Commentary

In a league of her own

13-year-old pitcher uses fastball and knuckleball to dominate boys

Updated: July 20, 2010, 7:25 PM ET
By Ben Houser | E:60

PLANT CITY, Fla. -- She registered another perfect pitching record this year, 12-0, for her Little League team.

She threw her second perfect game -- and predicted this one just hours before she did it.

Her fastball hits the mid-60s, and she can send opponents to the bench in tears, embarrassing them with a knuckleball she learned from former major league knuckleball legend Joe Niekro.

Meet Chelsea Baker, a girl pitcher in a boys' league.

[+] EnlargeChelsea Baker
J. EdwardsChelsea Baker says she uses the negative comments she hears from opposing players and their parents as motivation.

Heads are turning in Plant City, where Chelsea hasn't lost a sanctioned Little League game in four seasons.

Although it is a little early to call the 13-year-old the next big thing in baseball, she's a sought-after pitcher who has the attention of respected talent evaluators, including former Boston Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette. They see grand possibilities in her developing knuckleball, already-hopping fastball and strong hitting skills that sparked a .604 batting average this past season.

"She is definitely one-of-a-kind," said Keith Maxwell, one of her coaches and a former minor leaguer who coaches Little Leaguers across several states. "I've had an opportunity to play with some girls coming up in Little League, and they were actually pretty good ballplayers. Some of them actually made all-star teams and that kind of stuff. Chelsea is on a whole different planet compared to them.

"Chelsea Baker is by far the best female 13-year-old girl [baseball player] in the United States. She is the best I've ever seen in my life hands down. The sky is the limit."

Baseball until she no longer wins

It's baseball, and it will be that way so long as Chelsea has a say.

"I don't like to play softball," she said.

Opponents' parents often remark about Chelsea -- not always quietly or kindly.

The most common: "'Go play softball with the girls' -- we get that a lot, and we have gotten that a lot over the last three years," her mother, Missy Mason Baker, said. "'When is she going to move to softball?' At some point, maybe she might have to go play softball, but right now as good as she is doing and she is able to keep up … and that is her goal, I am going to stand behind her and let her continue playing baseball as long as possible."

"She tried softball," said Rod Mason, her stepfather and coach. "She doesn't like it, so baseball is her deal."

His thoughts about when softball may enter the picture: "When she can't strike out little Johnny no more."

Such talk does not affect her, Chelsea said; it just motivates her.

"I think they say stuff like that because they are jealous," she said.

Chelsea's Little League teams are 95-8-2 the past four years with three city championships, one city championship runner-up, two tournament of champions titles and two District IV championships. She struck out 127 batters in 60 innings this year.

"After I usually strike somebody out with a knuckleball, they sometimes start crying back to the dugout, and a lot of them just like open their mouth like they can't believe it," she said.

"There's no crying in baseball, right?" said Duquette, the former Red Sox executive. "It's embarrassing to strike out anytime, but I'm sure for young boys it's probably more embarrassing to be struck out by a girl."

Corey Blanchette, a player on a team of all-stars from Pittsfield, Mass., laughed after recently becoming a victim.

"She got me on the two fastballs, and I didn't know she had a knuckle curve, and then the knuckle came in and it was just so dirty [good] I didn't know what to say," he said.

Learning from the best

Chelsea doesn't only play against boys, and baseball is not her only passion. The 5-4, 117-pound all-star loves to swim, play Xbox, draw graffiti art and play with her two English bulldogs, Harley and Bandit. She is a member of the National Junior Honor Society at Turkey Creek Middle School.

In July, she was invited to play with an all-girls team at Duquette's sports academy in Hinsdale, Mass. The girls' camp, "Baseball for All," is a program conceived by the first woman to coach professional men's baseball, Justine Siegal. In 2009, Siegal became the first-base coach for the Brockton Rox in the minor leagues. She still plays baseball and is now an assistant coach at Springfield College.

"I had such a difficult time playing baseball with the boys, being constantly told that girls shouldn't play and despite my ability to do so. I wanted to give girls the opportunity to play baseball, to meet other girls and to know that they are not alone in their passion for the game," Siegal said. "I had a lot of challenges playing, a lot of coaches telling me I was not allowed to try out, not allowed to play, so they sat me. I wanted to give girls something better; I wanted to build a better future."

Siegal heard about Chelsea after she pitched her first perfect game in 2009 -- in an all-star game -- and local media picked up the story.

"I immediately knew that this was a girl that I wanted on my team," Siegal said.

She contacted Chelsea's parents, recruiting her to play on her national team, the Sparks, a team that includes the 13 best young female baseball players in the country.

"It's kind of different playing with girls, but I think it's cool that there's also other girls besides me that's playing baseball," Chelsea said.

Duquette was eager to see Chelsea play in person.

