Justine Siegal, first woman to coach for an MLB team, is still breaking barriers for girls in baseball

Under the auspices of Baseball For All, Justine Siegal, far left, has organized events across the country -- like a recent tournament in Cooperstown, New York -- that bring baseball-loving girls together for competition and camaraderie. Baseball For All

Before she became the first woman on the coaching staff of a professional men's baseball team (in 2009, with the Brockton Rox), the first woman to throw batting practice to an MLB team (the Indians, in 2011) or the first woman to coach for an MLB team (with the Oakland A's instructional league in Arizona in 2015), Justine Siegal was a ballplayer.

As a 13-year-old, Siegal was one of the best players in her youth baseball league. But a coach told her, "I don't want you on my team. I think girls should play softball."

"It didn't matter that I was one of the best players on the team, that I loved baseball, or that I practiced a lot more than any of my male friends," Siegal said. "It only mattered that I was a girl."

Siegal didn't listen to him, deciding instead to use that painful experience as motivation -- and a life lesson that she would eventually turn into her life's work. Siegal continued to play baseball, and she eventually parlayed her passion into Baseball For All, a nonprofit that provides assistance, instruction and encouragement for girls who want to play baseball.

Three decades later, girls are still behind in the count when it comes to the national pastime, the 44-year-old Siegal said.

"While women are making great strides in sports like soccer, basketball and ice hockey, baseball remains one of the last 'boys' clubs,'" Siegal said. "Many girls still have to fight for the right to play. Like I was, they're often pressured by coaches, leagues and other players' parents to quit baseball or play a different sport."

Since being named a Toyota Everyday Hero at the 2013 espnW: Women + Sports Summit -- the honor was accompanied by a $10,000 grant -- Siegal has grown Baseball For All into an international organization that hosts girls baseball tournaments and events across the country. But she says her mission is not just about encouraging girls to play baseball; she also wants to inspire them to pursue their passions, whatever they might be.

"If you have a dream, you should go after it," she said. "Don't let anyone put you in a box. Girls can do anything."

espnW spoke with Siegal ahead of the 2019 espnW: Women + Sports Summit about the growth of girls baseball, gender equity on and off the playing field, and whether we'll see a woman managing in the major leagues.

espnW: What made you decide to focus on growing girls baseball, rather than coaching?

Siegal: The day my youth baseball coach told me to quit was that day I decided to play baseball forever. It was a struggle. Some teams didn't even want to let me try out. But I didn't give up. I knew, even then, that it was wrong for them to tell me I couldn't play just because I was a girl. I often felt very alone. No one should feel alone playing this great game.

When I was 16, I told another one of my baseball coaches that I wanted to be a college coach. He laughed at me and said, "A man would never listen to a woman on the baseball field." That hurt. But then I thought, Who is he to tell me that I can't pursue this dream? I decided I needed to get a PhD because I wasn't going to get the same playing opportunities as men. But I could at least out-degree most of them.

I find it incredible that girls are still being told that they can't play baseball, and I knew that we had to stop that loop. I founded Baseball For All to empower girls to believe in themselves and to keep playing the game they love. If you tell a girl she can't play baseball, what else will she think she can't do? And what else will boys think girls can't do? It's the same thing as keeping girls out of math or keeping girls out of science. To me, it's a social justice issue, and that is why I am so passionate about it.

espnW: How is Baseball For All helping level the playing field for girls?

Siegal: Baseball for All provides opportunities for girls to play, coach and lead in baseball. We teach communities how to build and support girls baseball programs of their own. And we organize and run events to bring those girls teams and programs together. Instead of programming that has girls playing against the boys, we've created opportunities for girls to play baseball with other girls. Not only are the events a great place to make like-minded friends who also love to play baseball, but they also empower girls and provide them with a support system. We teach baseball skills, and we also teach each player the importance of pursuing whatever goals, ambitions and dreams they may have -- regardless of what their peers or society at large expects of them.

espnW: How did being named a Toyota Everyday Hero help you?

