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Play Like a Girl

Two all-girls baseball teams on what it takes to play a sport that has systematically and historically shut women out.

The DC Force after a scrimmage to prepare for the Baseball for All tournament.
The DC Force after a scrimmage to prepare for the Baseball for All tournament.Laurel Golio

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.

girl stepping out of the dugout with a baseball bat

Ellie Etemad-Gilbertson of the Boston Slammers.

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.

3 girls in baseball uniforms their backs turned and watching the game through the baseball fence.

In the Slammers’ dugout.

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.

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Maybe the boys didn’t even realize the double standard they set when they began to cheer right after asking the girls to keep their voices down. But here it was, a textbook example of sexism, playing out on a thirteen-and-under (13U) baseball diamond.

The Slammers don’t need to say anything about the double standard; they let their bats speak for themselves. “Let it go,” Coach Slamin tells them. Over and over again, Slamin will teach this team of ballplayers how to be the bigger people. The umpire makes a bad call? The game isn’t starting on time? The other team wants them to keep their voices down in the dugout? Slamin tells them to “Let it go.” And they do.

They win the game.

Afterward, the Parkway coach approaches Celia Collins, who made a fantastic catch during the game. “You’re gonna be on ESPN with a catch like that,” he tells her. Then he turns to coach Slamin. “They look like they got chemistry out there. I was impressed.”

portrait against a concrete wall

Celia Collins of the Boston Slammers.

***

Farther south, in the DMV area, there’s another team of girls playing ball. The first time I see the DC Force 13U girls play, they are scrimmaging in a doubleheader against two all-boys teams in Baltimore, Maryland. Roland Park Baseball League Memorial Field is in the Mount Washington neighborhood and is located down a side street — quiet and surrounded on three sides by trees. Like the Slammers, they are preparing for BFA and are trying to get playing time as a team before the tournament. These all-girls teams tend to be composed of girls who play on a “co-ed” local youth or Little League team — where they are usually the only girls — and they come together as a team for scrimmages to prepare for BFA. In this way, they function like a travel baseball team, where players from different youth teams and leagues and locations form a single unit for travel-league games. Most youth leagues cannot field all-girls teams because there aren’t enough local girls to make up an entire team, or because they want the girls to have the experience of playing with boys — there are a lot of reasons that co-ed teams are positive experiences for the girls and the boys who play on them.

A woman approaches the grass where the parents of the Force players are sitting. “I’m rooting for the girls!” she stage-whispers at them, her hand cupping the side of her mouth to direct her words toward her target audience. “My son is on the other team. I didn’t tell him that, though.” She sees me standing off to the side with my notebook and her eyes get wide. “Are you press? Please don’t print my name! I don’t want my son to know I said that.”

girl stepping up to plate seen from behind chainlink fence

Ella Comfort-Cohen at bat.

I’m sitting in the dugout next to Mimi Overton, a twelve-year-old from Baltimore, and she tells me that one of the boys was making fun of her. “They think I pitch really slow, so they’ll be like, ‘Oh, if I get struck out by Mimi, I’m never gonna hear the end of it at school,’ ” she says. “It’s much better when I’m playing with the girls. I feel like part of the team when I’m with the Force.” Mimi has a perpetual smile on her face, and she is the one who starts the cheers in the Force dugout during their half of each inning. She looks at the batting order and sings the names of the three players set to bat in that inning: “Carlin, Maggie, Maya! Sounds like hits to meee!”

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Mimi isn’t the only one on her team who has dealt with prejudice from the boys — and their coaches. “Sometimes, after a really good game when my [co-ed] team would win, or if I had a really good play and got someone out, people [on the other team] would just not shake my hand on purpose. They would just lift up their hand, like, ‘Nope!’ ” Kahlan LaCount, thirteen, tells me.

I ask her how that makes her feel. She doesn’t miss a beat. “Powerful,” she says. She pauses, and then continues. “Because I mean that much for them to do something like that, I’m that good. Like they’re threatened by me. But they shouldn’t be, because I just want to play like them.”

Twelve-year-old Katrina Surcel-Debes, too, says that any hate she receives is motivation. “I think it makes me play harder because I’m like, I’m gonna show you that I can actually play and that I’m really good at this.”

