Earlier this week, teenage knuckleballer Chelsea Baker threw batting practice to the Tampa Bay Rays. At 17, she became the youngest female to ever throw BP. And she impressed former Cy Young winner David Price, third baseman Evan Longoria and manager Joe Maddon with the pitch's movement. Price described one of her pitches as "sick'' to reporters.
Baker is a junior at Durant High School in Florida, where she became the first female in Hillsborough County history to make the varsity baseball team. As this E:60 video from four summers ago shows, she learned the knuckleball from the late Joe Niekro, who was one of her Little League coaches, and she performed so well that she went years without losing a game.
"I came out here not wanting to be, 'Oh she's a girl throwing BP to a boys baseball team,'' Baker told ESPN that day. "I want to be able to inspire girls around the world, showing them they can do whatever they want, whether it's in a girls sport or a boys sport.''
Who knows where or how far Baker's career will take her. But I've always thought that the clearest path to the majors for a female could be as a knuckleballer because she wouldn't need to have the high velocity almost every pitcher possesses now.
Japanese teen knuckleballer Eri Yoshida made headlines a couple of years ago when she pitched independent ball here in the States. But she went 5-10 with a 7.62 ERA over three seasons. One issue was she simply didn't throw hard enough -- her fastball topped out around 60 mph and her knuckler barely cracked 50.
Other women can throw much harder. I covered Ila Borders -- the first woman to start a game in pro baseball history -- when she pitched in the independent Northern League (now the American Association) and she could touch 80 with her fastball. That's Jamie Moyer-like. Combine that with a great knuckler and you would have a major leaguer.
"You don't need any more [velocity] than that. What did Tim Wakefield throw, 75?'' Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley said. "You would think the pressure would be immense though, wouldn't you? All the attention ... guys would want to light her up. But it's not such a bad thing. It would be a great story.''
It would be a wonderful story. Undoubtedly, there would be immense pressure and some sexist opposition, but there also would be enormous support as well. Who apart from male chauvinists wouldn't be excited by the first woman in the majors?
Imagine the ticket sales such an athlete could generate. It couldn't be just a gimmick though -- the woman would have to be able to help her team win. And if she did, that's all it would really take. "Performance. That's it,'' Seattle pitcher Chris Young said on how a woman could break into the majors. "If you perform well enough, you would be out there. If you can perform well enough and handle the pressure and work hard and be a good teammate, I don't think that baseball cares [who you are]. People want to win. They want the best.''
Perhaps more than gender is another prejudice, though. There is a bias against knuckleballers, which is why we see so few of them despite the extreme success by those few pitchers who throw a knuckler. Perfecting the knuckleball effectively takes years of experience and development, and not many teams have the patience or support for it, which is why four teams gave up on R.A. Dickey before he won the Cy Young with the Mets in 2012.
Thus, if a woman were to make it as a knuckleball pitcher, she would need not only a dancing knuckler but also the requisite grit, drive, mental strength and commitment. That wouldn't pose a problem. Those are the qualities top female athlete always possess, just like their male counterparts.
"It's not out of the realm of possibility,'' Red Sox manager John Farrell said of a woman knuckleballer in MLB. "I'm certain that it would be something accepted organization-wide because you're talking about privacy issues in a clubhouse, to the norms and traditions of the game. I know the first female defensive back is going to play college football at a Division III school.
"Times are changing and there's a little more openness to see who can contribute.''
Yes, times are changing. Someday, there will be a woman in the majors with a nasty knuckler. And she won't be throwing just batting practice.