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MY TURN AT BAT

Playing with the Boys
By Jodi Ayres

 

You can't blame him; I certainly don't. He had no cruel intention, in fact just the opposite, when he asked me, an ambitious eighth grader, to meet him after school to discuss my plans to try out for the boys high school baseball team. He understood the struggles that would result from my desire to play, and in a school where athletics were an afterthought, it was rare to find a kid as obsessed with sports as was I. So he wanted to convince me to play on his softball team instead.

What he did not understand was that I was in love with the game of baseball, and it was a love that bred an unnatural disdain for the game of softball. Maybe it was a resentment I harbored from the not-so-subtle suggestions I received while playing Little League—that I might be more comfortable on the softball team. Or maybe it was the repetition of that dreaded conversation: "Do you play sports?" "Yeah, I play baseball." "You mean softball." "No I mean baseball." I hated softball with a passion. It was a conspiracy, a menacing force always lurking in the shadows trying to keep me from playing baseball. A perversion of the game I loved. The big ball, the underhand pitching, the small field—what was that? It surely was not the game I fell in love with that first day my dad took me to old Metropolitan Stadium, the game I dreamed about at night, the game I breathed in like oxygen, the game that renewed me every spring.

I think back to that conversation now and I have to laugh at how adamant I must have sounded as I tried desperately to explain to this man I admired that softball could never replace the game I loved. He told me everything I had been told a million times before: "At the next level the pitching will be too tough." "The boys will physically overwhelm you." "It's great you played Little League but in high school you will no longer be able to compete."

I listened to everything he said and responded as only an optimistic eighth grader could. In the end he laughed, not dismissively, but in a way that made me feel like he respected my intensity. From that moment on my fate was sealed: as long as I could compete, I could play on the boys high school baseball team.

I had more than a couple of factors working in my favor. First, I went to a small, new, relatively liberal school, so I did not have to confront a long-standing baseball tradition. Second, the year before, the baseball coach had recruited me to "manage" the team (being one of the few kids who could keep a scorecard), so I had already spent a season with the players handling all the stats and helping out in practice. The guys were used to having me around. Most important, I had played baseball essentially since I could walk. My father was a tireless supporter. He always seemed to have time to take me to the batting cages or to hit me grounders, and we watched countless games together dissecting strategy and glorying in the history and beauty of the sport.

I made the team as an eighth grader. I played sparingly at second base and batted ninth. I played well in the field but I don't remember ever getting a hit. The next year, however, I became the starting second baseman, and the season was like a dream come true. Everything in the baseball universe was going right—even my beloved Twins would go on to win the World Series that year. I reveled in both the practices and the games. The stares from the opposing teams only inspired me to prove myself. I was learning so much. For the first time I had a coach (other than my dad) who saw me as a ballplayer. He cultivated an atmosphere of respect and love for the game, and any player who shared those feelings had his utmost support. We soaked up his passion for baseball, so much so that after a long week of school and practice, we'd meet on Saturday mornings to chalk and tend the field. For the first time, I became close with my teammates. It was a wonderful feeling and my game improved, inspired by these newfound feelings of acceptance.

Looking back, I think the decision to have me bat leadoff my sophomore year was the most significant thing any coach had ever done for me. It was like a vote of confidence. Even the well-meaning coaches I had played for in the past all seemed slightly embarrassed by having the only girl in the league play on their teams. But Coach Groebner appeared to have no such qualms; I always felt respected on his team.

Offense had been the weakest part of my game, but through good coaching, I became a solid contact hitter. The decision to have me bat leadoff, though, reflected my ability to get on base. In a league where pitchers were not known for their control, I became something of a target when I stepped up to bat. No opposing pitcher wanted to be the one to give up a hit to a girl, so a disproportionate number of balls were thrown at me instead of over the plate. I took an absurd pleasure in this and challenged myself never to jump out of the box. It became a matter of pride for me and my teammates, something that was talked about at school. I wore the bruises like badges of honor. I'd come up to bat, dig in, and pretend to be much bigger and tougher than I actually was. (I'd be the first to admit that it's pretty ironic for a thoroughly unintimidating five-foot-five-inch white girl to walk up to the plate pretending to be Don Baylor—but if it works for you, you go with it.) When the pitch hit me, I'd jog to first feeling immensely proud of myself. As a result, my on-base percentage was relatively high, and I felt a growing confidence in my abilities to contribute at the plate.

