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Pitcher will talk about her knuckleball and Title 9 issues on ESPN show

PLANT CITY

The world first got a glimpse of Plant City's Chelsea Baker two years ago when the then-13-year-old appeared on ESPN's E:60, spotlighting her pitching prowess against boys.

This weekend, she'll get an encore.

E:60, which premieres at 1 p.m. Saturday, will air a segment about women's sports and the effects of the 40th anniversary of Title 9, the landmark 1972 decision that opened more doors for women in sports. Rod Mason, Baker's stepfather, said the opening segment of the piece will feature Baker.

"The producer of the first time she was on ESPN called and asked us to meet him in Orlando in March," Mason said. "They talked to Chelsea about how things were going now. The interview happened in the Atlanta dugout right before the Braves and Yankees were playing a spring training game."

Baker first caught the public's eye when she began mowing down Plant City batters with a knuckleball taught to her by former major leaguer Joe Niekro.

Baker tossed a pair of perfect games in Little League, including one during an all-star game. The feat led to her jersey being enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Mason said the family has had discussions with Universal Studios about a possible movie.

"Of course she gets attention because she is a girl out there playing with boys," Mason said. "But if you take gender out, she can play just like any of the boys."

Many thought as she got older — and made the move from the smaller fields of Little League to regulation-sized diamonds — Baker wouldn't be able to keep up. Not so, said Mason.

"She can run, catch, throw and hit with the boys," he said. "She's actually felt more comfortable pitching from 60 feet, 6 inches."

Baker said that because of the increased distance from pitching rubber to home — Little League distance is 45 feet — her knuckleball dances even more.

"It's actually a little easier," she said. "I think (my knuckleball) gets better movement."

Now 15, Baker is still playing with the boys. She's on the Plant City Juniors (13-14) All-Stars and plays with the Dover Bullets, a travel team.

But Baker is also playing with the girls. She was recruited for a national girls all-star team called the Sparks two years ago by Justine Siegal, the first woman to coach a men's professional baseball team. The Sparks finished 39th out of 104 boys teams at a tournament in Cooperstown.

"No girls team had even come close to finishing that well at that tournament," Mason said.

The Sparks' parents realized the rare opportunity they had, being able to field a competitive team composed solely of girls who could hang with the boys.

"Us parents knew there was something pretty special there," Mason said.

So they got together and formed the "Dream Team" and compete in tournaments around the country. The team has girls from California, Idaho, Texas, Massachusetts, New York and Florida.

"It's so much fun to get together with those girls and all play on the same field," Baker said.

The Dream Team, in search of a sponsor to help cover travel expenses, has struggled to raise funds lately, but looks to a November tournament in Sarasota. By that time, Baker will be in her sophomore year at Durant High, where she plans on trying out for the baseball team.

"A lot of people told me I would never be able to make the switch to the big fields and I should just stop playing baseball and switch to softball," Baker said. "But all that does is make me want to try harder and prove them wrong."

Baker, who throws in the low 70s, but possesses that tricky knuckler, thinks she has a pretty good shot at making the Cougars.

"Hopefully I'll keep getting better, and with hard work, I can do it."

Brandon Wright can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

Pitcher will talk about her knuckleball and Title 9 issues on ESPN show 06/21/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 21, 2012 5:30am]

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