He watched Chelsea pitch an exhibition game July 2 against a powerhouse boys' Little League all-star team from Pittsfield, Mass. Against the team Duquette said was "full of ringers," she pitched 3 1/3 innings, striking out six but giving up a three-run home run.

"Chelsea has a good delivery. I saw that she throws downhill, and I also say that she has good life on her fastball and she's a good competitor," Duquette said. "She was only able to throw the knuckleball a few times today because it wasn't really working, but I can see that she has a real passion for the game."

Chelsea learned the knuckleball from one of the best: former major leaguer Joe Niekro, who died shortly after he taught her how to throw it. She met him in 2005 when she was a player on a baseball team he coached.

"I'm so happy that Joe's memory is living on; his legacy is continuing through Chelsea Baker learning how to throw the knuckleball," Duquette said. "The key for her will be commanding her knuckleball pitch and getting it in the strike zone consistently."

Breaking down barriers

All agree that consistency will be key for Chelsea.

[+] EnlargeBaker
Courtesy of Christina Houser PhotographyPitcher Chelsea Baker, Sparks coach Justine Siegal, center, and Ny Ramirez, left, discuss strategy during a game this summer. The Sparks are a national all-star team of girl baseball players.

But maybe just as important will be how she handles navigating the traditional boys' game as she moves forward and how the traditional boys' game treats her.

"It's unfortunate that boys feel so much pressure to perform well against the girls," Siegal said. "I know that Chelsea would like to be seen as a player, not just a girl playing baseball. And in our society, we have this myth that girls are weak and boys are strong. Chelsea's debunking that myth. And as soon as girls and boys realize that they can play the game together -- the whole game -- baseball, the greatest game on Earth, will become a better game for everyone."

Lance Niekro, Joe's son, played in the major leagues with the San Francisco Giants for four seasons. He watched Chelsea pitch in her regular-season finale in a pitching duel against his younger brother, J.J. Niekro.

"Who are we to say that she can't play baseball?" Lance Niekro said. "There's no rule that states that. So as long as she's doing well and people want her on their team, I don't see why she shouldn't be allowed to play. If parents have something to say [about a girl playing baseball], then maybe that's the parent whose kid is striking out against Chelsea.

"With the success that Chelsea has had now, throwing a couple of perfect games … boys will learn not to make fun of her."

Siegal said that negative remarks are only now beginning for Chelsea and her family.

"Once you start playing in high school, the sexual jeers get more intense," said Siegal, who pitched and played shortstop on a high school boys' baseball team in the 1990s. "As a pitcher, I had a lot of sexual comments directed towards me that are not PG for ESPN. But as a pitcher, a female, who wants to succeed at the game, you have to be able to hear those words and then ignore them and continue your game.

"Chelsea's doing a great job with the taunts as a 13-year-old, and she'll have to do even better and continue to focus as she gets older with the high school level as the taunts get more intense."

Duquette seems to think that being a female won't be a factor in how far Chelsea is able to go in her baseball career.

"People will recognize Chelsea Baker, and they'll promote her based on her skill," he said. "Her gender won't really matter to anybody if she develops the skills. She'll find the opportunity.

"I know that there are some physical limitations that will not allow the girls to compete with the boys on higher levels, but if Chelsea Baker can perfect her knuckleball, she has a chance. The knuckleball is a great equalizer, and that would give her an out pitch, where she could get hitters out, irrespective of their sex and irrespective of their level."

As Chelsea heads into eighth grade next year, she is already thinking about high school. She plans to try out for the high school boys' baseball team.

Plant City high school baseball coach Mark Persails, who played for 12 years with Detroit Tigers and Houston Astros, is looking forward to her coming of age.

[+] EnlargeChelsea Baker
Courtesy of Christina Houser PhotographyChelsea Baker doesn't solely play with and against boys. This summer, she played for the Sparks, a girls' national team.

"Please come out!" he said. "Seeing her in little leagues, she competes and is very successful. Of course I want someone who is that successful. I want her on the high school team."

Persails said he has no reservations about a girl playing on a boys' team, only that he would have to figure out the locker room situation.

"She should have the same opportunity everybody else has, and she might be able to help me keep my job," he said.

Chelsea said she ultimately hopes to play baseball in college and, someday, professionally.

It isn't unprecedented. Japanese knuckleball pitcher Eri Yoshida is pitching in an independent California professional league. Yoshida is the first woman to pitch professionally in the United States in a decade.

Chelsea has noticed: "That's pretty cool that there's a girl that's playing professional baseball."

Duquette thinks the day is coming when a female will pitch in the major leagues.

"I think it would be a terrific human-interest story, and I think with the girls doing weight training, the breakthrough in nutrition, their capability to train on a year-round basis and to develop these fine skills, all those opportunities are there," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised to see that."

Ben Houser is a senior producer for "E:60."

Ben Houser is a Senior Producer for ESPN's E:60.