Stone to Mayeux to Nakken

The love of baseball spans generations and with that ethnicity, social status, and gender. Alyssa Nakken was added to the San Francisco Giants staff in January 2020 making her the first woman to be named as a full time coach for a Major League team. She further made history on July 20, 2020 when she replaced Antoan Richardson as the first base coach for the San Franciso Giants becoming the first woman to coach on the field of a Major League Baseball game. This is the most recent chapter for women in baseball as women have been playing baseball for years, but it feels like no one seemed to notice until Penny Marshall made, “A League of their Own” in 1992.

The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), which is featured in the film, existed from 1943-1954 and came into existence during World War II when men were being sent to war, and Major League team owners were looking to try and replace their lost income by keeping baseball fresh in the public’s eye.  The AAGPBL paved the way for women’s professional sports, but the Negro Leagues turned out to be much more progressive as the boys came back from the war. Two years prior to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, Toni Stone suited up for the San Francisco Sea Lions of the West Coast Negro Leagues, and in 1949 the New Orleans Creoles until before finally getting a break in 1953 to play second base for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League, who interestingly enough featured a man by the name of Henry Aaron as their second baseman the year prior.

Twenty years after the AAGPBL, and Toni Stone played their last professional games, the Little League Federal Charter was amended in 1974 to finally allow girls to play Little League baseball. Many women have come through the Little League system, and while most seemed to be steered away into fastpitch softball there are a few who kept pushing forward such as Victoria Roche who in 1984 became the first girl to play in the Little League World Series (LLWS), Krissy Wendell who also played in the LLWS and went on to Captain the U.S. Women’s National Hockey team to Olympic Silver and Bronze Medals.

There of course have been other trailblazing women in baseball such as the Colorado Silver Bullets who played from 1994-1997 barnstorming against men’s amateur and semi-pro teams. The team was managed by baseball Hall of Famer Phil Niekro and included Julie Croteau who was the first women to play and coach at the collegiate level. Ila Borders would go on to become the first woman to pitch in a Men’s NCAA/NAIA game, as well as one of the first women to pitch in professional baseball after Mamie “Peanut” Johnson who also played in the Negro Leagues. Justine Siegal would get the honor of being the first woman to throw batting practice for a Major League team as she did for the 2009 Cleveland Indians, and in 2015 the Oakland Athletics hired her as a guest coach for two weeks during the Arizona Fall League. Justine’s accomplishments would not be the only major accomplishment for women in baseball in 2015.

Melissa Mayeux a 16 year old girl from Trappes, France burst onto International headlines by becoming the first women to earn a spot on Major League Baseball’s International Registry and becoming eligible for the Draft. Growing up playing baseball, Melissa first caught the attention of Major League baseball scouts while playing in a showcase tournament in Barcelona, Spain. “The first time I got noticed I was playing in Barcelona, and I got a base hit off a pitcher who was throwing 91…I hit the ball hard, but I was just being me. I wanted to be a smart player and try to hit in the hole all the time”, Melissa said. Ultimately the International Draft came and went, without Melissa being selected by any team. She continued to play baseball for the next two years and even spent time at International Baseball Camps organized by Major League Baseball for elite prospects abroad.  Looking back on the experience Melissa said of the attention that she got, “I was just playing with the guys. For me it was just like too many people talking about it when it really wasn’t a big deal”. Melissa is grateful for her experience, but she feels that women still have a long way to go in breaking into baseball and being accepted as equals, “I think (women have) come a long way but there is still a long way to go in baseball. I remember when I was in the academy no girls were allowed to play baseball at first but with the advancement that we have seen with American women, in France we now have a Woman’s Baseball National Team”. Melissa discovered how hard it was to break into baseball as she looked for scholarships in the United States, “I had always wanted to come to the United States when I was done with high school, and I was looking for a scholarship in JUCO (Junior College) Baseball and a lot schools told me that they couldn’t give me a scholarship because I was a girl. So my goal since I was young was to always come to the States and the only way I could do it was by getting interest through softball”, which is what brought Melissa to Miami-Dade College.

