For the players of the new UW Huskies women’s baseball team, their hearts are hard

The indoor facility of Marginal Way in West Seattle is brought to life by the sights and sounds of baseball – passionate players throwing long, fielding Grounders, batting practice and hitting a tee, all under the watchful eye of their trainer.

It’s early morning on a recent Sunday, and the team has a tournament in March to prepare. A scene not uncommon at all, even in winter. Except that the team working at Go Time Athletics was made up of female baseball enthusiasts from the University of Washington.

The quality of the game is high, although many women have not played baseball for several years. They were drawn to “retirement” – and eagerly – to forming a first-ever women’s baseball team at UW. The roster includes 15 players who hope to reach 25, and their weekly training points them to the inaugural Women’s College Club Baseball tournament in Los Angeles.

“I’m really happy, very impressed,” said senior Katie Firestone, one of the club’s co-founders. “A lot of us haven’t played in a while – my last year in high school. So it’s really cool to see everyone dusting themselves off. I expected to teach the fundamentals in the first two workouts.

Their coach is Maggie Gallagher, who was the Gatorade Softball Player of the Year for Washington State from Kennedy Catholic in Seattle and played two years on the nationally ranked Huskies softball team. But Gallagher’s heart has always been hard. When she left the UW softball team to focus on school, she quickly joined the club’s campus baseball team as the only woman. She started off shortstop in her first game.

In her final year, Gallagher was president of the club, and after graduation last year she became heavily involved in the Puget Sound Senior Baseball League as a player and the first female general manager of the league in the Cascade division. Playing in the top division with former college and pro players, Gallagher was on the All-Star squad and delivered a hit and an RBI in the All-Star game.

Gallagher eagerly agreed to help the club’s women’s team as coach, general manager and main defender. Having been stuck in her own dreams of playing baseball when she was young, she is passionate about helping to create opportunities for women. She sees it as another key step in breaking baseball’s so-called “glass ceiling”.

During the first practice, Gallagher asked each player to share their story with the club and found that the obstacles encountered along the way were similar.

“A lot of them had played baseball until about grade eight,” she said. “And a lot of them had the same story, where we were told we couldn’t play baseball and it was only for boys. So we stopped. And they lost the love of the game, in a way, where they now have this club. It’s just great to see their faces light up.

At the macro level, Husky Women are part of a national movement to increase opportunities for women to compete in hardball-type baseball. And it works. Supported by a non-profit organization called Baseball for all, started as a pioneering baseball player and coach Justine Siegal, the participation of girls and women in baseball across the country is booming. A national tournament last summer in Aberdeen, Md., Featured 500 players aged 8 to 19 and 50 teams.

But on a more fundamental level, it comes down to nothing more complex than grabbing a chance to compete in their favorite sport. Until recently, these opportunities for girls disappeared after Little League, when they were inevitably directed into softball. Only a bold few were willing to fight resistance and prejudice to stick with baseball. The Baseball For All website notes that over 100,000 girls play youth baseball, but just over 1,000 continue to play baseball in high school.

This new movement is not at all intended to denigrate softball. And that supports women who want the chance to compete in men’s teams. Baseball For All recently hosted a tournament to feature women who want to play college baseball. Siegal also reached out to over 1,000 college coaches to see which ones would be willing to watch player highlight videos, and she posted the list of the 130 schools whose coach replied in the affirmative.

But Siegal ultimately wants to see women’s baseball become a varsity varsity sport – ideally 10 years from now. And she sees forming club teams as the vital first step in getting there. Gallagher points out that hockey and lacrosse are examples of sports that have followed this path to progress from club to college for women.

The UW club was born out of Firestone’s desire to pursue a career in baseball. She reached out to Siegal for advice, and Siegal then reached out to Firestone to inform her that she was trying to start a college program for women. For Firestone, who grew up in a rabid baseball family in Southern California full of Dodgers fanatics, it was music to his ears.

“One of the things that put me off playing baseball in high school was that there was no opportunity to play to the next level,” she said.

Firestone played softball, “but I always thought baseball was so much better,” she said.

Firestone enlisted his friend, junior Amber Kelly, to help form the club. Kelly had been a softball player, but the two often discussed baseball and found that they shared an affinity for the sport.

“I just thought it would be a great opportunity,” Kelly said. “Because when I got to U-Dub, there wasn’t a club’s women’s softball team or something that I could really get involved with. So I thought baseball was another really good opportunity, and that would create more opportunities for women to be in sport. It’s something that really excites me now.

Recruiting players for the club was intimidating but turned out to be easier than they thought. With Gallagher’s help, they canvassed players via Instagram and emails and by setting up tables at event shows. And Firestone reached out to a friend, Riley Mehl, who ended up becoming the team’s captain.

“She was super horny – and she brought, like, five of her friends,” Firestone said.

Many challenges remain. The team needs to develop pitchers, which won’t be easy even though the arm strength displayed in training is impressive. They are looking for a diamond to practice once the weather improves; the Intramural Activity Center’s grass softball field is a possibility, but they would like to find a regulation-sized field. And these UW baseballers are hoping more women’s club teams form in colleges across the state so they have someone to play with for years to come.

For now, however, they are having fun playing hardball – and paving the way for other women to do so. They even dream that there will one day be a professional women’s league, which no longer exists since the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, immortalized in the film “A League Of Their Own”, folded in 1954. (The Colorado Silver Bullets were a women’s team that faced men’s teams in the 1990s.)

“I think there are so many women who are passionate about this,” Kelly said. “It’s really about spreading the word and being known, because it’s really intimidating to be a woman who wants to play in a male dominated sport.”

“I think now is the time now more than ever for women to get involved in baseball,” added Firestone. “It is so much about creating equal opportunities.

Gallagher played baseball until grade eight, but moved on to softball when people, including his teammates, started giving him a hard time.

“They said to me, ‘Baseball is not a women’s sport, you shouldn’t be playing this.’ And I’ve had this several times, ”she said. “It was sad, because baseball has my heart.”

Fortunately, times and attitudes are changing. And for the women playing ball on Marginal Way, it was obvious their hearts were full.

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