The Reason Mo'ne Davis Is Everywhere? Softball, Believe It Or Not
SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- When Ghazaleh Sailors decided she wanted to play college baseball three years ago, she emailed coaches around the country to gauge their interest.
The school's softball coaches emailed her back.
"I was like, really?" Sailors said.
With the attention of the baseball world and beyond on Williamsport this week, and specifically on 13-year-old pitcher Mo'ne Davis, the question of Davis' baseball future, should she want one, is a valid one.
Davis is not the first girl to play in the Little League World Series. In fact, she and Canada's Emma March are the 17th and 18th in the tournament's long history, which raises the question of why Sailors is the only female in the United States currently playing college baseball at any level.
"Growing up, I was on All-Star teams, travel teams for baseball, but all the coaches said, 'You should switch to softball to get a scholarship,' " said Sailors, a senior at Division III University of Maine at Presque Isle. "Comparing baseball to softball is like tennis to pingpong.
"This is America, and we're supposed to have the freedom to do whatever you want, and I want to play baseball. It's the only thing I ever thought about as a little kid, and nothing in the world makes me as happy as playing baseball does. It's the most amazing game in the world. ... Why should that be taken away from me or anyone?"
Both Davis and March have spent a good deal of their time here plaintively explaining to people that they have no desire to "transition" to softball.
"I hate softball," March said. "I would never want to play that."
For Davis, whose favorite sport is basketball, a spot next season as an eighth-grader on the boys' high school varsity baseball team is likely, said the president of her private all-girls academy. But that will make her one of just approximately 1,200 girls playing high school baseball in the U.S., compared with almost 475,000 boys, according to a 2103 study by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
"I think Mo'ne is serving as an excellent role model, but the next step is to ask why don't we have more girls playing baseball and what's happening to those girls after Little League," said Justine Siegal, founder of Baseball For All, which encourages and provides opportunities for girls to play baseball at all levels.
"I think it's a travesty that girls are being told their baseball dreams are not as important as boys' and being shifted to softball. ... It's the national pastime, and it's only open to half the population. We're celebrating one or two girls when we should be celebrating thousands."
I don't understand why in America girls can play hockey and football and lacrosse and every other contact sport there is, but we can't play baseball. Why not? And why are we still even having this debate?Robin Wallace
Siegal, not coincidentally, is a former baseball player herself, has thrown batting practice to six major league teams, coached men's pro and college baseball and, with a Ph.D. in sports psychology, is considered the modern-day pioneer of women's baseball.
But the answer to why girls are dissuaded from playing baseball in this country is rooted in both physiological and sociological reasons.
"The quick answer is that many people have bought in that softball and baseball are the same sport, but we know that's not true, because people talk of boys playing softball as a ludicrous idea," Siegal said.
"Sadly, I also think people have bought into the idea that girls can't play baseball at 90 feet [the dimensions of a baseball diamond], and that's just not true."
When Sailors tried to take her considerable talents to high school, she was subjected, she said, to both verbal and physical abuse, which went unpunished by school administrators.
But quitting, she said, was not an option. "No, because baseball was the only thing I really had," she said. "At the beginning I really trusted these guys, they were supposed to be my teammates. It made me realize everyone in life can let you down, but sports and baseball are always going to be there the next day."
For Sailors, however, it would require a transfer to a new school. "But there is no doubt in my mind, that [harassment] is still going on," she said.
Danielle Allen, a catcher at Oak Lawn (Illinois) High, where she will be a junior this year, is one of the best female baseball players her age in the country and calls herself "lucky."
"Because the [high school] coaches are really supportive of me, and my teammates are guys I played with growing up," Allen said. "A couple guys don't like playing with a girl, but I can deal with them."
She can also deal, she said, with being a catcher, a contact position in a noncontact sport, thus dispelling the notion that as boys grow bigger and stronger, girls simply can't keep up on the same playing field.
"If I get knocked down," she said, "I just get back up."
At 17, Sarah Hudek, whose father, John, is a former major league pitcher, has verbally committed to play for the baseball team at Bossier Parish Community College in Louisiana.