The transition to softball did not come easy for Melissa as she and her coaches worked for days on end teaching her how to properly throw and catch a softball, but she never gave up. After spending two season at Miami-Dade the time had come for Melissa to transfer, and although she was having a good season with the Sharks, and there were plenty of teams showing interest in her playing for them, she wasn’t happy with the offers that she was being given. Luckily she had an in with Louisanna-Lafayette, “We had an American coach for the international team one year and he was a good friend of the coach at Louisiana and he just showed him videos and that’s how I came here”. One of Melissa’s teammates on the Rajin’ Cajuns softball team was also no stranger to baseball. Sarah Hudek, daughter of former Major League pitcher John Hudek, has been a member of the United States Women’s National Baseball team and won Gold at the 2015 Pan American Games.

Melissa came out swinging in her 2020 debut with the Rajin Cajuns going 2-2 with 3 RBI including a homerun against Texas-San Antonio during a nationally televised game, she showed everyone that the hype around her was real. Unfortunately, the pandemic shut down the season, and like so many of us she is left in limbo, “Right now its hard because all the fields are closed, so my roommates with me at the house are trying to stay healthy and in shape but its really hard because we just don’t know, we’re waiting for something, anything”. Melissa lost more than her softball season as the worldwide pandemic forced the Tokyo Olympics to be postponed until 2021, and the qualifying European Championships which Melissa had intended to participate in were also cancelled.  

Melissa will be a senior next year and decisions will need to be made about her future, “I want to keep playing after college” Mayeux says, “but it all depends on the opportunities that I’ll be given. Its hard for several players here and its getting harder, the level of play is just much better than in Europe. You have to get better every day if you want to be on the field. I know if I don’t have any opportunities, I’ll go back to Europe and find an opportunity there, but I would really like to stay in the states because I would really like to make my life here”. The difficulties that all college students face have been compounded by Covid-19, but even more so for student-athletes like Melissa who are here on visas. Early in July the Trump Administration required that International students must take classes in person to stay in the country legally this fall despite the global pandemic, and schools opting to deliver their classes through online video services. This would cause an extraordinary hardship on Melissa, “Its stressful because we don’t know what’s going to happen. I have been here since before the virus started and I don’t understand why, it just doesn’t make sense to me. So basically when school was cancelled, I thought about going back home straight up, just to do something, but then the whole virus got crazy, and the school wanted me to sign some paperwork that said if I’m leaving, I’m willing to leave my scholarship, and I couldn’t do it”. Luckily for Melissa, and the thousands more like her, after this interview had been conducted the Trump Administration has walked back its controversial decision to force International students to take at least one face to face class to remain in the country.

Melissa’s story is just one woman’s experience with baseball, but day in and day out young women are fighting to show that they belong in baseball, the board rooms, and the front office. Women continue to make strides in baseball, yet when they suit up to play ball, the resistance faced by early pioneers like Toni Stone are still faced today 70 years later, and girls are told that they can’t or shouldn’t play baseball solely based on their gender. On the subject, Melissa shared part of a discussion she had with Sarah Hudek, “I asked her what she liked better (baseball or softball), and she said, softball because she wasn’t looked at like an object”. Society needs to change how girls are seen in the game of baseball especially as they continue to excel on the field. A new generation of women playing baseball has arrived, and the U.S. National team has stars in Kylee Lahners, Danae Benites, and Megan Baltzell, among others who blaze the path and face obstacles head on. These obstacles don’t phase Melissa either as she looks ahead she sees herself, “Living in Miami Beach, playing in a professional softball league, and maybe training people in baseball and softball, but I was thinking about this the other day, and I’d love to get into MLB and be a coach”. Well Melissa, you’ve been knocking on the door for 5 years, and Alyssa Nakken has just opened it.

Bubble Gum Baseball

Doctor, doctor, give me the news! I’ve got a bad case of loving baseball! Well there’s nothing much to say I guess as it’s just the same as all the rest, and I’m trying to wrap my mind around a summer without baseball as we know it. May is just around the corner though and that gives us some hope of a baseball in a bubble.

Major League Baseball has considered holding baseball in a bubble of the Cactus and
Grapefruit Leagues Spring Training Facilities to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Can
baseball be played safely in a bubble? Dr. Fauci thinks it just might work… if we aren’t there.
The idea is simple. Teams would play in empty stadiums, players would be restricted to the
ballparks and their hotels, and the fans can’t be there to watch. This move should open
everyone’s eyes to the fact that baseball is a business. Professional baseball is not always run
for the love of the game, but for paychecks and profits. There is nothing wrong with that, and
there is nothing wrong with loving the game. Would baseball in a bubble be worse than no
baseball at all? Are my hopes for baseball in a bubble just selfish? Maybe so.

