In a league of her own
13-year-old pitcher uses fastball and knuckleball to dominate boys
E:60 Chelsea Baker
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.
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.
Women in baseball
Some notable women baseball players in recent years:
The 18-year-old became the first female drafted by a Japanese professional team, Kobe 9 Cruise of the Kansai Independent Baseball League. She is in the United States to pitch in the independent Arizona Winter League.
She played first base for St. Mary's College of Maryland in March 1989, handling six chances at first base and going hitless in three at-bats. After playing three seasons and hitting .171, she quit the team because of harassment by team members.
She is the first woman to pitch in a college baseball game. In 1990, she pitched during her freshman year at NAIA Saint Vincent's College (Latrobe, Pa.). In 1995, she pitched for Meiji University in the Tokyo Big6 Baseball League, Japan's oldest and most competitive college league.
The left-hander pitched as a freshman on partial scholarship (the first woman to receive one for baseball) in 1994 for NAIA Southern California College (Costa Mesa, Calif.). That season, she defeated Claremont-Mudd 12-1 in the first complete game by a woman. On July 9, 1998, Borders became one of the first women to start a minor league game when she took the mound for the Duluth-Superior Dukes in an 8-3 loss to the Sioux Falls Canaries in the Northern League.
The daughter of former Chicago White Sox general manager Ron Schueler was the first woman player drafted by a Major League Baseball team and was selected as the club's 43rd-round pick in 1993.
"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.
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.
"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."