Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Where the girls are: Ex-Clevelander pursues MLB batting practice 'dream'

Once in a while, we contributors to Cleveland Sports Torture emerge Gollum-like from our pit of self loathing to deliver a positive and inspiring Cleveland-related story. Indeed, sometimes the people on the fringes of sport are more compelling than the “famous” athletes we pay good money to watch. This is one of those moments:

Justine Siegal is making a habit out of breaking glass ceilings. In the summer of 2009, the Cleveland Heights native helmed first base for the CanAm League’s Brockton Rox to become professional baseball’s first female coach. The experience only lasted two months, but it powered her already strong belief that girls and young women belong on the baseball diamond.

Next week will mark another “first” for both Siegal and women’s baseball when the ex-pitcher throws batting practice for the Cleveland Indians.

Siegal’s initial outing will be on Feb. 21 when she tosses to some Tribe minor leaguers with the chance to throw to the big boys later in the day. The lifelong Indians fan, who is scheduled to pitch BP later that week to the Oakland Athletics, has been preparing for the excursion through strength training and throwing to players on a number of college teams. She is also blogging about the experience, which you can follow here.

Justine Siegal will throw BP to the Tribe next week.
In Sept. 2009, I interviewed Siegal for an article about her season with the Rox, where she was brought in by Mike Veeck; son of former Indians’ owner Bill Veeck.
Despite such practical issues as where she would dress, Siegal got along with her young male charges, she said. She remembered nervously meeting a player who told he’d never before had a female coach.

“That’ll be cool,” the player declared, much to Siegal’s relief.

Her short time on “man’s hallowed ground” wasn’t all pleasant. The athletically built coach, who would tuck her long, dirty-blond hair into her cap during games, was razzed by the occasional wiseass fan, including one budding comic who asked if she was wearing a cup. Navigating the locker-room became an issue as well, and Siegal was eventually relegated to a bathroom to change.

Still, the good memories of young girls and boys asking for her autograph overshadow those uncomfortable moments, she maintains. After all, people looking at her slantwise for wanting to play baseball were nothing new.

As a teenager, Siegal encountered more than one coach who told her that she would be better off playing softball. Undeterred, she ended up playing baseball in New Hampshire, and returned to Cleveland to compete in summer leagues. Siegal’s playing career effectively ended when she hurt her arm trying out for the now defunct Colorado Silver Bullets professional women’s team.

Siegal, now in her mid-30s, unabashedly declares her “love for the game” and gains inspiration from such eclectic sources as Susan Boyle’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” and the words of Eleanor Roosevelt. Among her post-playing days pursuits is Baseball for All, an organization she founded that provides instruction for both female and male players. An all girls team she coaches has played in tournaments in Venezuela and Japan.

In an age of mercenary free agents, rampant lockout talks and a generally morose Cleveland sports’ scene, it’s cool to see someone pursue her passion so purely in an attempt to buck the odds.

Good luck, Justine!