Knee surgery sidelined me my junior year, so when the next season rolled around, I was more excited than ever to get back on the field. After the first week of practice, my teammates and coach chose me as captain of the team, and I felt like all the years of trying to prove my ability to play had finally paid off. It takes a very special group of sixteen-, seventeen-, and eighteen-year-old boys to ask a girl to lead their team, and I will always be grateful for their trust. Everything was set for my senior year to be the most satisfying of all.

As the games began, however, something changed. For some unknown reason, the looks and taunts that had once rung hollow began to resonate in an entirely new way. Even today I'm not sure why. Maybe it was that I was getting older and, having entered that precarious, unsettled stage of life where I was teetering on the edge of adulthood, found it harder to sustain that youthful confidence that I could do anything. Years before I had given up my childhood dream of becoming the first woman in the major leagues, and now with baseball about to end for me, I suddenly began to feel conspicuously different. I had been different all along, of course, but in the past I had taken pride in being the only girl on my teams—felt stronger for it. But that final season, those differences somehow became a source of concern rather than pride.

This new apprehension was painfully reinforced during one particular game. It would become the game that would end my love affair with the sport that had captivated me throughout my childhood. We were playing a school that was much better than us, one we secretly dreaded facing each season. This team had also been notoriously hard on me. Seemingly insulted by my presence, they did their best to try to intimidate me. In fact, this had become a kind of rallying point for my team, which took pride in the idea that although we were not the best team, we certainly had to be the most enlightened.

We were playing at home, so I started the game like every other, at second base. Immediately, I became aware that most of their team was focusing on me instead of the game. Even their on-deck batter seemed glued to my every move. I couldn't figure it out. It wasn't like these guys had never seen me play. Before the first at bat, I was already feeling unsettled. After we retired the side, I went up to bat as the leadoff hitter—and their pitcher walked off the mound laughing. It's not like I had never been laughed at before, but this time I began to lose my composure. He threw the first ball at my head. As I got up and brushed the dirt off of my uniform, I could hear his teammates laughing. I then proceeded to strike out on the next three pitches. (To this day I still remember the third pitch, a ridiculous attempt at a knuckleball that looked like a lumbering watermelon coming toward the plate. I swear I missed it by at least two feet.) The pitcher laughed again. I was so embarrassed that, for the first time as a player, I didn't want to go back on the field and prove them wrong; I just wanted to hide.

The next inning they began to hit us really hard. The pitcher made it to second on a double. Obviously pleased with himself, he started the negative banter I had grown accustomed to on the field. As what seemed like the longest at bat in the history of the game stretched on, his insults gained momentum. "I finally figured it out," he said. "If you were a dyke, you'd be playing softball—so you must like it with all the guys. Why else would they keep you around? You sure as hell can't hit. You must be given' em all blowjobs in the back of the bus. I guess I'd let you suck my dick " Thankfully, the batter got a hit to score the pitcher, and I momentarily regained my solitude.

After the inning, however, the pitcher must have shared his "revelation" with the rest of his team, because when I next came up to bat, things really turned ugly. I was suddenly aware of every word and glare. The backup players started a chorus of taunts and sexual comments, most of which began where the pitcher had left off. I stepped out of the batter's box and looked at their sideline. I saw their faces distort and a smirk spread across their coach's face. I couldn't believe he wasn't doing anything. When I stepped back in to again face the pitcher, the comments began to crescendo until the umpire straightened up from his crouch and called time.

"Sexual harassment is against Minnesota high school league rules. The next comment I hear, I'm calling the game." I struck out for a second time.

