Even as athletic opportunities for girls have increased, an unwritten custom endures: baseball for boys, softball for girls. MLB is working to change that. (Xavier Plater / Baltimore Sun video)
Like other girls who grew up playing baseball on teams composed almost entirely of boys, Isabella Siren became accustomed to the ever-present gaze of spectators and opposing players.
It was a tradeoff. The Bryn Mawr School graduate got to play the sport she adores, but had to do it as an anomaly in a boy’s world — a sport in which girls remain nearly as rare as triple plays.
Even as athletic opportunities for girls have mushroomed since the 1970s, an unwritten custom endures: baseball for boys, softball for girls.
“We see a lot of girls who want to continue to play after they’re 12 or so, but they’re told softball is their only option,” said Elizabeth Benn, coordinator of labor, diversity and youth programs for Major League Baseball.
This month, Benn is helping run a developmental camp in Vero Beach, Fla., for about 65 girls — including three Marylanders — who have defied convention by continuing to play baseball into their teens. Sometimes, that means unwelcome stares or sitting on the bench behind boys.
Siren, 18, attended the inaugural camp last year and said it was a revelation.
“It was just nice being in an environment where other young women were there and I would say, ‘Wow, that’s my exact story,’ ” Siren said. “It was being able to play a sport I love without it being a huge deal that I’m a baseball player who happens to be a girl. It wasn’t, ‘All eyes are on me and there is pressure to be amazing.’ ”
Siren just returned to the Girls Baseball Breakthrough Series for a second year — the four-day camp ends Tuesday — at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex, which was formerly part of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ spring training base. The camp, which includes games and coaching from current and former members of the United States women's national baseball team, is run jointly with USA Baseball.
Among those selected to join her were Skylar Kaplan, 17, of Glen Burnie, who has played junior-varsity baseball; and Rebecca Stern, 17, of Cabin John, who plays on the varsity at Georgetown Day School in Washington.
Each has stubbornly resisted the lure of softball. While boys can receive college baseball scholarships, girls need to switch to softball to vie for the same opportunities.
But softball doesn’t feel quite the same. It uses a smaller field, larger ball, underhand pitching and has fewer innings.
“It’s the whole field being smaller and leads being different,” said Stern, who said she still loves baseball even though she didn’t get much playing time last season as the only girl on Georgetown Day’s varsity. “All of those little things are different. I’d have to get used to a different bat and a different ball.”
Kaplan isn’t switching either. “Personally, I don’t like softball at all. I just like baseball,” she said.
Siren is taking another route. After playing baseball at various levels, she was on the varsity softball team at the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore last season and plans to play softball as a freshman at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. Division III schools such as Chatham don’t offer athletic scholarships.
“I realized I was getting older and, as much as I wanted to play baseball in college, that’s very difficult,” Siren said.
Siren said she likes both sports equally, but concedes: “I think I’ll always have a special place in my heart for baseball. It’s what I grew up playing.”
While millions of boys play organized baseball, the number of girls participating has been estimated at 100,000, according to the nonprofit organization Baseball for All. The group says only about 1,000 girls continue to play into high school.
The girls who stick it out — who return year after year — often become “mentally tough,” Benn said.
“The majority have been told they shouldn’t be there and they should switch,” she said. “If they’re on a boys team and they make an error, they know people are saying it’s because they’re a girl and not because it’s baseball and people make errors.”
Charlie Martin, 10, began playing T-ball when she was 4 and still plays baseball in the Towson recreational league – the only girl on her team, the Yankees.
“She’s going to experience things other people won’t, and we view that as a positive,” said her father Marc Martin, principal of the Commodore John Rodgers School.
At a recent postseason game, Charlie — her real name, not a nickname — batted leadoff for her team, and was among the tallest players on the field.
“Ready to beat this team?” she said cheerfully to a teammate before taking the field, a long, brown ponytail dangling from her cap.
“At the first practice, even my own team will be like, ‘Oh wow, I saw there was this Charlie on the team, but I thought it was a boy,’ ” she said. “You can feel the eyes on me when I run out to the field and you can see my ponytail. But then — after that — they realize that I can play baseball, too.”
Girls join teams as early as age 4, and often stick with the sport for several years or more. In most leagues, few are left by the time they hit middle school age. By then, some feel socially awkward or physically intimidated playing with boys.
Charlie, who is soft-spoken but poised, said she’ll keep playing “as long as I possibly can.”
Little League, the nation's largest youth sports organization, began allowing girls in 1974. They had been sued over a prohibition against girls — the National Organization for Women helped lead the fight — and lost in court. Little League offers softball teams exclusively for girls. Girls are also welcome to join Little League baseball teams, but form a distinct minority.
Benn said MLB is trying to find more opportunities for girls to play the sport.
“New York and San Francisco have leagues for girls affiliated with the RBI league,” said Benn, referring to an MLB program bringing baseball and softball to underserved communities. “More local opportunities to play would be fantastic for those girls. We want to make sure girls have the option to play whatever sport they want to.”