‘There just weren’t women playing’ – Kelsie Whitmore, baseball trailblazer | Baseball

KElsie Whitmore is one of three figures on the baseball diamond at the Staten Island Community Park. The stands of the ballpark are empty, give or take a few hotdog sellers opening their kiosks in the concourses. Her coach, Nelson Figueroa, is hitting balls at her, which she waits on before reading the angle it will arrive, moving towards the ball, then receiving it in her mitt with her left hand and throwing back with her right.

Next to her, a girl is watching and then doing the same. She is much smaller than Whitmore. Her throws do not comfortingly thud back into Figueroa’s mitt like Whitmore’s do, but die halfway before bouncing back along the ground. She looks towards Whitmore after each, who nodes, shadows the action and then turns to receive.

Whitmore wears the No 3 shirt for Staten Island FerryHawks. In April, she signed to play professionally with the team, alongside 24 men. She is the first woman since 1994 to play in a league that is affiliated with Major League Baseball. The Atlantic League, which Staten Island play in, is the highest form of baseball outside the MLB. It is often referenced as “the second chance league”, where players of Major League caliber are trying to get back in while playing the closest possible standard. No woman has played at the same level.

“We see a lot more girls coming out to the games these days,” says the team’s general manager, Gary Perone, as he watches from the “best office in the world” on the second tier, overlooking Richmond Park. “Even for the Little League teams. They all want to come out and speak to her. She’s inspiring a lot of people. Not just here, but across all the five boroughs of New York City.”

The fan today, he says, has been granted some time with her idol as today’s opponents have forgone their batting practice. Her mother had brought her in early, fully decked in gear, and told Whitmore: “You’re her inspiration.”

The FerryHawks’ home sits on the lip of Staten Island, set back from the shore only by the ferry port. From the vantage point of looking on to the game, anything beyond the baseball park appears to be entirely water until it meets the horizon of the rest of New York City. You would be forgiven for imagining, if presented this view alone, that Staten Island might be only the ballpark, the ferry occasionally turning up with the boatload of people that got on for the view of the Statue of Liberty, then leaving with them back the another way again.

Though they are bottom of the North Division in the early phase of the season, Perone calls Staten Island culture “bridge to bridge, the best baseball borough in the city”, with attention upon it like never before because of their new pitcher and outfielder.

Kelsie Whitmore warms up in the batting cages.
Kelsie Whitmore warms up in the batting cages. Photograph: Bebeto Matthews/AP

Whitmore walks away from the returning ferries, towards the dugout, back from the impromptu session. The men who make up the rest of the FerryHawks are starting to file out for warm-ups. As they bounce across each other, beginning the ritual of their training drills, there are seas of code in secret handshakes, bodychecks and high fives. A catcher is half-kitted up and receiving throws. One escapes his grasp, alarmingly dropping to the floor. He removes his helmet, retrieves the ball and studies it as if it must be faulty. He shakes his head existentially before tutting, dispensing with the ball and starting again.

Whitmore hasn’t seen this, but as if she has, she says, laughing: “If you want to play this game, the first thing you have to know is that you’re going to fail. You have to work out if you’re OK with that.”

Whitmore – not starting in the outfield – is in the throats of preparing for potential relief pitching. Like her teammates, and seemingly all baseball players, she is constantly spitting. She has been playing baseball since she was six. She’s now 24. “There just weren’t any women playing,” she says about her beginnings, spitting again. “All my inspirations were men. It just made me want it more. My thing isn’t about trying to be the first. It’s about trying to do something I love.”

At 14 years old, the youngest age possible, she was picked for America’s women’s team. Otherwise, she has usually been the only woman in her teams, at each level advancing against the odds. The received wisdom tended to be that the boys were going to get too strong for her and she wouldn’t be able to keep pace. It has never happened. On her debut for the FerryHawks, the first ball hit into play poetically went straight to her. She handled it flawlessly. She sends herself to sleep imagining such plays. “I’ll visualize it and try to feel the feeling. I’m all about feeling. I try not to be too robotic.”

There was a time when she tried to emulate precisely what the men were doing, but found it counterintuitive. “It was only when I admitted to myself that I will never be able to throw a ball 400ft that it started to really work for me. I realized: ‘Oh, I just need to play how I play.’ That’s the thing with baseball – you make it work for you somehow.”

