Monday, April 23, 2018
Opinion

Girls need a league of their own

Move over, boys of summer.

The girls are here.

They're not interested in softball. They're baseball players.

"I watched a middle school softball game once, and it was just so slow," said Tess Usher, 11, who plays first base for DC Force, the all-girls baseball team that just killed it at a national tournament. "I love playing baseball. That's not going to change."

Tess hit her first home run in Rockford, Ill., last week, on the field where the Rockford Peaches played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League way back when women showed the world they can play baseball.

Tess's 11-and-under division had a good showing at the nation's third-ever, all-girls baseball tournament last week. The 13-and-under girls from D.C.? They won.

"All these girls are awesome in and of themselves," said the 13-and-under girls' coach Ava Benach, a D.C. immigration attorney. "They all play on teams that are coed, they hold their own, they're usually the only girls on their teams.

"They're trailblazers. Because they get a lot of messages telling them to get out of baseball and go to softball."

Sure, plenty of Little League teams are co-ed. Mo'ne Davis became a national sensation when she pitched a shut-out in the Little League World Series in 2014, also becoming the first Little League player to land on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

But looking toward sports that give her a better chance at a college scholarship, she started playing on her high school softball team and hitting the basketball court hard.

The way Benach sees it, "baseball let Mo'ne down."

"Girls should be able to play baseball as long as they want to," Benach said. "Don't stop playing because there isn't opportunity."

There are more than 100,000 girls playing youth baseball. But only about 1,000 play it in high school.

"What happened to those 99,000 players?" asks Justine Siegal, who became the first woman to throw at hitting practice for an MLB team, the Cleveland Indians, on her Baseball For All website. The nonprofit sponsored the national tournament for girls in Rockford.

"We have this cultural myth that baseball is for boys and softball is for girls," Siegal told USA Today.

And softball and baseball are not equivalent sports, as a flurry of recent Title IX lawsuits have recently argued.

So why not emphasize co-ed baseball a little more?

Benach said because there are still so few girls in Little League, the pressure of performance can eclipse the pure experience of the sport. "Every time a girl is up at bat, she's representing an entire gender," she said.

Plus, when it's just girls on the field, there is a different dynamic, said Paloma Benach, 13, the coach's daughter and a left-handed pitcher.

"When it's all girls, it's just as competitive and intense as far as the baseball, but there's a bigger picture in teamwork, loyalty and being united," Paloma said.

MLB is starting to figure this out. And it's an old story on how they may have come to this conclusion.

The organization, with USA Baseball, hosted its first all-girls tournament in California this spring. About 100 girls played in the Trailblazer Series tournament, and they all cheered its success.

These are the same folks who have bemoaning the recent sagging numbers in youth baseball participation.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said he would make growing youth baseball a priority when he took over in 2015 launching a "Play Ball" initiative to increase casual games.

It was "just to remind people that you can engage with baseball without having nine guys on each team, uniforms and umpires," he said.

Ah. "Guys." Maybe one of the reasons soccer and basketball were surpassing baseball is that it's forgetting about 51 percent of the nation's population.

Only after the guys leave — as they were forced to in WWII, spawning the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League — do women get a shot.

This is the league memorialized in the greatest baseball movie ever, A League of their Own. And the tournament Paloma scorched the field in was held in Rockford. Playing on that field surprised her.

"It was a bigger deal to me than I had ever expected it to be," she said. "This was my second time going to an all-girls tournament, I thought it would be a repeat."

But when there was a big announcement that a women's museum and baseball center would be built in Rockford, and when some of the orginal Peaches came out to meet the girls, the arc of history hit her hard. "There were women years before me playing on those fields," the 13-year-old said. "And I felt like I owed something to these women."

After Paloma and her team won that tournament, @DCGirlsBaseball tweeted at the Nationals, hoping the hometown team would give a shoutout to a local team that brought home a national championship:

"Hey Nationals! These DC girls won a nationwide girls baseball tourney! They start school soon but there is still time to visit the Park!"

So far, the Nationals haven't responded. —Washington Post

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