Siegal: Receiving the award (in 2013) was incredibly humbling, and it legitimized our organization immediately. It helped us get grants from other companies, which helped us grow. Since then, we've also gotten an MLB-MLBPA youth development grant, as well as a grant from the Women's Sports Foundation.

We started with one all-girls team playing against boys. Now we have players from 37 states competing on teams from all across the U.S. and Canada in Baseball For All tournaments. We launched the first national tournament for girls baseball in 2015. This year, at our fourth nationals, we had 360 girls and 31 teams in five divisions in Rockford, Illinois -- home of the original Rockford Peaches of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

We're hosting more tournaments and more clinics in 2020. Our next national tournament will take place at The Ripken Experience in Aberdeen, Maryland. We expect about 600 girls to join us there, based on the fact that new teams are forming in Florida, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland and Northern California. And other existing programs are building, adding new teams and divisions.

MLB teams like the Oakland A's, Chicago White Sox and Miami Marlins have been very supportive of Baseball For All. The A's have helped grow girls baseball in the Bay Area and helped us create the Tamara Holmes Series (a girls baseball tournament named after Holmes, a trailblazer who helped lead the USA Baseball Women's National Team to a gold medal at the 2015 Pan American Games) in 2019.

The Marlins are hosting an event on Oct. 27 that will give girls an opportunity to play at a Major League ballpark, receive coaching from professional coaches and learn from speakers like Team USA manager and former catcher Veronica Alvarez.

espnW: Baseball for All just launched a new ad campaign. What prompted you to launch it now -- and what is the story you're hoping to tell?

Siegal: We wanted to show the girls who are out there playing -- or who want to play -- baseball that they are not alone. That this is their game.

The "She's Up" campaign showcases girls who are driven to play baseball for the same reasons anyone is: for the love of it, the challenge of it, the joy of it. So, basically, for all the same reasons that boys play baseball. All of the girls featured in the ads are actual baseball players telling stories they've heard or experienced themselves. They love our nation's pastime, just like anyone else, and now, they're claiming their right to play it. It's an attempt to connect girls who are looking for a team or a place to play baseball. It really speaks to the player directly.

We wanted to come out with this ad campaign during the MLB playoffs because that's when a lot of eyes are on baseball. This is when America's national pastime truly becomes a pastime for everybody.

espnW: What do you say when people ask why girls can't simply play softball, rather than baseball?

Siegal: Why do boys play baseball? Baseball and softball are two different sports, and there is a cultural myth in our society that baseball is for boys and softball is for girls. More than 100,000 girls play youth baseball, but only 1,700 girls go on to play high school baseball. Their love of baseball -- and their talent -- didn't just go away. So what happened to those other 99,000 players?

Acceptance of girls playing baseball is growing, but a lot of obstacles remain. I hear from girls across the country who have been told by a coach, or an athletics director, or even the parent of another player that they can't or shouldn't play baseball. I recently got an email about a public high school not allowing a girl to try out for her school's baseball team. It's 2019! And earlier this year a family in California reached out. Their daughter had been playing baseball for years, but when they went to sign her up this season, the only way to register was to select "boy" as her gender. So we clearly still have work to do.

espnW: What should people do if they want to start a girls team or a league in their area?

Siegal: Go to our website -- baseballforall.com -- and contact us. I will personally follow up with them. Depending on where they are, we can help connect them to other players, resources, fields nearby.

espnW: The NBA and NFL now have multiple women who are full-time coaches. You were a guest instructor for the A's instructional league in 2015 and Veronica Alvarez coached with the A's during spring training this past March, but MLB has yet to hire a woman for an on-field position full-time. Will we see a woman manager or general manager in Major League Baseball?

Siegal: I believe we will see a female GM in MLB. If we can have women generals in the military, we can have a woman GM in MLB. And we're on track to have a female umpire in the near future. As more girls play baseball, the chances of a female MLB coach rises. What players want is a coach who knows what she's talking about, cares about them and can make them better players.