstop, “We’ve got to stop hitting the ball in your direction.” She laughed. We lost the game. Win or lose, we got to play!

Saturday evening a dinner and social fundraiser was held at The Greene Turtle. Denae had her picture taken with her hero, Stacy Piagno. Piagno told Denae she had to throw her curve ball because Denae was getting in good swings. Denae’s dream is to play for Team USA, the women’s national baseball team, like Piagno.

Bonnie Hoffman has organized women’s baseball centered in the Baltimore/DC area for a number of years. Hoffman’s slight stature belies the influence this woman has had on the game of baseball. Hoffman was one of the “10” award winners during the tournament.

Each team was asked to select someone from their team to receive a “10” award for being essential to the the team, embodying the spirit of women’s baseball, and doing good unto others. The inspiration for the award was Carmen, who played baseball with the EWBC. Carmen was universally loved and respected by women baseball players and coaches throughout the country. She tragically developed cancer. The Diamond Classic was happening while she was in hospice. Carmen conspired with her baseball friends to defy doctor’s orders. She left the hospice to watch the tourney and show her support. As Jennifer Hammond and Bonnie Hoffman told Carmen’s story there were many tears. Crying does happen sometimes in baseball. Bonnie was awarded the “10” award by the DC Thunder. Even though Bonnie shuns recognition it was clear this award was well deserved. Few people can rival Bonnie’s commitment and passion for baseball and community service.

Brenda Mendoza, who put the Great Lakes Lightning together and did virtually all the work enabling us to come together to play, was the unanimous selection to receive the “10” award from our team. Other winners included Amy Schneider of the Chicago Gems and Meggie Meidlinger of the New England Red Sox.

The event included the “Give 10 for 10” fundraiser. “It’s not about how much you have. It’s about what you do with it.” A raffle/fundraiser was held for the Baer School in Baltimore. The Baer school provides needed services to children with special needs. As a fan of Roberto Clemente, I always like to see good deeds go along with baseball. https://go.rallyup.com/give-to-baer

After dinner there was an opportunity for more team bonding. At Kangaroo Court, a teammate declared she wanted to fine “America” for, “Trying to tell me I have to play softball.” I enthusiastically rapped the gavel. Team loyalty prevents me from revealing further details about Kangaroo Court.

Sunday morning we faced the New England Red Sox. The Red Sox included many current and former elite American players including Marti Sementelli, Sarah Gascon, Donna Mills, Malaika Underwood, Samantha Cobb, and Michelle Snyder. This team included players who are legends in women’s baseball. I was going to play against them. It seemed absurd and delightful. I saw Samantha Cobb warming up to pitch. I was a bit disappointed I wouldn’t get to hit against Marti Sementelli, who has been pitching since age 3. She’s one of the few women who has earned a scholarship to play college baseball (Montreat College).

We got off to a great start when our lead off hitter reached base. Our pitcher, high school senior Olivia Wilder, was getting them out. Our defense was solid. For several innings only 1 or 2 runs separated us. It was elating.

I got on base with a walk. I forgot I was playing against a very experienced team and took a healthy lead off first base. Immediately after reaching first base I was picked off. It seemed to happen in warp speed and slow motion. The throw to first was warp speed. My dive into first was slow motion. I saw the first baseman’s glove was a little high so I tried to sneak my hand under the tag. The throw beat me easily. My teammates gave me a hard time. It was deserved. The first baseman was excited and gushed, “I’ve never done that before!” I jogged in shame back to the dugout. However, there’s always another inning and opportunity to make up for it. Lessoned learned.

At the end of the game the Red Sox plated a few more runs and we lost 7-3. Nevertheless, we were thrilled it was so close considering the competition. I was impressed watching 2015 USA Baseball Sportswoman of the Year, Malaika Underwood. She found a way to get on base. Once on base she could run from first to third in the blink of an eye. She was easily the fastest woman I’ve seen run the bases. She ran smart as well.

At the conclusion of the game, the Lightning enthusiastically lined up to slap hands with the Red Sox. As we said, “Good game,” to each player, my coach from fantasy camp, Marti Sementelli, made me smile by saying, “Great game, AJ.”

After the game, we got on top of the dugout and posed for pictures. We were ballplayers, we played a great game. We were on top of the world.

Just a couple hours later we had another game. It was a consolation game against the East Coast Yankees. The Yankees lineup included Hera Andre-Bergman, a strong armed catcher from New York. She plays in a mens’ league. I watched her throwing the ball effortlessly to every base. We started out well. The Yankees pitcher was young and didn’t have control this time out. I did not get picked off first base after taking a walk. However, our pitcher and catcher were struggling. Our defense was atypically struggling as well. I contributed to the blooper reel. After several long drives, passed balls, walks, and runs the longest inning was over. Once the Yankees starting pitcher was replaced we were shut down.

