Justine Siegal was a pioneer long before she pitched batting practice to six major league teams in spring training this year. Two years ago she became the first woman to coach first base for a men's professional team, the Brockton (Mass.) Rox in the independent Canadian American Association. And she spent three seasons as an assistant baseball coach at Springfield (Mass.) College until resigning last year to pursue a doctorate.
Siegal's nonprofit organization, Baseball for All, sponsors a team of 12-and-under girls called the Sparks that draws players from all over the country. Last summer the Sparks, with knuckleball sensation Chelsea Baker of Plant City, Fla., finished 39th out of 104 teams in an international tournament in Cooperstown, N.Y. -- as the only all-girls team in the event. And that was with only one practice.
Every girl on that team, Siegal said, shares the dream of playing major league baseball. Women already have played collegiately and in the minors. Left-hander Ila Borders did both, pitching in independent ball from 1997 to 2000. And USA Baseball has sponsored a women's national team since 2004. Siegal believes the day is coming when a woman will break into the majors.
"There's no reason why a woman can't be a knuckleball pitcher in major league baseball," she said. "I think we'll see it in the next 15 years."
It's happened in American pro ball already. Last summer Japanese knuckleballer Eri Yoshida joined the Chico Outlaws in the independent Golden League, albeit with little success (she was 0-4 with a 12.28 ERA). Dan Duquette, the former general manager of the Boston Red Sox, is convinced a woman will do it, though he declined to predict when.
Duquette, who runs a sports academy in Hinsdale, Mass., thinks a woman who can master a knuckleball or another off-speed pitch -- one based on feel, not power -- could make the majors first. Independent league entrepreneur Mike Veeck, who signed Borders for his St. Paul Saints, thinks the first woman will be a second baseman, a position requiring finesse, agility and savvy more than size and strength.
"God help somebody if Hoyt Wilhelm's granddaughter shows up," Veeck said, referring to the Hall of Fame knuckleballer. "Then all bets are off."
It's difficult to find anyone in MLB who agrees with Siegal, Veeck or Duquette. Of the nine MLB executives, scouts and players contacted by espnW, only three agreed to talk about the subject. None was willing to be quoted. One considered a woman playing in the majors unlikely, and the other two rejected it out of hand.
Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon was skeptical.
"It's hard to visualize that right now, but I can never say never," he said. "You watch softball games, man, and it's extremely impressive -- the speed of the game, the quality of the play. But hardball is a lot different than softball is, just with the distances on the field, the strength that's required, all those different things. And then furthermore, I don't know if a woman has been challenged to play every day. Even a minor league season is 140 games or whatever, while a softball season has days [off] in between."
If it were to happen, a pitcher would be most likely, Maddon said.
"I don't think you're going to see a power pitcher," he said. "I know that one girl [Baker] has been throwing a knuckleball. Something like that would make the most sense. But it's not going to be easy."
Veeck thinks MLB eventually will seek out women for economic reasons. Women, he said, will be cheaper to sign as undrafted free agents than big-bonus draft picks -- no different from the Latin American prospects that clubs covet now.
"The only negative I ever hear is, women don't have enough upper-body strength," Veeck said. "Of course, I've had a lot of players who played for me who didn't have enough upper-body strength."
The key, Siegal said, is providing more opportunities for women to play baseball past age 12, when most switch to softball.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 859 girls played on boys' high school teams in the 2009-10 school year. Last month, Californians Marti Sementelli and Ghazaleh Sailors, who are teammates on the U.S. women's national team, became the first female pitchers to start against each other in a boys' high school game. But girls often must shop around to find a school that will let them try out. Last summer, Duquette's academy teamed with Siegal's nonprofit to hold an international baseball camp for females ages 11 through adult -- the first of its kind, according to Duquette. Twenty-five women attended. The program has been expanded to a full week this July.
Borders, now a firefighter in Gilbert, Ariz., thinks the first woman will need one other important skill: the ability to fit in with the guys.
"You need to know how to banter with them, how to be respectful with the banter and how to gain their trust," she said. "You have to have thick skin. They need to see if you can keep your wits about you. They need to know you're out there for the right reasons -- not to be a prima donna, not to change the game, but to win.
"Anybody can throw to one batter, or throw one inning, and get headlines," Borders said. "I don't think that's appropriate. You've got to contribute to your team."