Baseball camp is about baseball, of course, which means every camper gets a turn in the batting cage, and they all get advice.
When I visited the campers enrolled in a program called Baseball For All at Dan Duquette's Baseball Academy in western Massachusetts on Tuesday, the hitter receiving the instruction was a 13-year-old named Jackie, who'd come to the camp from Toronto. Her batting coach was Michaela Sihler, a former Little League All-Star who pitches for her high school team in Florida.
"Keep your weight back," Sihler was saying. "The curve balls are going to be coming at you, not tailing away."
When they'd finished picking up the baseballs Jackie had been spraying around the cage, Michaela Sihler told me she had high hopes for her pupil.
"It's all there," she said. "She's just gotta get it all goin' at the same time, and she'll be hitting 'em way further than she's been so far. She's already knockin' the crap out of the ball, and as long as she gets the key points down, she's gonna be phenomenal at the plate."
Michaela Sihler knows whereof she speaks. She's been playing baseball since early childhood. By the time she was twelve, she was playing well enough to join a girls' team that traveled to Australia for a series of games under the auspices of Baseball For All, which is dedicated to supporting girls who want to play the game. Like most of the girls at the camp, Michaela learned the game on a boys' team, and it was a challenge.
"When you're the only girl on a whole team of boys, you have to work ten times harder," she said. "You have to be on your best behavior, because all they want to do is push you down. They want you to quit, because you are going against what people normally know, and they don't like that. A lot of times it's hard to keep fighting when everyone is telling you to stop."
No Other Girls
Many of the ballplayers at this camp are the only girls on their teams back home, but some of them are less challenged by that circumstance than Michaela Sihler has been. Trinity Gonzales flew to Massachusetts with her mom from Twentynine Palms, California, where Trinity, who is 11, is the only girl on a travel team. She's a catcher, and she's good enough so that each time the team's best pitcher starts, he wants Trinity behind the plate.
"We've been best friends and we've been playing together since I was five and he was six," Trinity told me. "We started a travel ball team together, so we play year 'round together, and I've been the catcher the whole time."
Size is a nice attribute for a catcher, since he or she sometimes has to block the plate, but bulk is not one of Trinity's attributes.
"How tall are you?" I asked.
"I'm four feet, eight inches," she said.
"How'd you decide you wanted to be a catcher?"
"I tried all the other positions when I was little," she said. "I didn’t like any of them. The only one I didn't try was catcher, and then when I did, I really liked it, 'cause you get to see what's goin' on, and stuff."
Support From Home
As Trinity stepped in for her turn in the batting cage, I spoke with her mother, Leslie, who's one hundred percent behind her daughter's determination to stay with baseball rather than shift to softball, as girls are so often pressured to do.
"You know, they want it just as badly as the boys do," she said. "If they have the skill and can get it done, what's the difference?"
Leslie Gonzales has another daughter who plays on her high school softball team, and a son who was drafted by the Florida Marlins. I put it to Ms Gonzales that this would seem to be an advantage for an 11-year-old catcher, no matter the catcher's gender.
She agreed. "Trinity's brother works with her a lot," she said. "And her dad works with her a lot, and he coaches her travel ball team. We all want to see Trinity take it as far as she can."
Besides instruction in hitting, fielding, base-running, and the various other skills associated with the game, campers learn something about baseball's sometimes arcane rules. On the afternoon of my visit to Baseball For All, an umpire named Kate Sargent conducted a seminar on the mysteries of the balk. When the campers' heads began nodding, another umpire, Perry Barber, figured maybe it was time for a seventh inning stretch in the seminar. She hauled out her guitar and led the campers in a sing-a-long featuring "Take Me Out To The Ballgame."
Field Trip To Boston
The following day, the campers got on a bus and headed for Boston, where they'd get a late-afternoon tour of Fenway Park.
But before that, they made a stop at M.I.T., where another baseball camp - this one catering to boys - was being held. The girls from Baseball For All spread out over two diamonds with the boys for a couple of short games. Among the most interested observers was Justine Siegal, who founded Baseball For All a decade ago. She said she'd been asking the campers to tell her about what they liked best in the program.
"They say two things," she told me. "They're happy to have made so many friends, and they like playing against the boys."
Just Like Any Other Player
On the first play of the game I was watching, one of those boys cracked a sharp grounder to third, where one of the Baseball For All campers fielded the ball and fired it to first, beating the runner by several steps. I asked Justine Siegal whether male hitters put out by girls, or male pitchers who gave up hits to female batters, were still likely to hear about it from their teammates.
Justine smiled. "I think it's still set up in the culture that way," she said. "But most of that is adult-driven. The kids learn to respect each other pretty quickly. Once the adults sort of keep their own fears out of it, the kids just appreciate each other as ballplayers and want to go out and have fun."
And maybe she's right. As I watched that game on Wednesday afternoon, I found that I was paying less attention to the genders of the players and more attention to how well they were playing, which, according to Justine Siegal, is a big part of what Baseball For All is about.
"You know," she said, "that's my goal. It would be great if this was no longer a new story, this business of girls playing baseball. It's our national pastime, and to me it's the greatest game on earth."
The campers at Baseball For All no doubt agree, and many of them will return from camp to the teams on which they are the only girls secure in the conviction that lots of other players with names like Michaela, Justine, Trinity, and Jackie share that opinion.
This segment aired on July 23, 2011.