As soon as I got back to our bench, my teammates, confused by the umpire's statement, asked me what had happened, but I couldn't speak. I had done what I vowed never to do on a baseball field: I had started to cry. I quickly ran out to my position at second, but with every base runner my fear returned. For the first time, I couldn't block out their comments. I heard every word, saw every glare, and every comment ever uttered to me on the baseball field began to echo in my ears. Mercifully, the game was called on account of the "ten run rule," though not before I had struck out one more time. As I gathered up my equipment, the opposing catcher walked up to me. "For what it's worth, they're just a bunch of assholes. I always thought it was kinda cool that you played." His words restored some of my faith in humanity, but from that game on, I felt a new kind of fear on the baseball diamond.

As I left the field, my coach pulled me aside to ask what had happened, but I couldn't tell him. I was too embarrassed and didn't want him to think I was making an excuse for playing so poorly.

I'm not sure what my teammates thought about that game; we didn't talk about it. I changed my clothes quickly and left before they finished dressing, abandoning our ritual where I'd wait for them to finish and then enter the boys locker room so we could all talk about the game and walk out together as a team. I drove home alone, replaying the game in my head, feeling humiliated and angry at myself.

I didn't want to go back on the field, but I also didn't want to have to explain myself if I quit, so I finished out the season. Sometimes in practice, surrounded by the coach and teammates I so respected, I could feel my love for the game returning, but more often than not, I felt a deep sense of dread. Baseball was no longer the reprieve it had been throughout my childhood. I was nervous before every game and, for the first time, unsure of my right to be on the field. So I withdrew. My coach noted the change and tried to reach out to me, but I couldn't articulate what was happening. I wasn't sure what was going on myself, and to acknowledge what I was thinking would have contradicted everything I had fought for in wanting to be recognized as a ballplayer. I was not about to be the one to now say I was different.

By the end of my high school career, I had received three varsity letters, been voted captain, and named MVP my senior year. I had gained the respect of my teammates and my school and played for a remarkable coach, yet baseball was now dead for me.

After high school, I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and proceeded to eliminate any visible presence of baseball from my new existence, thus denying what had been the driving force for the first eighteen years of my life. I found friends who viewed sports with only a peripheral condescension. In 1991, when the Twins went to the World Series again, I sat alone in my apartment and secretly watched the games. I would never have admitted to anyone that I cared about the outcome. When my dad sent me a newspaper clipping about a girl who received a college scholarship to play baseball, I carried it in my wallet for three years. But I never told anyone that I had played, that I had once thought I would be that girl.

With the passage of time, the need to reject that part of my life seemed to fade. Some of the bitterness went away, and I began to see the things the game had given me. I met some wonderful friends with whom I could talk with less embarrassment about my experience playing baseball. Then one day, a couple of my friends took me to a Northern League exhibition game between the Madison Black Wolf and the St. Paul Saints. Working out right in front of our seats along the first base line was a woman in a Saints uniform. I was transfixed, but secretly hoped that Ila Borders wouldn't be called on to pitch that day. When she did get the call in the middle innings, I was filled with anxiety. I listened intensely to the murmuring crowd. She pitched well for two innings, and in a bizarre way I felt vindicated. I followed the Northern League closely for the rest of the season and felt my passion for baseball returning. I couldn't help checking the box scores when I got to work each day. It was like finding an old photo album that one has kept hidden away: it's hard to open, but once you do, the memories inside make you feel more complete.

I believe that baseball, at its essence, is a beautiful, subtle, and intricate game, but it is also a sport that reflects our ideas as a culture. Our prejudices and shortcomings seep into the fabric of the game and taint our experiences as players and as fans. But sometimes baseball can transcend those things, and with that hope I have slowly found my way back to the game I love.

—EFQ

JODI AYRES recently returned to the Twin Cities where she works for the University of Minnesota libraries. Although the Twins continue to embarrass, she is proud to be back in the area that gave birth to the Northern League and pioneering ballplayer Toni Stone of St. Paul.

© 2000 Jodi Ayres

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