The Boston Slammers’ own “Craig Kimbrel” — the Red Sox pitcher with a fastball that tops out at 101 miles per hour — stands on a pitcher’s mound in a local park. The player’s real name is Elise Berger, a stoic athlete with a long, lean build and a face dotted with freckles, the nickname born from a fastball of her own. Her team is playing in the Boston Mayor’s Cup, the biggest youth-baseball tournament in the city, and every one of her pitches blows by the South Boston team’s batters.
This is girls’ baseball. Yes, I said baseball. And the Mayor’s Cup is just practice for what the Slammers are really getting ready for: the annual Baseball for All (BFA) national tournament in Rockford, Illinois. The all-girls baseball tournament will feature 24 teams, comprised of 283 girls from as far away as Australia, Canada, and Alaska. Since 2015, a new generation of players has descended on the town, which was once home to the Rockford Peaches of the All-American Girls Baseball League. (The Peaches were the inspiration for the movie A League of Their Own.) The league was the first and only women’s professional-baseball league in U.S. history; it existed from 1943 to 1954. The BFA tournament is this generation’s chance to make women’s-baseball history of their own.
At the Mayor’s Cup tournament, thirteen-year-old Elise throws a complete game shutout, giving up no runs and striking out fourteen batters on her way to victory. Her teammates cheer her other nickname, Cheeseburger, from the dugout. The all-girls Slammers team beats the all-boys team from Southie. They are the first all-girls team ever to play in the Mayor’s Cup tournament, and they make it to the semifinals before losing in an extra-inning game.
In another one of their Mayor’s Cup games — against an all-boys team called Parkway 2 — the girls in the dugout cheer, sing, and generally act like preteen girls. At one point, the Slammers’ strong offense is beginning to get to the Parkway pitcher, and the Slammers dugout becomes more animated and enthusiastic. The Parkway coaches approach the umpire, who then walks over to the Slammers dugout and motions toward their coach, Rick Slamin. “The other team says it’s distracting their pitcher when the girls are yelling and cheering while he’s in his windup,” the ump tells Slamin.
If you don’t know much about baseball, this is where it would be important to understand that a main component of the game is distracting the other team, the opposing pitcher in particular. It’s why, when a runner is on first base, she’ll often fake that she’s going to steal second, shuffle-stepping and dancing around so the pitcher’s attention is diverted. Part of a baseball player’s job is to put pressure on the other team, and distraction is one way to do that. When Slamin delivers the news to his team — that they must temper their cheers — the girls are understandably indignant. But Slamin encourages them to take the high road, something I’ll see him do repeatedly over the months I watch him coach this team. “I know it’s not exactly our style, but we have to bring our enthusiasm level down a little bit,” he tells them.
In the top of the next inning, it is the Parkway boys’ turn to bat, and it’s a Slammers pitcher on the mound. They had just asked their opponents to keep it down, yet the Parkway dugout erupts into song: “Olé, olé olé olé, oh-lay, oh-lay!”
“That never would have happened” — the complaint about distraction, the umpire’s request for the dugout to keep it down — “if we were a team of boys,” says Yasmeen Aubrey’s father, who is sitting next to me in the dugout, filling out a scorecard.