"I wanted to go higher than Division III, but I kind of feel to do that, junior college may be my best bet," she said. "And most college coaches are going to be too timid to recruit me, and the Bossier coach sees me as another baseball player and not a girl player."
Davis said she has not had any opposition to playing baseball.
"Talking to the high school coach, he was like, 'We want you to watch some Division I college softball games, but we strongly encourage you to play baseball,' " Davis said. "I think I can. I tried softball in sixth grade, but I didn't really like it because it's a whole different game. You couldn't take leads, the ball is much harder to hit, a lot of different things. It was fun but not the best sport for me."
Sailors, Hudek and Allen all have aspirations to represent the United States on the women's national team, which began only 10 years ago, and Sailors and Hudek are currently playing for Siegal in the LG Cup Korea women's baseball tournament.
The next natural question is when women will break into professional baseball.
"I would love to see women in a women's professional baseball league because it allows more girls to dream," Siegal said. "But I do think women can compete with men professionally and collegiately.
"It's the same reason men play baseball, because they can see themselves at 5-8 and still having a chance."
Frank Marcos, senior director of Major League Baseball's scouting bureau, said what Davis is doing before a large and mostly receptive audience is "going to open the door" to the idea of women playing and progressing in baseball. "Unfortunately, our game has been slow on this, but [Mo'ne and the exposure she has received] are things to take advantage of."
And there is no reason, he said, that one day a woman will not possess the necessary skill set to play in the big leagues.
"It's an interesting game," Marcos said. "You look at individuals like [Houston's Jose] Altuve, who's 5-6 maybe, then you look at other guys who are 6-5, 6-6, so you can be any size playing baseball. When we look at pitchers, velocity is what lights up scouts but good pitchers learn how to pitch. A guy like Greg Maddux didn't throw as hard. ... If there was a major sport where a woman could excel or at least where a woman could break the barrier, it's baseball."
MLB scout Craig Conklin said he wouldn't hesitate to grade a female player as high as a male if she had the skills.
Nothing in the world makes me as happy as playing baseball does.Ghazaleh Sailors
"It doesn't matter what race or gender you are, if you can do the job, I'm not doing my job if I didn't identify you," Conklin said. "I don't know if there has ever been a scouting report that has been written on a female, but there's not a gender box we check."
Marcos didn't check anything when he recently hired Robin Wallace as an amateur scout, making her the first woman employed as a full-time baseball scout after she went through MLB's Scout School.
Wallace, now 37, began playing baseball at age 5 and, other than a one-year absence her freshman year of high school when she tried softball, she has been dedicated to baseball for most of her life. She played one year of baseball at a conservative Christian Division III school in the South and received death threats, then played club baseball at Tulane before going to law school at the same time she played in a semi-pro league.
"I always try to be optimistic, but girls face some of the same obstacles today unfortunately of girls in the past," Wallace said. "We do have the women's national team, which is a level for girls to aspire to, and more and more girls are coming together to play in amateur leagues. But there's still no nationwide state-to-state opportunity for girls to play on a national basis. No high school or college baseball for girls.
"You have to fight an uphill battle, and Mo'ne is the kind of girl who can do it if she puts her mind to it, but it's no easy road."
Sailors, who had the lowest ERA of any pitcher on her college team last season, is still incredulous.
"It's the 21st century," she said. "It's like the problems we have with racism in America, equal rights. It's so dumb."
"I don't understand," Wallace echoed, "why in America, girls can play hockey and football and lacrosse and every other contact sport there is, but we can't play baseball. Why not? And why are we still even having this debate?"
To Siegal, it's bigger than baseball.
"When you tell girls, 'You can't play baseball,' what else can't they do? And conversely, when you tell boys that girls can't play baseball, what else do they think girls can't do?"
And every time Sailors goes to practice in her school's drafty gym, every time she makes the trip from her home in Southern California to Maine, where the temperature difference can be 100 degrees in the winter, it is another stark example of why she persevered.
"After getting so many responses from college softball coaches when I had written to the baseball coaches, my coach [Mike Pankow] seemed to jump at the idea of having me on the team if I could help them win," she said. "And I was going anywhere I could go.
"We practice in the gym, but it doesn't matter. Baseball is not played on a field; baseball is played in your heart."