Monday, March 07, 2011

These girls are playing hardball with the boys

Birmingham pitcher Marti Sementelli, left, and San Marcos pitcher
Ghazaleh Sailors, right,  wish each other luck before their game on
Saturday at Birmingham High in Lake Balboa. It is believed to be
the first boys' baseball game at which girls were the starting pitchers.
(Bret Hartman / For The Times)

Marti Sementelli of Birmingham faces Ghazaleh Sailors of San Marcos in a historic pitching matchup. It's not a gimmick, as both are valued members of their teams.

Bill Plaschke, L.A. Times
March 5, 2011

The probable starting pitchers were two improbable dreams.

On the mound for the Lake Balboa Birmingham High boys' baseball team was a 5-foot-2 righty with a wicked changeup, a cut fastball, and a whole heap of black hair stuffed under her cap.

Her name was Marti Sementelli, and she does not throw like a girl.

"I've used that line," she said, giggling. "But I've used it on boys."

On the mound for the opposing San Marcos High boys' team from Santa Barbara was a 5-3 righty with a floating curve, a sneaky fastball, and two pink batting gloves.

Her name was Ghazaleh Sailors, and every heckler is but three swings from humiliation.

"The first time they see me, people say stuff," she said, grinning. "But then I strike them out, and that seems to quiet them down."

The several hundred fans scattered under the stately trees around the Birmingham Field roared at such proof Saturday, chanting and cheering for a cultural celebration that seemingly could happen only here.

For what is believed to be the first time in history, two high school boys' baseball teams played a game in which both starting pitchers were girls.

It was not an exhibition. It was not a joke. It was a serious seven-inning battle between two boys' teams led by girls who had fought to stand at their center.

"It was like everything turned upside down," Sailors said. "It was amazing."

It was boys struck out by girls. It was boys picked off by girls. It was a 6-1 Birmingham victory engineered almost entirely by a girl.

Sementelli, considered perhaps the best girl baseball player in a state with more girls baseball players than anywhere — about 400 — threw a complete-game five-hitter, giving up only the one earned run with four strikeouts and three walks.

"I couldn't stop shaking, " she said afterward. "I still can't stop shaking."

On the other side of the diamond, Sailors couldn't stop laughing, thrilled with giving up but three hits in 3 1/3 innings while striking out out two, walking one, and even chopping a single to center against Sementelli while batting in the seventh inning.

"I never thought this would happen," she said. "For me, this is about history, about creating more opportunities so girls won't have to go through what I went through."

In a world where softball is supposed to keep women quiet and happy, it indeed has been difficult for those who have insisted on making our national pastime truly national for everybody.

While the most famous women's baseball was played by the women in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League between 1943-54 — inspiring the movie, "A League of Their Own" — it hasn't been so glamorous for women trying to play with the men.

While women have played in the Negro Leagues, on independent teams, and have even pitched batting practice to major leaguers, no woman has ever played in the major leagues. Given the biological differences in strength and speed, the odds seem long, with the best chance given to a junk-ball pitcher who doesn't have to bat.

In fact, most girls who play youth league baseball are usually convinced to switch to softball when they realize that there is no future in hardball. Sementelli and Sailors, both seniors who hope to play at the next level, are clearly not most girls.

"I'm not one who takes the easy route if it means giving up something I love," Sementelli said.

They took the mound Saturday in a game that was scheduled with this matchup in mind. The girls are teammates on the U.S. National Women's baseball team, and the coaches agreed that the message was too big to ignore.

Said Birmingham Coach Matt Mowry: "It takes a special kind of kid to do this, and Marti is that kid."

Said San Marcos Coach Tony Vanetti: "Ghazaleh is the poster child for dreams really do come true."

They took the mound looking like small boys, purposely showing no hair under their caps, as Sementelli's hair was pinned up and Sailor's hair was cut. When they began pitching, their deliveries were so refined and their breaking balls moved so much, an unsuspecting fan would assume they were freshman phenoms.

"When Marti first joined our team, I was like, do we really want a girl around here?" said Kevin Torres, a Birmingham senior outfielder. "Then in batting practice she struck me out and I'm like, well, OK."

Sementelli has always been something of a local prodigy, even once striking out Jimmy Kimmel on his talk show, so her path has been fairly easy. Not so much for Sailors, who has endured much taunting in her journey.

There was the kid who took a ball and stuck it in her face and said, "I hate you, and I'm going to throw this ball at you." There were the kids who struck a razor on a string and wrapped it around her legs while she was sitting in the dugout. There was once even a kid who protested her appearance on the mound by purposely dropping a fly ball in center field.

"It hasn't always been so much fun for her," said her father, Robert. "But she is the kind of kid where the taunting just makes her tougher."

Like Sementelli at Birmingham, Sailors has finally found a home at San Marcos, where she is a valued member of the team even if she has to dress in a storage shed with a kid guarding the door. Together, Saturday, on a Birmingham field awash in the warmth of acceptance, the two pitchers reveled in a new and wondrous space.

"For a long time, we thought we were alone," Sailors said. "Today was a great reminder that we're not."

Throw like a girl? One could only hope.

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