Red Sox Fantasy Camp
By A.J. Richard
“Some of you have been waiting your whole life to be treated like a ballplayer.”
Last week I played on a baseball team for the first time. I’m 44. It was an all women’s baseball team. The umps were both women. A coach on each team was a woman. I got to play on the field at Jet Blue Park, Fenway South, spring training home of the Boston Red Sox. I was part of the inaugural Women’s Red Sox Fantasy Camp.
Women have been playing baseball since it was invented. Women’s dreams of playing baseball have been deferred for the same length of time. Those dreams have not gone away.
Rubbing Elbows with the Pros
For a few glorious days, 48 women from 3 countries and 19 states gathered at the Boston Red Sox spring training facilities in Florida. We ranged in age from 20 to 65. We came together because we are all women with a passion for baseball and the Red Sox. Fantasy baseball camp is a dream-like opportunity for fans to be coached by former pro players including their heroes, enjoy camaraderie with other diehard fans, and play the game on the same field as the pros. So far the Red Sox are only the 2nd MLB team to have an all female fantasy camp.
The Red Sox pros coaching us included Alan Embree, Rico Petracelli, Rich Gedman, Trot Nixon, Brian Daubach, and Butch Hobson.
We also had female leaders. We were coached by Justine Siegal (founder of Baseball For All which provides girls opportunities to play baseball and the first woman to coach for an MLB organization). Marti Sementelli, a pitcher on the USA women’s baseball team which won gold at the Pan Am games in 2015, coached as well. We were cheered on by Maybelle Blair and Shirley Burkovich who played in the real A League of Their Own, the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. The umpire crew included female umps Perry Barber, Ila Valcarcel, and Mona Osborne.
No matter how many times they heard “Baseball is not for girls,” these women persevered. They shared their stories of passion for baseball, hard work, and dedication. They inspired, coached, and listened to us share our stories. We understood each other’s struggles and successes on a level not commonly experienced.
You could hear gasps and shrieks of joy as each woman located her locker in the clubhouse. We found jerseys featuring our name and number. I picked #21, the number worn by my favorite player, Roberto Clemente. We had a complete uniform including cap, pants, belt, and socks. The Red Sox gave each of us a bat engraved with our name and many other collectibles.
When I put on the uniform I was in heaven. For the first time I felt like a ballplayer.
The first day consisted of drills and practices. Coach Alan Embree told us, “Women are more coachable than men. Women don’t think they know it all.”Afterwards, the coaches drafted us onto teams. I was selected to play on the Belles with coaches Alan Embree and Justine Siegal. My teammates included an Australian mom of four, a 23 year-old college student and her mom, and a woman who went to college on a softball scholarship.
On the shuttle bus I sat next to a woman who told me, “I haven’t played baseball in 50 years.” Another woman said she loved baseball so much she slept with her bat until she was 12.
Each evening included opportunities to get autographs and photos. We listened to panels discuss women and baseball. We socialized and met Red Sox legends such as radio announcer Joe Castiglione. One evening I sat down at a table and looked in awe at the gentleman sitting next to me. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I whispered to my teammate, “Who is this?” She said, “Luis Tiant!”
On the big game day, the sun rose, the sky was bright blue, and we emerged onto the hallowed baseball field ready to fulfill our dreams. Every player got to choose a walk up song. As I walked up for my first at bat I heard my name and song blaring. I got goose bumps. I couldn’t suppress a smile. I could feel the sweet spot on the bat connect solidly with the ball. As I jogged off the field Justine Siegal told me I had hit the ball well.
The coaches asked us what our “dream” was before the game. I wanted to pitch because I had been practicing and had never pitched in a game. I was reluctant to say anything because the team winning meant more to me. I got my chance. With strong defense behind me, we got two ground outs. However, I walked the bases loaded. I was relieved I didn’t have a chance to walk in the winning run. Pitching for 2/3 of an inning was empowering.
For our final game, we were graced by the presence of a teen girl who participates in Baseball For All. She is only 13 and has hit over 500 home runs. Her passion for baseball has led this reserved girl to work hard to let other girls know there is a place for them in baseball.
After a fulfilling day, we gathered for a final banquet and awards. I realized what matters most is knowing you hustled every time for every single inning, every single play, and every single practice. To know you put in extra hours in the batting cage to improve. To know you pushed through pain without complaining. To be a source of encouragement for your teammates. To dig deeper when you feel you are on empty. To play fair and hard. To love the game so much with every ounce of your heart that to do all of the above is pure joy. This is what truly matters. It doesn’t matter if anyone noticed.
Baseball requires intense focus and dedication. By playing the game, one gains confidence. The discipline required by baseball gives a player the mind set to succeed in life. Being part of a team and learning to build skills through practice transfers into other areas of life. Baseball makes you a leader. The omission of women from baseball is endemic of society. When girls are deemed unfit to play baseball it is too easy to perceive them as lacking the skills and experience to be leaders and equals.
Baseball- A Life Changer
This was something I had been waiting for my entire life. Therefore, I found myself intensely present because I didn’t want to miss a second. I wanted it to last forever. I just want to play baseball and to see every male and female who wants to play baseball have the opportunity. It isn’t complicated.
As I began the long journey home a friend texted, “It’s over already? It was just the blink of an eye.” I responded, “Lives can be changed in the blink of an eye.”
A. J. Richard is an Iowa City, IA resident and converted Boston Red Sox fan.