Tiffany Brooks covers all the bases
Tiffany Brooks is used to fielding questions. She's answered the same ones so many times, she wants to have a T-shirt made with her responses on it, just to avoid the bother of answering them all over again.
"You look like an athlete, do you play a sport?"
"Baseball? You mean softball?"
"Pitcher? But do you throw overhand? Do you play with men? On the same field?"
Whether she likes it or not, Brooks -- the first female professional baseball player to participate in the California Winter and Arizona Summer professional leagues, and one of just two to attend the Arizona Winter League -- will never be your average ballplayer. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound reliever and first baseman has cleared a path for younger generations of girls and women who want to throw from a mound, not a circle, and run 90 feet, not 60, to first base.
Brooks wants more than anything to earn a baseball contract with an affiliated minor league team -- one that is part of a major league organization -- but she wants to earn that deal because of her talent, not her gender.
"I want to be signed as a legitimate player," she said. "I think getting signed as a crowd draw does a disservice to everyone that's trying to come up in the ranks. I don't think you can preserve your integrity as a sideshow."
I want to be signed as a legitimate player. I think getting signed as a crowd draw does a disservice to everyone that's trying to come up in the ranks. I don't think you can preserve your integrity as a sideshow.Tiffany Brooks
It would be easier for Brooks to get a contract as a starting pitcher. Teams would be able to capitalize on the novelty of a female hurler, basing promotions around her regularly scheduled starts. But she's trained to be a setup (wo)man, and she wants to be signed for her slider, not her sex.
"I'm not trying to break the gender barrier," she said. "I'm glad that as I'm doing this, it is, I hope, opening doors for girls and women behind me, but I'm not trying to make any political statement here. I'm doing this because it's the game I love and the game I'm good at."
Brooks says the hardest sell for her isn't convincing managers that she's good enough, but instead convincing them she won't have a problem fitting in. The younger guys seem to be pretty accepting of the idea, she says, but some of the older GMs and managers just don't think a woman belongs on a baseball field, period.
"And they've told me that," she said.
Even more shocking to Brooks is the number of women who seem to have a problem with her dream of playing of baseball.
"They'll approach me after the game and say, 'What are you doing out there with the men?'" she said. "It usually comes down to them being very religious and not agreeing with a woman [in a man's role], or that they're the girlfriend or wife or mother of one of the male players and they don't want me taking time away from their man."
Brooks admits the hecklers sometimes get her down, but she's never wavered in her desire to play baseball. She picked up the game at age 4 and immediately fell in love. She was an all-star at first base and as a reliever on the boys' teams from ages 8 to 15, but was then forced to switch to softball. Though she enjoyed it and found a great deal of success playing it, softball never had the same pull for her as baseball.
"Let's say you're a tennis player," she said, "and someone says to you, 'OK, you've been a tennis player but now the only thing you're allowed to play is Ping-Pong. It has a ball and it has a paddle and it's the same thing, it's just a smaller field.' OK, I like Ping-Pong, it's a good game, but I'm a tennis player."
Softball took Brooks to Gonzaga University and then all over the world, but she found her way back to baseball and in 2007 became the first woman to play in the 100-year history of the Dutch Men's Baseball League. Last year a stint in the Arizona Winter League earned her a contract with the Big Bend Cowboys of the now-defunct Continental Baseball League. She made it through spring training with the team but wasn't offered a regular-season contract.
Most recently she played in the Arizona Summer League, a pay-to-play four-team professional league with a 16-game schedule and playoffs. Brooks told me nearly all of the players in the league had some pro experience or had just graduated from college but weren't taken in the MLB draft. All the participants played with the hopes of getting seen and picked up by an affiliated or an independent minor league team.
Brooks was able to play only a few innings at first base, but because of a shortage of pitchers in the league, she got in plenty of work on the mound. Kip Gross, a former MLB and Japanese Pacific League pitcher, drafted her onto his team and made some significant changes to her mechanics. While she gained some velocity, Brooks said her niche is as a submarine-style pitcher, so the new mechanics ultimately weren't suited to her style.
"I didn't come out of this with quite what I was looking for," she told me of the ASL, "but one GM from the North American Baseball League -- I'm not sure he'd want me to disclose who -- has asked me to keep him updated. I know he really wanted to sign me but because of the new mechanics I struggled with control."
Brooks is now back in her hometown of Spokane, Wash., and is still hoping she might get a call from that GM -- or any other GM -- to finish out the season somewhere. While she waits, she'll play in local leagues and make money teaching at her Brooks Baseball and Softball Academy and doing some technical writing (she graduated from Gonzaga with an MFA in creative writing).
At age 34, some might say her dream is nearing its end. She says she may have lost a step or two when it comes to sprinting, but as an all-around ballplayer she's at or close to her peak.
"I think some of the male managers need to have an opportunity to see more women play and see at what age we peak versus male athletes," she said. "It seems we have a later peak time for athletic ability and also have a longer extended career. I think that has to do with testosterone -- it takes us longer to build the muscle mass and to develop the physicality that we need to compete, but, on the other hand, we also don't have that decline in testosterone [that aging men do]."