Kelsie Whitmore in a Ferryhawks cap.
Kelsie Whitmore in a Ferryhawks cap. ‘You’ve got to act like nothing fazes you.’ Photograph: Bebeto Matthews/AP

The sport has a particular penchant for people fitting through the cracks, finding ways the game works for them. Whitmore’s skill is manipulating her lack of pitching speed as an asset, developing a delivery now known on the circuit as “the Thing”. Figueroa, a successful major league pitcher despite his own lack of speed, has been overseeing a steadily increasing variety of pitches in his arsenal. She reels through them on the dugout, hand reconfiguring on the ball. As she shows them, her opposite forearm is exposed, bearing a tattoo of crocodile teeth – representing a hunter lurking beneath the surface.

four-seam fastball: a staple diet for a pitcher that takes its name from revealing all four-seams in flight. Change-up: A pitch disguised as a fast ball that arrives slower than it first appears. Splitter with vertical break: so named because the fingers are split across the ball, causing it to die as it reaches the hitter. Circle changes “with some positive break on it”: a change-up with the fingers making a circle formation. And finally, the knuckle change (AKA “the Thing”). Figueroa has called it “the weirdest thing he has ever seen”, a pitch that seems to have little precedent.

While the reaction to Whitmore’s introduction to the Atlantic League has been overwhelmingly positive, there have been the inevitable incidents. In Charleston, tennis balls were thrown at Figueroa and her before the opponents apologized profusely on the crowd’s behalf. There has been chirping while waiting on base about her not being good enough to be there – Whitmore is keen to point out that accusation is far from exclusive to her. It is an intense lens Whitmore appears to wear lightly, but feels its consistent presence. “I’m in the process of getting past that feeling of all the eyes being on me and having to be perfect.”

If she isn’t, she occasionally worries, there are implications beyond herself, “when you hold a title like this, you want to show it so well. If things don’t go well, I can occasionally think to myself: ‘I’ve let all these little girls down,’ or: ‘I’ve just proved all the people that don’t believe, that they’re right. ‘ There’s a lot of people like that still.

“You’ve got to act like nothing fazes you. That’s the part where you get stuck because you feel, as a woman, you can’t show emotion or you’ll be looked at as weak or not powerful. But there’s the other side where it’s like: ‘We want to be OK with being who we are. It’s OK to feel overwhelmed one day.’ You tend to shut it down because if we cave into that, people will say: ‘That’s why you shouldn’t be here.’”

There has been a small wave of women carving their way into high-level baseball of late. This year, Alyssa Nakken became the first to coach on-field in the MLB – for the San Francisco Giants, positioned on first base. Alexis Hopkins is employed as a bullpen catcher in the Atlantic League. Rachel Balkovec manages the Tampa Tarpons, part of the New York Yankees organization.

“The question I get asked the most,” she mockingly glazes over for a second, “is: ‘How does it feel to be a girl?’ I just want to be remembered as someone who deserved it. Someone who made it as far as they possibly could.” She considers again before rephrasing: “Someone who made it as far as she possibly could.

She gestures out towards the lush green in front of her. “I’ve learned more about life on this baseball field than I have in school or on the streets. It’s because you go through the mistakes, the ups and the downs, success, interactions, relationships, friendships.” She points again, as if in praise: “And it was all on the diamond.”

The first pitch is nearing. “What’s the time?” she is asking. It’s a quarter to five. “Quarter to five? What does that mean? 4.45? Is that the time?” I nod. “I haven’t done math in a while,” she proudly says, smiling. “I’ve been on the field. There goes another day I haven’t used y=mx plus b.”

With that she spits again and is back on, blending into her teammates, merging with the handshakes and the body checks.

When Staten Island takes to the field, Perone is standing next to his office, looking out. The minor league game is sparsely attended, with families and people dressed as hawks or bowling pins making manic and joyful use of the empty seats. Whitmore is there, arms folded over the dugout, watching the game like the rest of her teammates, distinguishable by the shot of straight black hair that falls flat to the bottom of her back.

“When I was notified about Kelsie, I spoke to her for about two and a half months,” Perone says, reasoning: “She’s a hard worker and she’s really good.” He stops occasionally as he’s talking to gesture to the in-game DJ, circling his arms to beckon them to turn the music up between plays. “You know, you’re in a locker room with all men and you have to work that out. She hears her fair share of stuff wherever she goes.”

He gestures again for the music to be louder as a hitter is struck out for the end of an inning. “But whether it’s our team or the visiting teams, all people want to do is meet Kelsie. When you do, you understand she is a special person. She’s going to do something for the future of baseball.”

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