At the Baseball For All nationals in Rockford, Illinois, last month, a team of 14 young girls from Roxbury made their first-ever tournament appearance. The players represented the BASE, a program built to help young athletes “achieve their full potential both on and off the field,” and cheered for their teammates from the dugout.
“Rip, rip, rip! Get a hit, get a hit!”
The BASE lost the game I watched them play against the New York Wonders, as well as other games against the Boston Slammers, the Chicago Pioneers, and the Toronto Cardinals. The losses could have been expected; before February, most of the girls from Roxbury had never played baseball before. Or any other organized sport for that matter. Some team members were playing baseball for the very first time in their lives at the national tournament. They were there for the experience, an accomplishment in and of itself.
“We told them, ‘Let’s come here and see what it’s all about. Let’s put this under our belt and next year we’ll be more competitive,’” coach Lori Dipina said. Despite their struggles on the field, the girls never gave up on a single play. They stayed with every ball through bobbles, missed catches, and confusion over where to throw. When a player took her base after getting hit by a pitch, the dugout erupted into a chant, “We love free bases, we love free bases!”
Based in Egleston Square, the BASE provides year-round baseball and softball training to populations that have historically been underserved in the sports community. It’s hard to know how many girls of color, and black girls in particular, play baseball in the United States. In 2013, an estimated 4.5 million kids played US Little League baseball, perhaps the largest youth baseball league in the country. Asked about demographics, a spokesperson for US Little League said it does not keep relevant information on players. Meanwhile, statistics show that the African-American talent pool for Major League Baseball is in decline.
As for the gender divide, Baseball For All, a nonprofit that aims to support and grow the future of women’s baseball, estimates that more than 100,000 girls play youth baseball, though that number declines to around 1,000 by the time they reach high school age. At the highest level for that group, as far as diversity goes, on this year’s US women’s national baseball team roster, just two of the players are black (one of those players, Tamara Holmes, was injured before the tournament and pulled out).
The BASE location on the edge of Roxbury, a neighborhood that is approximately 60 percent black and 23 percent Latino, is helping to bridge the gap and bring baseball to communities that have been excluded from the sport. But that’s not all they do.
“It’s baseball, but it’s so much more than that,” says Dipina. “We also do college visits, so we take them to the [historically Black colleges and universities] during February vacation. … We have college fairs and career days, and we had the opportunity to take the girls to different businesses for internships or to shadow business leaders in the community.”
The BASE was founded in 2013 by noted community advocate Robert Lewis Jr. and boasts that the organization “builds on 30+ years of learning through the Boston Astros baseball program, which Mr. Lewis began in Boston’s Villa Victoria public housing in the 1970s.”
“The Boston Astros AAU [Amatuer Athletic Union] program … won numerous AAU and national championships in multiple age divisions throughout the years at a time when Black participation in baseball plummeted nationwide and Boston’s inner cities got zero recognition for producing quality baseball talent,” says Dart Adams, a Boston-based journalist and historian. Speaking of success stories like Manny Delcarmen, who played with the Red Sox, Adams adds, “Waves of youth have earned scholarships and some have even gone pro.”
BASE organizers launched their girls’ softball program in 2016. This is their first year with a girls’ baseball team, which participated in the Roxbury Rookie League this year—as the only all-girls team in the division.
Their introduction to the league was not ideal.
“They were acting like girls, making fun of us that we play baseball,” Katherin “Nicole” Rivera, an 11-year-old from Dorchester, says of the boys on the opposing teams.
Ava Morales, an 11-year-old from Hyde Park, said it was more than just taunts.
“Someone on one team, they tried to stop me from running,” she says. “He clapped [in my face] while I was running [down the line], but that didn’t distract me. I kept on running.”
One team was so rude, with players skipping to the bases, to the point that the umpire and then the league had to step in and say something. But the girls have not been deterred by the negativity.
“They actually put pressure on the boys; whenever they score, you can see them stressing,” says Alicia Cacho, mother to players Gwendolyn and Gricelda Castro. “Or they’ll say to each other, ‘These girls are good.’ They don’t expect them to do anything. They have a long way to go, of course, but they’re already doing so good.”
These girls say they love baseball, especially playing it together. Despite their lack of experience, Dipino says that when she contacted Dr. Justine Siegal, the founder of Baseball For All, to see if the girls could come to the national tournament, Siegal—who among other stripes was the first woman to coach in Major League Baseball—was incredibly encouraging.
This was Baseball For All’s fourth year hosting its national tournament. Once the opposing teams realized that the girls from the BASE lacked experience, they were supportive. After the game they played against New York, the Wonder’s coach came out onto the field to help BASE pitcher Ericka Dejesus with her throwing mechanics.
This encouragement is imperative; the majority of female players with the BASE are entering the sport at an age when most girls are being pushed out. The ones who participate past age 13, when they age out of their youth leagues, are usually the most talented—or simply the most determined. This group is the latter and still have time to turn themselves into the former. Having teammates who are girls can help make the decision easier, as their dugout is filled with friends who can relate to their experiences. It’s the same reason that all-girls teams are important in the male-dominated world of baseball.
In its role, the BASE financially sponsored the athletes so they could travel to the tournament and provided equipment and uniforms for all players as well. The support is critical, as reports have shown one of the biggest barriers to access in youth sports is the cost—particularly for Black and Latino families.
The team hopes to play in the Roxbury Rookie League again next season and to return to the Baseball For All tournament, too.
“I think it’s good to meet other girls who play baseball,” Gwendolyn Castro, a 13-year-old from Dorchester, said on her team’s trip to Illinois. “In Boston, we were one of the only girls’ teams that we ever saw who played baseball. It was nice to come here and see other girls from around the country and Canada who play.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. To see more reporting like this please consider making a contribution at givetobinj.org.