Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Advocate for Women in Baseball Finally Gets to Be One

                                                        Mark Duncan/Associated Press
Justine Siegal, 36, became what was thought to be the
first woman to throw batting practice to a major league team.

February 21, 2011

By GLENN SWAIN - New York Times

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Justine Siegal felt a chill of excitement when she saw her dark blue Cleveland Indians jersey. She changed in the umpires’ locker room and emerged with a confident gait, her blond pigtails shining in the Arizona morning sun. Siegal, 36, smiled as she prepared for her debut Monday, her 13-year-old daughter, Jasmine, following close by her side.

A longtime advocate for girls playing baseball, Siegal explained her fantasy campaign. “I had a dream and felt like giving it a go,” she said. “I see this as more of a mental exercise than a physical one.”

A few minutes later, she walked on Practice Field No. 2 and became what was believed to be the first woman to throw batting practice to a major league team. First, she threw to a group of minor leaguers, whose wide eyes suggested that they had never quite seen a changeup like hers. In preparation for this week, Siegal, a former high school and amateur player, threw batting practice for a number of college teams and strengthened her arm with the help of a personal trainer.

“I’m a bit of an old lady now, but in my early 20s, I threw in the 70s,” Siegal said of her fastball.

“What’s the scouting report on her?” one minor league hitter joked before stepping into the batter’s box.

Indians Manager Manny Acta described her work as “pretty impressive.”

“It was wonderful to have her pitch for us because she’s from Cleveland,” Acta said. “I believe her dad and grandfather still have season tickets. It’s multigenerational. For her to do this with our ball club was very special.”

Raised in Cleveland, where she began playing baseball at 5, a young Siegal would lie in bed at night dreaming of a career in professional baseball, and of one day taking the field as a member of the Indians.

                 Mark Duncan/Associated Press
Siegal, 36, buttonholed G.M.’s at the
winter meetings, asking for a chance to pitch.
The Indians’ Chris Antonetti said yes.
“It wasn’t until I was 15 when I knew it wasn’t going to happen,” she said.

Her quest to throw batting practice began last November when she sent written requests to general managers of major league clubs. Only one bothered to answer. “It was a lovely letter supporting me, but also saying no,” Siegal said.

She didn’t stop there. In December, Siegal traveled to the winter meetings in Florida and tracked down general managers to make her pitch in person. Oakland’s Billy Beane was the first to say yes — Siegal will pitch to the Athletics on Wednesday in Phoenix — and Cleveland’s Chris Antonetti warmed to the idea.

Siegal is used to doing what most other women have not. A first-base coach for the Brockton Rox of the Can-Am League in 2009, she claims to have been the first woman to serve on the coaching staff of a men’s professional team. She was a coach on the men’s team at Springfield College in Massachusetts from 2007 to 2010 and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in sport and exercise psychology at the college.

Last summer, Eri Yoshida, a female knuckleball pitcher from Japan, pitched for the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League, becoming the first woman to pitch in a professional game in the United States in a decade. Yoshida finished the season 0-4 with a 12.28 earned run average.

On Monday, watching her mother throw four-seam fastballs to the hitters, Jasmine Siegal said: “This is so cool. She’s showing that no matter what, you can achieve your goals.”

On the sleeve of Justine Siegal’s Indians jersey was a memorial patch in tribute to 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, the youngest person killed in the Jan. 8 mass shooting in Tucson. Green, a granddaughter of the longtime baseball executive Dallas Green, had been the only girl on her Little League team.

“This is a small way to honor her memory,” Siegal said. “She represents why I’m doing this. Christina is a symbol of all those girls who want to play baseball.”

About 13 years ago, Siegal started what is now called Baseball for All, an organization that promotes baseball globally, with the focus on female participation. The organization started as a four-team all-women’s baseball league in Cleveland.

“I grew up with a chip on my shoulder,” Siegal said. “I had to learn to look for support. I got tired of waiting for opportunities, so I made my own.”

                         Norm Hall/Getty Images
Siegal threw batting practice to her
hometown team, the Indians, on Monday.
On Wednesday, she’ll do the same for the A’s.
After throwing 30 minutes to the minor leaguers, Siegal moved to another field to throw to a group of starters and backups for another 20 minutes.

As Siegal warmed up with a game of catch with Acta, one of her throws sailed high over the manager’s glove, scattering reporters and onlookers behind the batting cage.

“I’m not trying to hit you,” Siegal yelled. “That’s no warning pitch to hitters. I’m really nervous and my heart’s beating fast.”

Wincing at two throws that bounced in the dirt around home plate, Siegal settled in and held her own with the power hitters.

“She did great,” the backup catcher Paul Phillips said. “She would have fit right in if you had not seen her ponytails.”

At the end of batting practice, Siegal helped other players retrieve balls and toss them into a bucket.

“I’ve thrown better,” she said, “but I think I threw like the other coaches.”

She stood by the dugout wearing a wide smile, hands on her hips, a dream realized.

“This is my biggest day in baseball so far,” she said. “This is the greatest game on earth.”

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