The moment the members of Team USA disembarked their plane in Orlando, their fears were realized. This was the first Women’s Baseball World Cup ever played on United States soil, and they expected to be ignored.
At the last World Cup, played in 2016 in South Korea, Team USA didn’t make it to the final round of the only competition they ever play in. But at least in Korea they had been acknowledged. More than that, they’d felt important and beloved, barraged by reporters’ questions at every turn and hounded by fans: fans holding handmade signs with sparkling lettering, fans who knew their names and numbers, fans who sent love notes down to the dugout in the middle of their games.
For every day of the past two years each woman had trained, practiced, and dreamed about playing baseball. According to USA Baseball, the members of the U.S. women’s national baseball team are among the top 20 players in the country, but here at home, almost no one knows they exist.
Before Team USA played Team Japan, the defending, five-time World Champions, on the first night of the tournament’s second round, a five-year-old girl threw a ball back and forth with her father just outside the stadium. She wore a glove, and he caught her lobs with his bare hands. She said she wanted to play baseball. Her father said “hell yeah,” he’d let her play. “If she wants to fight for it, I’ll fight with her.” But to play baseball as a woman in America, you have to be willing to fight your entire life, because at every phase, you’re set up to fail.
It’s no wonder when Team USA played Japan on the first night of the Super Round, they made a couple mental errors: a ball not thrown on a steal, a miscommunication at second base. They are a team in uniform, but not in time spent on the diamond. They haven’t been given the time or resources to become a team the way Japan has.
In 2009, Kenichi Kakutani, a wealthy Japanese business owner, invested heavily in women’s baseball in Japan after watching a baseball tournament for high school girls. He formed what would eventually be called the Japanese Women’s Baseball League (JWBL), a tiny, four-team league that has made Team Japan an absolutely dominant force, taking gold at every WBWC in the past decade. Because more than 25 private high schools in Japan had women’s baseball teams, the talent was there to fuel the league, and the league itself encouraged more private high schools to start teams.
U.S Federal courts have ruled under Title IX that baseball and softball are separate sports and that girls cannot be excluded from baseball teams just because a softball team exists at the same school. Softball is played on a smaller field, with a different ball, and different rules. In softball, runners cannot take a lead off bases. With a runner firmly on base, an infielder has to change her entire job, watch the pitcher for a throw-over, watch the runner for a steal, maybe even change her positioning. Without lead offs, there are far fewer steals, no balks, and far less nuance. “People come up to me and tell me on a daily basis that I should switch to softball,” Sementelli says. “You have to be the only girl on the team, or you have to switch to softball. It takes a lot for a little girl to fight to play on the big field.”
Let’s say a young girl is willing to face all those battles and she wins. She plays varsity baseball in high school, loves the game. Maybe she even gets to attend the new Trailblazer series for women. “We have seen tremendous success in getting young men who have participated in our Breakthrough Series to play collegiately and so we wanted to apply the same approach for young women,” MLB’s Reagins says. There are no women’s baseball teams at any level of the American college system.
If a woman can reach the college level, she often can’t afford to fight her way onto a men’s team. Anna Kimbrell, a catcher for Team USA, played baseball through high school but switched to softball in college because she was offered a big scholarship to play. She returned to baseball after graduation. “You have to be pretty stubborn to refuse to play softball,” Ring says. “If you’re being rational and you want a college scholarship, it’s softball.”
Most of the women on 2018’s Team USA won’t get to play again until the next World Cup in 2020. Underwood, at 37, is still deciding whether or not she’ll keep playing. They will return to their lives and their real jobs. They will dream about playing on the diamond again and wake up disappointed. Each year, thousands of girls will switch over to softball, or quit playing the game entirely because no one has made a path for them to go forward.
“That’s the story of women’s baseball,” Underwood said. “We don’t get to play in the same facilities. We don’t get the same attention. We don’t get the same opportunities.”
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