Towards the end of the game the skies opened up. It began as a sprinkle. By the end of the game it was pouring. The teams waiting to play after us hung out in the concession area of Joe Cannon Stadium hoping the skies would clear. Our team met on the steps of the beautiful brick stadium. Olivia was named MVP for her pitching and hitting performance against the Red Sox.

We hung around the concession area talking and taking pictures. I got to meet several women’s baseball supporters who loyally show up at events like the Diamond Classic to encourage the players and watch dynamic baseball. A couple weeks before the tournament, a filmmaker, friend, and fellow baseball fan, Jon Leonoudakis, told me the most passionately played baseball he has witnessed in his life was a game between the Aussie Hearts women’s team and a team of American women in 2015.

My teammate Cameron had her picture taken with Marti Sementelli, a player she looks up to. Cameron has tried out for Team USA. She had a couple of hats in her gear bag from tryouts. My mouth was gaping open. She generously gave me one of her authentic Team USA tryout hats since I collect hats. It is now a prize.

I walked up to Malaika Underwood and introduced myself. She was friendly and approachable. I asked her to pose for a picture with me. She graciously complied. Many of us got to meet female players we respect during the Diamond Classic.

The game was cancelled due to rain. By now teams were intermingling. A few of us took up a challenge and ran, dove on the soaking wet grass outside the stadium, and tried to slip and slide. We didn’t slide much. Paige, of the Yankees, amazed us with her ability to do flips. She quickly earned the nickname “Flipper” or “Flippy”. With a few dives into grass and dirt during the tournament I ended up with a baseball nickname. I became Crash. I have the bruises and scrapes to prove it was earned.

Sunday evening our team gathered for a summary Kangaroo Court, pizza, and ice cream. We made plans for the following day. These enriching experiences to play baseball and be part of a baseball team are rare for women. We didn’t want it to end even though we were all exhausted from the heat and giving every ounce of ourselves to every play. Most had an injured finger, ribs, or other aggravation. However, none of us were going to sit on the bench during a game due to an injury. Ice packs were a common site during and after games.

At this last official team gathering I looked around at the faces ranging in age from 14 to 48. Elite players to rookies. All weekend we playfully teased each other about age differences, dialects, and word usage. Despite traveling from all corners of the United States I realized we had several things in common. We are all ballplayers. We are all female. We are all strong.

The next day the sun came out late in the morning. The morning games had to be switched from the handsome Joe Cannon Stadium to Spring Grove because there were pools of water on the field. I sat on the high grassy embankment surrounding the field with teammates Cameron and Jenn. Talk consistently returned to double plays, the hit-and-run, bunting, curve balls, knuckleballs, the MLB standings, and World Cup Baseball. In my day-to-day life people tune me out when I try to broach these topics. It was invigorating to have such engaging baseball discussions. We watched the Chicago Gems and Toronto Fusion battle for 3rd place. Afterwards, we watched the reigning champion Ontario Trail Blazers battle for 1st place against the dominating New England Red Sox. The Trail Blazers put up a valiant fight. In the end, the Red Sox won 4-0. The teams were given gold and silver medals.

What’s next? Many of the women will tryout for Team USA in 2 weeks. Only 18 will make the team giving them an opportunity to play in the biennial Women’s Baseball World Cup. In 2016, twelve teams will compete in South Korea. In 2014 only eight teams competed. Women’s baseball is growing internationally.

What about everyone else? Some will return to softball, a sport they openly consider a far less beloved fall back. Some will play on all boys and all men’s teams in all boys and all men’s leagues. They will stand out as the only woman. A few, like the DC Thunder, will play in regional women’s leagues. Many are counting down the days until the next tournament, counting the pennies to pay for the expenses of the next tournament or hoping parents will let them go to the next tournament.

How long will we play? As long as A-Rod or anyone else who loves the game. As long as we possibly can. I didn’t “get” to start playing until a few months ago. Despite the fact I am older than most of the players, you will have to take my corpse off the field in a body bag.

Baseball is unifying. It is a bond between parents and daughter, siblings, friends, generations, and cultural differences. However, when enormous barriers are put up making it very difficult for half the population to play the “national pastime” it becomes exclusive and inaccessible. Societal changes are happening in baby steps. The confidence I saw in these ballplayers convinced me change is going to start occurring in a more seismic manner.

We lost all 4 games. However, it was an amazing opportunity to take the field with some of the best players in the world. These tournaments only happen a handful of times during the year. Rain couldn’t water down the joy of being there. My friend Kris told me she and her dad were talking about how performance enhancing drugs had marred baseball. Her dad concluded, “The game is still the game.” I wouldn’t have missed the Diamond Classic for the world.

Photo Credits:  Debbie Pierson and Dave Benites

Denae and Stacy Piagno

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