U.S. Team Looks To Dominate As Pan Am Games Welcome Women's Baseball
NEW YORK -- When Malaika Underwood tells people she plays for the U.S. women's national baseball team, their response always seems to be the same.
"They look you dead in the eye and say, 'You mean softball,'" Underwood said as she and her teammates posed for pictures with New York Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka on the field at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday afternoon. "You get that all the time. And that's frustrating for me, just the [lack of] awareness. Yes, there is a women's national softball team and they're very good, but there's also a women's baseball team."
And yes, they're very good as well.
The U.S. women's national baseball team has been around for 11 years and captured the first two Women's Baseball World Cup titles, in 2004 and 2006. Since then, Japan has won the past four titles, but overall the U.S. has amassed two gold medals, two silver medals (2012, 2014) and two bronze medals (2008, 2010) in World Cup play.
The team is preparing to compete in the 2015 Pan American Games, which take place July 20-26 in Toronto. It marks the first time that women's baseball is being played in a multisport, multicultural event.
"We're in a really good place right now," said U.S. manager Jonathan Pollard, whose team completed its first practice earlier in the day. "We're confident in the team that we've put together. There's going to be a lot of work ahead, but we feel good about our chances."
In case you're unfamiliar with women's baseball, it's no different than the men's version. The distance between the mound and home plate is the same (60 feet, 6 inches), the distance between bases is the same (90 feet) and hitting a home run still means hitting the ball over a wall 300 to 400 feet away.
Sure, women's pitches run in the high 70s to low 80s and homers are a rarity, but it's still baseball. It just happens to be more National League than American League, so to speak, with runs being created by manufacturing rather than mashing.
"I think that anybody who gives it an opportunity and watches it would be amazed, because the women play a very clean game, a very fundamentally sound game," Pollard says.
The 18 players on the U.S. women's roster range in age from 16 to 42 -- some are heading to college, while others have full-time jobs. And they train together only about twice a year at their Cary, North Carolina, complex because the players are so spread out across the country.
"The challenge is always, of course, that there's the draw to go that Division I route in softball because there's a lot of scholarship opportunities for females there," says Pollard of the age range and trials in building a team. "But when you think developmentally over the course of a baseball player's life, at 13-14 those are your first years on the big diamond, so unfortunately a lot of times our girls will exit from baseball at a very developmental time. So we catch up a little bit on the back end, after their softball careers are over for the most part."
Underwood, an infielder, has been with the team for nine years. She works at a small sports marketing startup in Atlanta and makes time to practice during her downtime. The San Diego native grew up playing baseball with the neighborhood kids, and she played for her high school team before playing volleyball collegiately at North Carolina.
That's frustrating for me, just the [lack of] awareness. Yes, there is a women's national softball team and they're very good, but there's also a women's baseball team.Infielder Malaika Underwood
Still, baseball was always her first love. She found out about the national team after graduating, tried out, made the roster and hasn't looked back.
"I obviously remember winning gold in 2006. It's one of the highlights of my athletic career," she says. "But it's the stuff off the field, the time spent on the bus or traveling abroad or hanging out at the hotel, that you really remember. And having played a sport in college and then being able to continue playing after is pretty amazing."
Sarah Hudek, a left-handed pitcher/outfielder from Sugar Land, Texas, might be the team's best-known player. She made headlines in February after receiving a scholarship to play men's baseball at Bossier Parish Community College in Louisiana.
"I'm the only female, so I have to gain respect," says Hudek, who possesses an 82 mph fastball in addition to a cutter, curveball and changeup. "That's gonna make me better in a sense almost."
Her father is John Hudek, a right-handed reliever who pitched six seasons in the majors and made the All-Star team with the Houston Astros as a rookie in 1994. Sarah grew up around the game and excelled at it. The reigning USA Baseball Sports Woman of the Year did try softball -- she just liked baseball a lot better.
"I don't like being told what I can and can't do," Hudek says.
The team found out it was getting a chance to mingle with major leaguers in the Bronx just a couple of days ago. As it turned out, players got to put on their USA uniforms and stand with the Yankees at their respective positions for the national anthem.
"It's definitely been a great experience," Hudek said. "We couldn't ask for anything more."
The team will head to Cooperstown, New York, to play a few exhibition games over the weekend, and a week later, the real fun begins.
And who knows? Maybe one day women's baseball will resonate in the U.S. the way it resonates in Japan.
"Our goal is to win gold," Hudek says. "It's always been that. And as long as we put our minds to it, work together and push ourselves, we'll be coming home with a gold medal."