Thursday, January 18, 2018
Human Interest

Chelsea Baker's path to mound at Trop as unpredictable as her signature pitch

Chelsea Baker was nervous.

So much could go wrong. She could hit Evan Longoria's sweet face with a pitch. She could end David Price's elbow. She could come out and throw like 50 Cent.

And everybody would be watching — her friends and teammates, the gaggle of reporters, Tampa Bay Rays skipper Joe Maddon.

She never expected any of this. A female baseball player, a 17-year-old female baseball player, throwing batting practice — knuckleballs, no less — inside a for-real major league stadium to men who make millions of dollars.

Relax, her mother told her.

Relax, her stepdad said.

On the ride from Plant City to Tropicana Field she put her mitt on her head and closed her eyes.

• • •

Back home in Plant City, there's an old piece of plywood propped against the barn that tells Chelsea Baker's story better than any newspaper article or television report.

It's painted black, with white stencil letters that used to say, "IF U BELIEVE, U CAN ACHIEVE," but now says, "IF U ELIEVE, U CAN CHIEVE," because the B and the A were in the strike zone. Visitors can hear the plunk of leather on wood as Baker tries to put a hole in it.

She grew up in a town where the girls want to be Strawberry Queen, but she didn't like beauty pageants. She'd rather ride an ATV or feast on her grandma's squash casserole or learn to say the ABCs backward. Or throw baseballs.

It took some begging, but Baker's Little League coach, Joe Niekro, began teaching her to throw the knuckleball. The man who pitched in the majors for 22 years gave her two years of one-on-one instruction.

People began to notice.

She pitched 5 ½ years without a loss, pitched two no-hitters, grew so solid on the mound that she landed on ESPN's E:60, Good Morning America and CNN. At the request of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, she sent her jersey for an exhibit called "Diamond Dreams: Women in Baseball." The press started calling her the Knuckleball Princess.

Last week she met Maddon at an event where she was honored for being the first female player to make a varsity baseball roster in Hillsborough County (she wore a black dress and Chuck Taylors). She gave him a signed baseball from her first game pitching for Durant High School. He invited her to throw some pitches to his boys during batting practice.

"I never expected anything like this to happen," she said on the turf at the Trop. "This is beyond belief."

• • •

You're skeptical.

Not because she's a girl, but because you've seen this before, the feel-good puffery that's too perfect to be real.

Until you see her stepdad, Rod Mason, a mountain of a man with Strength tattooed down one arm and Pride down the other, trying to have a warm-up catch but catching one in the shoulder and one in the groin.

"I told you I'd get hit," he said. "I can't catch with her anymore because I can't track the knuckleball."

He and Baker's mom, Missy, reckon they've been to more than 1,100 of her games, and she continues to surprise them.

"She didn't want anybody to tell her she couldn't do something," her mother said.

Time for batting practice, the television reporters gathered around the cage. Baker flipped her ponytail off her shoulder. Maddon looked around.

"Where's our guys?" he said.

"I bet you they aren't coming out early to hit off a girl," somebody said.

"She isn't a girl," Rod Mason said. "She's a baseball player."

She threw a few pitches to catcher Jose Molina first.

"I didn't know we'd be hitting knuckleballs," he said.

Longoria stepped into the box and took a few chops, connecting on a few, and getting pushed off the plate.

"That was a good one right there," Longoria said.

"Jiminy Christmas," someone else said.

Pitcher David Price stepped up and watched a few strikes blow past. He swung on an outside pitch, missed, and helicoptered over the plate.

"That was sick," Price said.

Maddon was impressed.

"She knows what she's doing out there," he said. "It's not a gimmick."

Her mom and stepdad and grandmother stood nearby, beaming. They don't know what's next, but it'll be good.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.

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