A First-Hand Look at MLB’s Trailblazer Series

This is a guest post from Jen Mac Ramos, assistant general manager of the Sonoma Stompers. You can find Jen on Twitter.

The MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton, California, is tucked away in a small corner of the Compton campus of El Camino Community College. Early on a Friday, the field is being prepared for a day-and-a-half’s worth of baseball games and instruction. As the buses roll up to the field, out pour about 100 young girls under the age of 16 and their coaches, many of whom are members of Team USA’s women’s national baseball team. Their excitement mounts as they view for the first time their home for the next two days, where their love for the game will be on full display

This is the Trailblazer Series, the first-of-its-kind girls baseball tournament in the United States, showcasing young female ballplayers from the States, D.C., and Canada. Featuring guest speakers such as Kim Ng, the senior vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball and the highest ranking Asian-American woman baseball executive, the tournament is meant to inspire young girls to pursue their dreams of playing baseball and give them the confidence to achieve other goals.

I drove down from Northern California’s Wine Country as the Sonoma Stompers’ representative at the tournament. The Stompers have made waves before, having added the first professional openly gay baseball player, Sean Conroy, to its roster in 2015 and three women — Anna Kimbrell, Stacy Piagno, and Kelsie Whitmore — to the team in 2016. (Kimbrell and Piagno, the latter of whom will be returning to the Stompers in 2017, also served as coaches at the Trailblazer Series.)

The tournament is meant to serve as a way to provide resources and opportunities for these young girls to play baseball, something that didn’t necessarily exist before. The tournament, this time around, culminated in a pre-game ceremony honoring the girls and the unveiling of a Jackie Robinson statue at Dodger Stadium on Jackie Robinson Day. The idea: that Jackie Robinson is the original baseball trailblazer, paving a way for racial integration in Major League Baseball, and that these girls are modern day trailblazers and should be honored as such.

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To set the tone for the weekend, the theme was, naturally, being a trailblazer and making paths for young girls to realize that their dreams can come true.

At the tournament, two members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) — Shirley “Hustle” Burkovich and Maybelle “May” Blair — made appearances. Burkovich played in the AAGPBL from 1949 to 1951 on teams such as the Rockford Peaches and the Springfield Sallies, while Blair played in 1948 for the Peoria Redwings. Both are members of the AAGPBL Players Association and advocate for the inclusion of women in baseball. As such, Burkovich (now 84) and Blair (90) threw out the ceremonial first pitches of the tournament — a metaphorical passing of the torch, if you will.

I was introduced to Burkovich, who was delighted that there was a woman in a front-office role in professional baseball.

“I’m dedicated to helping these girls find their way into baseball somehow,” I told her. “I want to give these young girls inspiration that they can do all of this.”

“That’s why we’re here,” Shirley said. “To give these girls hope.”

As for the girls on the field, they’re good and and they deserve all the chances in the world. Nasty curveballs, accurate pick off throws to first, great fundamentals on the field and at the plate. They’re just as good as all the boys, if not better. They’re barely teenagers and throwing 66 mph. Batters are whiffing just at the deceptiveness of the fastball’s movement.

Even more, you can see the smiles on these girls’ faces whether they hit a double or pop out to shallow right-center. They’re happy to be playing the game they love and that they’re being recognized for that at this tournament.

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In her book Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball, author Jennifer Ring relates an anecdote about the pushback she and her daughter received when her daughter wanted to continue playing baseball as a teenager. Oftentimes, girls are encouraged to play softball because, well, that’s what girls play and that’s how it is. It’s not the same sport, though, and it’s not the same rules — let alone the differences in the size of the ball or the diamond on which the games are played.

There are girls who play baseball and girls who play softball. The girls who play baseball should be given a chance to play the game to which they’re devoted and not forced off into another sport because of their gender. Skill, and not outdated social standards, should be the only criterion by which these young women are judged. Perhaps this tournament signifies a change in society, a recognition that, hey, maybe this progress should be made.

I talked to the father of one of the girls at the tournament after the games ended and all the girls were gathering for lunch. I told him I was the AGM of a professional baseball team that has women on it.

“We’re a co-ed professional team,” I said.

“A co-ed team?” You could hear the hope in his voice, that his daughter now has this opportunity that wasn’t possible before.

I gave him my business card.

“If your daughter ever wanted to go pro, or get into a front-office operations role, or whatever, please feel free to reach out to me,” I offered.

He was flabbergasted and got choked up.

“Inclusion,” he said. “This inclusion is important. I can’t even begin to thank you enough.”

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Major League Baseball has referred to this Trailblazer Series the “first annual” one. I’m hoping that’s the case — if not only as a way to break down these barriers, but just to see these girls having the time of their lives. There’s so much importance in the tournament’s existence, from these girls having opportunities to show what they can do to the pure joy that the game brings to people. And we, as baseball fans, players, executives, and so forth, shouldn’t forget that.





Jen is a freelance writer. Read all of their writing on their website, and follow them on Twitter @jenmacramos.

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Right on. I always find it weird how some sports modify the nature of the game for women for no apparent reason, like softball and baseball.

I grew up in the Northeast lacrosse corridor and womens’ lacrosse is another example of a game that is heavily modified to the point of almost being a different game. We were always friendly with our corresponding female teams and several of them told me they wished they could play under mens’ rules. Good for MLB for helping facilitate an opportunity for the girls to play the game they want to play.

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AlexTheGreat

I generally agree with your statement, but I believe softball was developed to have a version of baseball that could be played indoors.

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Yeah, no idea about the origins of softball, and of course, there are plenty of adult men’s softball leagues or mixed gender softball leagues. It is still the case that most high schools and colleges only offer softball to girls and baseball to boys, though.