At the end of their second scrimmage of the day, which the Force won, after losing their first game, the opposing team’s coach came over to shake hands with the Force coach. “We’re missing our four best players today,” he says, needing to explain away his team’s loss to a group of girls — to himself, if not to everyone else.

team of girls lines up to highfive opposing team

High-fives after the game.

***

To understand why it matters that girls are playing baseball, you must understand why they generally don’t play in the first place — why, instead, many play softball.

Let’s get this out of the way up front: softball is a great game. Girls who want to play softball should get to play softball. But softball and baseball are different games. A softball is larger. It is bright yellow. The mechanics for pitching the ball are incredibly different. A softball diamond is smaller; it is a much faster-paced game.

It’s not that most girls grow up preferring softball, or that the development of girls’ softball sprung up because American girls decided they liked it better. The exclusion of girls from baseball in the United States was deliberate and systematic.

The first girl to play Little League baseball was Kathryn Johnston, in 1950. She cut off her braids and tried out for the team as a boy. She played one year of Little League, where she was accepted by her team once she told the coach the truth; opposing players and parents were not as nice, often heckling her from the stands. The following year, Little League instituted a “no girls under any circumstances” rule.

In 1971, a court case came up against New Jersey Little League. Little League advocates argued that, if girls who played baseball developed breast cancer after being “tagged out on the boobs,” the league would get sued. When the league lost its court case, more than 2,000 Little League teams in the state chose not to play rather than let girls join their teams.

two girls in baseball uniforms one sits on the top of a chainlink fence the other stands behind it with her arms over...

Ella with Shalvah Lazarus, of the Force.

BFA’s website estimates that 100,000 girls play baseball at the youth level. However, only about 1,000 are still playing by high school. Often, when girls go to try out for their school teams, many of them are told they can’t play baseball if their school also has a softball team, citing Title IX’s “separate but equal” clause: if there is a comparable women’s team, a girl cannot play on the boys’ team. Stella Kotter, a member of the Slammers, says that will be the decision she faces when she begins seventh grade at the Boston Latin School this fall. She can either choose to play softball or stop playing ball entirely; throughout most of history, those were the only two options girls had. But thanks to the Slammers, Kotter now has a third option: not playing for her school and continuing to play with her all-girls team.

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DC Force player Katrina wanted to go out for her middle-school baseball team, too. However, she says the coach told her that she wouldn’t do well on the team. “So I was like, ‘I’m just going to stick with the team that I know will embrace me,’ ” she says, explaining her decision to stay on the Force. That’s another way that girls end up being pushed out of the sport: the playing environment becomes so hostile that they decide they’d rather not play anymore. As the DC Force tweeted recently, “We always say that by the time girls turn 13, if they are still playing, they are complete bosses because there are so many off-ramps. Meet a girl or woman who plays baseball and you are meeting a star.”

Which is another reason teams like the Slammers and the Force are so important for the girls who play on them. Knowing they have a safe and accepting environment to play the game can help keep girls in the sport for longer, even if they’re toiling away on a co-ed team and feeling like they don’t belong there. Just knowing they have this other team to play with, a team that values them and is full of players who understand what it’s like to be the only girl, can make all the difference in the world. “More girls will play and continue to play if they see that they can and if they have the opportunity,” says Rhea Butcher, a comedian, utility infielder, and the emcee of BFA’s closing ceremonies. “And it helps to not just see one girl here or another girl there; you need a team. Baseball is about stars, but baseball fans all know that you don’t get there without a team.”

player swinging baseball bat seen from behind chainlink fence

The Slammers’ Ellie at bat.

Baseball for All is hoping to help develop and support the players who will make up those teams. Its growth reflects both the expansion of the girls game, generally, and the fact that there are a lot of girls out there playing. The Slammers and the Force’s rapid growth reflect this, too: the Slammers began last year by sending one team to nationals. This year, they came back with three: last year’s team moved from the 11U to the 13U division, and they had enough new girls to field another 11U team and an 18U team. The Force began in 2015, with five DC-area girls, and they sent 35 girls and three teams to nationals this year, an 11U, a 13U, and a 14U.

“Playing with the Force is a lot more inclusive” than playing on a team where she’s the only girl, Katrina says. “I bond a lot better with people because there’s not the gender separation.” Katrina is a pitcher, catcher, and middle infielder who sells granola in order to pay her own registration fee for the Baseball for All nationals. “What I really like about baseball is how, if you fail, there’s always a next play, a next matter, a next pitch, a next time,” she says. “You can improve a lot with your mistakes.”

