Thursday, April 19, 2018

Durant High 'Knuckleball Princess' considering future in Japan

In a town where young girls dream of growing up to become the next Strawberry Queen, Chelsea Baker, at age 5, had other plans. She dreamed of playing baseball.

"I was playing softball at the time, and I had three brothers that were in baseball, and our games would always be at the same time, so my parents could never see all of us play," Baker said. "So they said, 'Go play with your brothers and see how that goes, just so we can see all you guys play.' And then I went over there, and I ended up playing on the pitchers' mound and first base, and I loved it."

Baker continued to play in the local Little League amongst the boys. At age 13, she was honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum for throwing two perfect games.

"A perfect game, if you don't know, is when you pitch an entire game without one person getting on first base or one person scoring or anything," Baker said. "I threw my first one against the kid I was dating at the time, so I'll never forget that, just because he had ended up pitching also, and then I ended up pitching a perfect game against him."

Veteran Major League Baseball player Joe Niekro taught Baker to throw a knuckleball. She soon became known as The Knuckleball Princess.

"(Niekro) taught me how to throw the knuckleball when I was 7, and it took me probably two years to get the mechanics down, but he passed away when I was 10, so ever since then, I've kind of been learning on my own," Baker said. "It's not like a pitch you ever have a certain time for learning; I've always been working on it. I haven't perfected it yet, so when he passed away, he was my motivation to keep going."

Now 17 years old, the Plant City native has earned a spot on the Durant varsity baseball team and also, for her first year, a back up position on the softball roster. She is the first female in the history of Hillsborough County to earn a spot on a men's varsity team.

"The kids I play with now in high school are kids I've grown up with mostly all my life, so it's just like they're my brothers. They treat me really good. They say they look up to me as a little sister, and they always have my back. We're known for us being a family," Baker said. "But there's always going to be those kids that (we play against) that are like, 'Oh my God, why is she out here? She should be playing softball,' but I get over it."

The hardest part, she said, is standing out.

"When I go on the mound, I know all the eyes are on me, and I know that since I am on the media and all that stuff, I feel like I'm obligated to do well, but I have a team that supports me, so it's always a good time."

As for the future, Baker is unsure of whether she will continue her athletic career after she graduates. The high school senior has received the opportunity to join a Japanese all-women's league, where she would be the first American to ever play. She has not received any offers from any U.S. colleges, though.

"I'm thinking about going to Japan when I graduate, but I'm not sure yet. Right now, I'm just getting through high school. We'll see where it takes me."

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