Megan Baltzell is a world-class baseball player -- and a firefighter-in-training
Megan Baltzell dug in at the plate and looked out at the pitcher from Chinese Taipei. Baltzell and the U.S. national women's baseball team were down 1-0 in the third inning of a game in the 2016 Women's Baseball World Cup in South Korea.
Brittany Gomez of Team USA stood on first after singling. Baltzell waited with the bat cocked behind her blue helmet, ready to trigger her left-handed swing. "She pitched it, and next thing I know, I swung, and right when I swung, I knew that ball went out by a mile," Baltzell recalls.
The next few moments are a jumble of memories. She heard the cheers from the stands and felt overwhelming joy as she rounded the bases. The entire American team greeted her at home plate. Team USA would go on to win, 2-1. "It was something I never experienced before," she says.
True enough -- for baseball. Baltzell was making her international debut for the U.S. women's team. Yet Baltzell is no stranger to hitting long home runs, delivering in the clutch or trotting around the bases.
Baltzell was a power-hitting softball catcher at Longwood University, in Farmville, Virginia, where she hit 76 career home runs, the 10th best total in NCAA history. She set 11 school records over four years, helped Longwood win two Big South Conference championships and was twice conference player of the year.
Now 23, Baltzell is in the process of becoming a firefighter for Spotsylvania County, Virginia, and committed to making baseball -- not softball -- a big part of her life for years to come.
Though she still loves softball, baseball was her first sport.
"That's, like, my first love, is baseball," she says. "I get to go back to my first love, and it's like I'm a little kid again, playing on those little fields, enjoying time with my friends."
Until she was 13, Baltzell was all about baseball, playing with and against boys she had known for years. "Oh, yeah," she says. "I was by far one of the best players on all of my baseball teams."
But as she approached high school in Stafford, Virginia, Baltzell ran into a baseball wall. Girls, she says, were channeled into softball. The baseball door closed.
"It was definitely sad, because all the boys I grew up with and played with my whole life, I had to leave them behind and start this new sport," she recalls.
Yet Baltzell thrived. At Mountain View High, she was a two-year softball co-captain and team MVP. While she also played basketball and volleyball, she knew softball could take her places.
"Softball was an opportunity for me to get a free education, get a scholarship," she says. "That's when my mental drive triggered, 'Hey, softball is where I need to be right now, and if I need to come back to baseball, I will.'"
I work until I can't work anymore, because I know if I go to bed sore, then I'm doing something right.Megan Baltzell
That happened after she graduated from Longwood in 2015. She tried out for the National Pro Fastpitch League, but she didn't make the cut. Instead of continuing to pursue that path, she wrote to USA Baseball to ask about tryouts, only to find she had just missed them. She would have to wait a year.
So she spent that time getting ready. While serving as a volunteer softball coach at Longwood and coaching youth softball travel teams, she went to the gym every day and practiced with some local high school baseball teams. When she finally got to USA Baseball tryouts, she made the team as an outfielder, deciding to give up catching because of the wear and tear on her knees.
"Getting used to that overhand pitch from the mound instead of from 43 feet away with a windmill," she says. "That took a little bit of time. It took me a couple of games during the tryouts, then my vision was back to normal."
With longer base paths (90 feet instead of 60), a bigger outfield area and more distant home run fences, Baltzell also had to be faster and stronger. She works out six days a week for two to three hours at a time, following a lifting and conditioning program set by a couple of athletic-trainer friends and the guidelines of USA Baseball. She also does sprint intervals and long-distance runs, bikes and exercises in a pool on days when she's feeling beat-up.
"I work until I can't work anymore, because I know if I go to bed sore, then I'm doing something right," she says.
At the World Cup event last September in South Korea, the U.S. came away disappointed, failing to win a medal. Though Baltzell played well -- she hit .417 over seven games with three doubles, a homer and 11 RBIs -- her goal now is to help the U.S. break Japan's lock on the gold medal.
Japan has won five straight championships, dating back to 2008. The U.S. has won two silvers and two bronzes over the past five tournaments but hasn't won since it took back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2006.
"We have to win in the 2018 World Cup," she says. "No ifs, ands or buts about it." This year, in an off-World Cup year, Baltzell's baseball focus is on joint U.S. team workouts with Canada and a friendly series against the Canadians, in Washington, D.C.
The rest of her efforts will be focused on becoming a firefighter. She has already passed the written and physical tests and hopes to soon begin academy training for certification. It's something she's thought about for many years. In high school, she took classes on becoming an EMT and later did some volunteer work in emergency medical services. The fact that she'll be part of a crew, helping others, is exciting, she says.
"Being on a team is like being on a family," she says. "[Firefighting] is almost the exact same as being on a team. You love the people you work for, and they treat you like family, and that's something I've wanted to do my whole life. To stay in that environment would be the best thing for me."
With baseball, too, Baltzell figures she can continue playing into her late 30s or early 40s. At last year's World Cup, longtime national team members Tamara Holmes (43) and Malaika Underwood (36) were standouts. That inspires Baltzell.
"Tamara was in great shape, like she was 24 years old," says Baltzell. "She didn't run as good as some of the young guns, but she could hit like she was 20. That's something you can do in baseball."