***

Getting to Baseball for All is not easy. There are twelve to fourteen girls on each team, plus coaches and parents. Travel is expensive, and that’s without including uniforms and equipment. There is often a class divide when it comes to travel baseball; kids whose parents can afford it will play, and the kids whose parents can’t, won’t. It’s how many low-income kids get left out of the opportunity to play the sport.

But both the Slammers and the Force parents fund-raise like hell to be able to give these girls this experience. Karen Zerby Buzzelle, co-coordinator of the Slammers and mother of their first baseman, Sophia Buzzelle, says that parents pay what they can, and all the money goes into a pot that is used to fund tournament expenses for everyone. “We have one family that just gave me a check for $87. And another may give me $3,000,” she says. The Force will also fund-raise, offer stipends, and host equipment drives. And BFA itself offers scholarships for girls who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to come and play.

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The fund-raising and hustling pay off, and both teams are able to travel halfway across the country to play. These two teams enter the 13U division at BFA in very different places. While both teams have moved up from the 11U division they played in last year, when the Boston Slammers were the national champions in their first-ever tournament as a team, the DC Force is a bit on the younger side. Their play is less sure than the Slammers, who are solid and confident, especially coming off their recent Mayor’s Cup run.

girl in hat in profile speaks to girl in catcher's helmet

The Force’s Maggie Rocchio.

The Force’s Sophie Zuckman is on the mound for the team’s first game at BFA. Newly fourteen, Sophie is a leader for this group of younger girls. She is a passionate player who loves baseball so much that, despite being homeschooled her entire life, she plans to enter a public high school this fall so that she can try out for the baseball team in the spring.

Sophie is a left-handed pitcher who throws a two-seam fastball, a four-seam fastball, and a slider. “I like pitching because I like how much control you have over every situation and you can contribute to every single play,” she’ll tell me later. In this game, she does not have the first inning she was hoping for. With her cotton-candy-pink-streaked ponytail hanging down her back, she comes to a set position and throws pitch after pitch to the L.A. Monarchs, a team that seems to hit every single pitch.

Sophie throws 50 pitches and lasts just one and one-third innings. She gives up six runs off four hits, the score not being helped by the several defensive errors committed behind her. She hugs Kahlan, who comes into the game in the second inning to replace her. “Be sure to emphasize that she’s being taken out because of pitch count, not performance,” Force coach Jen Hammond reminds Codi Dudley, the team’s other coach, as Sophie walks to the dugout.

She manages to keep her emotions in check while she’s on the field, but the moment she walks into the dugout, Sophie’s tears can no longer be stifled. Hammond pulls her aside and gives her the space to cry. “The hardest thing to manage with her is the expectations she’s putting on herself,” Coach Hammond tells me. “The pressure she feels to carry the team.”

The Force is completely outmatched by the Monarchs, and loses the game, 15–0. After the game, the coaches gather the team in a circle behind the dugout. “What do you think went wrong today?” Hammond asks.

“My pitching was not good,” Sophie says.

“It was good! Shut up!” one of the other girls yells.

“That’s good, pick each other up,” Hammond nods.

“We made a lot of defensive errors because turf plays faster [than grass],” Maggie Rocchio offers.

“No one really got on base,” Mimi says.

“How many of you think this is the best we can do?” Hammond asks the group. No one raises her hand. “Oh, thank god none of you said yes!”

Hammond has everyone stand up and take out her gloves. “We’re gonna shake out all the bad juju,” she says. “I want you guys to take all your frustration from today, all the things you’re frustrated you didn’t do well, put it into that glove right now. Get it out of your system. All right, now take your gloves, and I want you to throw them down as hard as you can.” They all throw their gloves to the ground — “We will never, ever, ever throw our gloves down in a game or in the dugout,” Hammond reminds them — and put the game behind them.

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the team puts their hands in together in a circle to pump themselves up

The Force coaches promote positivity and support amongst their players.

***

I’ve come to visit the Slammers at their hotel in Rockford, hopeful that catching them outside the confines of a practice or a game will prompt them to open up more. I watch them jump into the pool, chase each other around, and generally act like teenage girls. They don’t really want to talk to me about being a girl who plays ball, or about their future in the sport. In fact, they don’t really want to talk to me about anything at all. My presence seems to confuse them; they can’t understand why I have followed them from Boston to Rockford, why I sit in their dugout and ask them questions. They’re just kids playing the game they love.