Players appear to be in favor of the baseball in a bubble idea, as I’m sure they are anxious to get paid, I mean play. Yet this plan gives no mention as to what to do with the players’ families if they are on a strict lockdown? Talks have not determined if families would also be put up in the players hotels and there is no telling how the body of players would respond to the situation. Justin Turner of the Los Angeles Dodgers said it would be easy for him because although he is married, he and his wife Kourtney do not have any children. He sees how difficult and lonely it would be for single players, as well as the additional burdens the players with children will carry if they are gone for so long. Turner’s teammate Clayton Kershaw said last week that if his family were not with him, he wouldn’t play. Kershaw’s reasoning is that their 3 month old child has done so much in that time that he would hate to miss out on all he would do in the 4 months that he would be away, and he simply wouldn’t do it. How many more players feel that way, and what would the game look like without superstars like Kershaw? Having children myself and having spent some months away from them even as young adults is difficult, and it’s much worse for everyone when they are younger

I miss baseball. I want to watch baseball games, and I want to go to baseball games; but I don’t want to be selfish. I would watch baseball in a bubble, but I would think of the players and coaches if they are left without their families and friends. No, their lives would be far from those serving in the military, or anyone serving time in jail; but anytime your freedom is taken from you that burden wears on your spirit, and would ultimately change the game.

Happy Birthday, River Cats!

“It was 20 years ago today.” The River Cats officially turn 20 as their first game was played April 6, 2000 which started a month-long road trip of 37 games in 40 days as Raley Field had not been completed due to bad weather.

The Cats were scheduled to open their season this Thursday in Reno against the Aces; unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic has put baseball on hold. While we await to hear “let’s play ball” for the first time at Sutter Health Park, here is a look back at opening night 2019.

The River Cats started their 20th season under an overcast sky. The crowd of only 8,820 was cold, and the energy was low and gray like the clouds above them. Prior to the game there were rumblings from the fans about the extended netting to protect people from foul balls, and how it took away from the atmosphere that made Raley Field great. It’s Opening Night. Yet it felt like no one wanted to be in Triple-A.

Andrew Suarez was given the ball and would be making his second opening day start for the River Cats. Tacoma’s Eric Swanson, one of Seattle’s top prospects, would keep the Cats quiet with a strong start as the Rainiers took an early 2-0 lead. The crowd finally came alive when Carmichael native Zach Green hit a stand up triple in the bottom of the sixth, and then knocked in by Henry Ramos to finally put the Cats on the board. The Rainiers would add a run in the eighth, and the score was 3-1 Tacoma, going into the bottom of the ninth.

The Cats were down to their last three outs and the fans started to file out of the ballpark anticipating a loss, and in hopes of making a quick exit from the parking lot. Mike Yastrzemski had other plans. The Cats had two runners on when Yaz came up clutch with a double scoring Henry Ramos and Breyvic Valera; game tied. This would be the first time in River Cats history that Opening Night would go into extra innings.

This would also allow everyone to see the newly implemented “inherited runner”, better known in softball tournament play as the international tiebreaker rule. The object was to speed up extra inning games in Minor League Baseball by having a runner at second base at the start of each half inning. Having raised two daughters who spent over 20 combined years on softball fields, I was familiar with this rule. I found it to be exciting, and it proved to be just that on Opening Night.

The Rainiers would pull ahead to make it 4-3 in the top of the 11th and it felt like a punch to the gut; but the few remaining fans who stayed saw some exciting baseball in the bottom half of the inning. Henry Ramos would start the inning on second base, and Aramis Garcia knocked him in with a double to tie the game and bringing up Breyvic Valera. All eyes were on Valera, and the anticipation was high, but Valera stayed focused at the plate and hit a ball hard to the outfield.

Garcia, with the speed of a catcher, raced home and as the ball came in from the outfield, Garcia dove headlong into home scoring the winning run! The team rushed the field in celebration on what became an electrifying Opening Night! Little did we know that it would be the first sign of things to come.

I miss baseball and the 2019 River Cats season was a dream come true. Opening Day has come and gone without a single pitch in 2020. I miss the game, the players, the fans, and the friendships that develop over the course of a full season. Most of all I miss the stories that the game creates. We may be without baseball this year but it’s not gone forever. The memories remain, and the hope for the “next year” will always be alive. World Wars, strikes, and now the coronavirus have stopped baseball, yet the game endures.

Stay safe out there, and I hope to see you all at the ballpark this summer.