Friday, March 23, 2018

Chelsea Baker proves talent trumps gender on baseball diamond


A broom and stepladder sit against the wall of the walk-in storage closet. Above a cinder-block ledge inside, where cleaning supplies and a can of WD-40 sit, hang No. 25 Durant High baseball jerseys. A name plate that reads "Baker" peeks out from behind them.

Before a March 22 game against Middleton, a 5-foot-2 right-hander left the closet — what's become a makeshift locker room in a corner of the Cougars' clubhouse — in a crisp, white uniform but was stopped by a fan on the way to the field.

"Are you the knuckleballer?" the man asked excitedly. The inquiry was met with a polite grin.

Chelsea Baker is used to the attention. The Little Leaguer who threw two perfect games as a 12-year-old had been celebrated for her unlikely feats, but she grew up being told by parents and opponents that she would never be able to compete with high school boys in a county where futures in baseball are as bright as the Florida sun.

Baker, now a 16-year-old junior, walked to the mound with Miley Cyrus' Do My Thang blaring from the public address system. Her long, brown ponytail swayed with every practice pitch. Then the first Middleton batter stepped up.

She wound up and released.

Strike one.

• • •

Baker gave softball a chance. At 5 years old, she played at Plant City Little League while her twin step-brothers played baseball. But after a year of having to split up to watch their children's games, Missy and Rod Mason put Chelsea on the boys' team.

It began for convenience's sake. It continued, her stepfather said, because of natural ability.

Baker's success in baseball was fostered by a close relationship with Joe Niekro, a 22-year major-league veteran who served as the pitching coach for Baker's team, the Plant City Patriots.

Niekro was famous for his knuckleball, a pitch that tends to stump batters with its unpredictable movement. Every now and then during Patriots batting practice, the former pitcher would throw it.

The kids swung and missed every time.

"I begged him, 'Coach Joe, teach me how to throw it!' " Baker recalled. "He only taught me. All the other boys would ask him, but he said he saw something in me."

It took two years of one-on-one coaching from Niekro, but Baker eventually mastered the knuckleball. The pitch became part of her identity.

Baker went 5½ years without losing a game she pitched. After throwing a perfect game in June 2009 and another in April 2010, the Masons received phone calls from ESPN, HBO Sports and Major League Baseball. She was featured on an episode of ESPN's E:60 and made appearances on Good Morning America and CNN.

The most memorable call, from John Odell, curator of history and research for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, came in July 2010.

The folks in Cooperstown, N.Y., had heard about Baker's perfect games and wanted her Brandon Farms jersey to be a part of the "Diamond Dreams: Women in Baseball" exhibit. A month later, she took part in a ceremony marking her jersey's entrance into the Hall, where it still sits among those of the game's greatest players.

"I would say it's one of the happiest days I've ever had," Rod Mason said.

The man whose gift made it all possible wasn't able to attend. When Baker was 10, before her career took off, Niekro had a brain aneurysm and died in 2006. He was 61.

On the lavender walls of Baker's bedroom, among the rows of trophies and plaques she has earned for her achievements, hangs a black-and-white photo of her late mentor on the mound in a Houston Astros jersey.

"When he passed away, I was like, 'Okay, I'm going to keep throwing this pitch. I'm going to get better so I can throw this in his remembrance,' " Baker said.

• • •

After a year of playing junior varsity baseball at Durant, Baker, now a 16-year-old junior, went out for fall ball with the varsity squad. She didn't allow a single earned run during a 20-game preseason. Varsity coach Butch Valdes couldn't ignore her stats.

Still, as far as he knew, a girl had never been on a varsity baseball roster in Hillsborough County. So the Jefferson High alumnus called his former coach, Pop Cuesta, for advice.

"Bottom line was, and this was out of Pop Cuesta's mouth, 'If she can win games for you, then there's no reason why she shouldn't be out there,' " Valdes said.

Fifty players tried out for the baseball team in January, and Valdes kept 25, including Baker.

The doubters still haven't quieted. Valdes said he received an anonymous letter claiming he was putting Baker in danger by allowing her to play on the same field with hard-hitting boys.

But, like Baker has become accustom to doing, Valdes just let it roll off his shoulders.

"She holds her own," he said. "She's not going to blow it by anybody, but with her, she's beat half the players before they get to the plate, because the last thing a teenage boy wants to do is strike out against a girl."

Valdes had concerns but said Baker's Durant teammates, many of whom she had grown up with in Little League, have adjusted well to having a girl on the team.

"She's pretty chill," outfielder Derrick Smith said. "If she were a normal girl, I don't think it would really work out. But she's not at all."

While the Cougars have become used to Baker on the mound, most of her opponents have not.

King High's 39-year coach, Jim Macaluso, first saw Baker when his team played Durant during fall ball. After the Cougars went up by seven runs, he asked his Lions who wanted to hit in the next inning. The hands of his young players shot straight up.

" 'Look down in the bullpen. That's not a guy with long hair. It's a young lady with a ponytail,' " Macaluso told his team. " 'If she gets you out, you're going to hear about it at your 30th reunion, your 40th reunion.' "

He no longer had any volunteers.

• • •

Baker threw 39 pitches in her first home start against Middleton, giving up just one hit, striking out three and walking one in three innings. The Cougars won 11-0 in five innings.

"When you start getting higher in the count, she throws more movement pitches, and they're not really quite used to movement pitches," said Middleton centerfielder Kameron Lewis, who hit into a double play in his only at-bat of the game. "She deserves to be out there."

The knuckleballer has won both starts for the Class 7A Cougars (12-4) and owns a 0.78 ERA. But just like she did on her path to playing varsity baseball, Baker continues to reach for more.

In August, she'll try out for the U.S. women's team. If she earns a spot, she'll represent the United States in the Women's Baseball World Cup held in September in Miyazaki, Japan.

Because of the popularity of women's baseball in Japan, Baker has visited the country twice, and the Tokyo Times dubbed her the "Knuckle­ball Princess." Baker has a standing offer to play professionally for a league in Japan.

She said she's open to playing collegiately in the United States if given the opportunity. And while Valdes said he believes there is a home for Baker in a college program, he admits she'll likely face more challenges.

Baker, whose dreams have always been met with skepticism, has been there, done that.

"I just want to keep showing people that I can do what people are telling me I can't," she said.

So for now, heeding the words of her walk-up song, Baker is just going to do her thing.

Kelly Parsons can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @_kellyparsons.

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