When I ask Adena Barrett and Ellie Etemad-Gilbertson which teams they prefer playing for (an all-girls team or one with boys), we’re sitting in the dugout in Boston during their Mayor’s Cup game against Parkway. They both agree they like the Slammers the best. “I don’t like playing with boys,” Adena says. A smile creeps across Ellie’s face as she nods in agreement. Her eyes sparkle for just a second before she says, “Yeah, they’re annoying.”

Most boys have dreamed of playing in the majors one day. Maybe they assume they’ll play ball in college or high school. But many of the girls haven’t thought much about how long they’ll play. (Ellie shrugs when I ask how far she wants to go. “As far as I can, I guess.”) They don’t have examples of women playing at high levels. “Too many girls are still told they can’t play baseball because they are girls,” BFA founder Dr. Justine Siegal says. “And if you tell a girl she can’t play baseball because she’s a girl, what else will she believe she can’t do?” The U.S. Women’s National Baseball Team is “the best kept secret in sports,” as author Jennifer Ring puts it in her book A Game of Their Own: Voices of Contemporary Women in Baseball. Even with the Women’s Baseball World Cup set to start in the U.S. for the first time ever in just a few short weeks, many of the girls I ask haven’t heard about it at all.

three girls in baseball uniforms sit on a bleacher outside of a baseball field

The Slammers’ Aly Slamin, Tatiana Sanchez, and Kaylee Rivera.

While there is some other press at BFA, it’s nothing like the coverage national boys-baseball tournaments receive. ESPN and ABC broadcast the Little League World Series (boys baseball and girls softball). The boys get interviews and on-screen graphics with information about who they are and how they play — some of them even go viral. Meanwhile, despite the fact that the girls at BFA are the future of women’s baseball in the U.S. — the next members of the U.S. Women’s National Team — they receive very little coverage. ESPN isn’t even planning to air the Women’s Baseball World Cup despite the fact that it’s the world’s biggest event in women’s baseball.

***

Not every player can be extraordinary, but those are often the only stories about female athletes that we hear: the exceptions, the ones who broke barriers, the first to do a thing. We rarely hear about what happens after the barrier is broken, about the women who come next. The DC Force players tell me about the frustration they experience when people are surprised they’re good at baseball. Ella Comfort-Cohen, thirteen, wants people to “get logical: I’m a person who plays baseball, it doesn’t matter if I’m a girl or a boy!” Katrina is even more blunt about it: “One day it won’t be interesting anymore that I’m a girl playing baseball.”

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And yet, today it still matters. Many people continue to see them as a novelty or an exception. From being questioned by medical professionals (Katrina told her doctor that she fractured her thumb catching in baseball, and he responded, “You mean softball?”) to having teams withdraw from a tournament rather than play an all-girls team and being passed over for All-Star Team selection despite having the lowest earned run average (ERA) in their youth league. These players are still up against a lot of stuff.

Another theme that comes up over and over again is how much more positive the girls teams feel. “When I’m with [the Force] and I strike out, I just laugh it off and try to do better next time,” Mimi says. “But when I’m with my other [co-ed] team, I get mad or frustrated when I strike out, because everyone else does.”

girl in a baseball uniform on the field

Katrina Surcel-Debes, of the Force.

For the Force, much of that positivity comes from their coaches, Hammond and Dudley. The two women got involved after seeing an article about the team. “We have a women’s baseball league, the Eastern Women’s Baseball Conference,” Hammond tells me. We’re talking on the empty bleachers next to a deserted field following the Force’s 23–5 loss to the Canadian Royal York Cardinals. “We thought, If there are girls playing right here in our hometown, how great would it be if we could mentor them and establish a base so the girls have a place to play as they grow?

Hammond is a fast talker whose style in the dugout is relentlessly upbeat. She hands out gummy bears to her players and wears sport-style sunglasses on the brim of her hat and red and blue eye black to match her players. They apply it to her cheeks before the game: a stripe of red on top, a stripe of navy blue underneath, and then they smear the outside edge with their fingers, giving it a smudged look that would otherwise come from playing hard.

“The girls were phenomenal, and so responsive,” Hammond says about when she and Dudley took over coaching the team, nearly a year and a half ago. “The thing that stood out is that they didn’t have coaches that were invested in them, and I think they were on the periphery of some of the other [teams] they were playing [on]. Playing with other girls [and having] coaches who are specifically interested in them, they just blossomed.”

girl in baseball uniform winding up on the pitcher's mound

Kahlan LaCount pitching for the Force.

Sophie says she first played on a co-ed team when she was nine. “If I was playing, I was batting last,” she says. “I was playing two innings, which is the minimum you can play. They weren’t giving me any opportunities.” But with the Force, “This is my family; this is where I belong.”

The rest of the positivity comes from the dugout. This Force team is made up of girls who have just moved up to the 13U division, while the rest of the teams are at the top end of the age bracket. The girls on the Force play like they’re still coming into their bodies, which they are. There are plays that go through their legs, over their heads, and off their gloves. But what this team is so very good at doing is celebrating their successes. When an outfielder finds the cutoff, the crowd erupts into cheers, no matter that several runs scored during the play. When another player remembers to back up her teammate on a play, the coaches applaud and yell encouragement despite numerous bobbles.

The Force’s 13U team is up against an incredibly strong division. They end up losing all five of their games at the BFA tournament, but they’re just as happy after losing all their games as they were on the first day of the tournament. And why not? They got to travel 800 miles to play baseball with their friends. What’s not to love about that?

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***

portrait against chainlink fence

The Slammers’ Juliana Molina.

When the Slammers are losing, you know it. The dugout is quiet or sullen. The girls are hard on themselves when they make a mistake. Aly Slamin, Coach Rick’s daughter, has perfected the art of teenage indifference, her disaffected attitude hiding just how much she actually cares about the game. She’s good, but I could say that about each one of these girls.

The Slammers go 4–0 on their way to the championship game at BFA, but they don’t sail through the tournament unchallenged. Their wins include a game where they came back thanks to a late-inning rally and a walk-off win when Elise singled with the game tied at 7 to drive in the winning run. The games are exciting. They say there’s no cheering in the press box, so it’s a good thing I’m in the dugout, because I’m cheering my butt off. This Slammers team has solid pitching, with a rotation that includes Elise, Ellie, and Aly. Their hitting is good, too, with an offense often powered by Ellie. When she walks up to the plate, her teammates cheer for “Dora,” because she used the Dora the Explorer theme song as her walk-up music during a scrimmage game in Vermont, where she hit a grand slam and a three-run home run.

Where the Slammers really succeed, and the way they win games, is at capitalizing on mistakes made by the opposing team’s defense. They score and steal bases on passed balls, wild pitches, and defensive errors. They’re relentless. They just keep coming.

player winding up to pitch at mound

The Force’s Katy Whipple pitching.

But in the championship game, it is not enough. Despite an early five-run inning, the Chicago Pioneers slowly chip away at the score, putting a run or two on the board each inning. The first and only game the Slammers lose in Rockford is the championship game. They come in second place. After the game, there are tears in the dugout. But Coach Rick, in his post-loss pep talk, tells the girls, “No tears. Hold your head up.”

I know what he’s getting at, that they should be proud of the way they played. But I can’t help but notice the difference between his words — “no tears” — and the way coach Hammond made space for Sophie to cry after her tough outing with the Force. I wonder if it is just about coaching styles, or if it’s a gendered difference, too. Coach Rick is a police officer who comes from the hyper-masculine world of men’s sports, where tears are a sign of weakness. I’m almost waiting for him to utter Tom Hanks’s famous line from A League of Their Own, where he plays the Rockford Peaches’ manager, Jimmy Dougan: “There’s no crying in baseball!”

But there is crying in baseball, because there are feelings in baseball, and there’s heart in baseball, and there are hopes and dreams in baseball. Because baseball matters to those who love it. It’s OK to cry about it sometimes — at least, that’s what I tell myself as I head back to my Airbnb, tears filling my eyes as I watch girls celebrating their wins and mourning their losses, doing the thing they love surrounded by people who look like them.

It’s so simple, yet so significant at the same time.

people making fists gathered in a circle seen from above

The Slammers’ team cheer.

Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance sports writer whose work has been featured in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, espnW, Vogue, and more.