TORONTO (AP) — Women’s baseball made history Monday at the Pan Am Games, the first time it’s been played in a large, multi-sport event.
There was no live television coverage at the debut, and perhaps only 200 fans saw the first pitch as American left hander Sarah Hudek threw a ball just off the plate to open the game against leadoff hitter Astrid Rodriguez of Venezuela.
“To be here, this is awesome. This is it,” said American player Malaika Underwood. “It doesn’t matter that we’re not on TV. I mean the fact we are out here is the point. When we look back at this, I think we’ll appreciate the magnitude.”
For the record, the United States defeated Venezuela 10-6 in a regulation seven innings.
Pardon a joke the women have heard many times, but none of the players threw like a girl, and none wore a skirt, which was the uniform in the 1992 film “A League of their own,” a depiction of women’s professional baseball in the United States in the 1940s starring Tom Hanks, Geena Davis and Madonna.
“I’m glad we don’t wear skirts,” said Underwood a 34-year-old infielder and a veteran on a team ranging in age from 16 to 41. “I’m not sure I would feel comfortable playing in a skirt. Sliding, it would be tough.”
The field and the distances are identical in the men’s and women’s games. The only difference is seven innings for the women, and nine for the men.
The first three innings took more than an hour to play, so the speed also resembled some men’s games.
Hudek said her father, former major-league reliever John Hudek, probably couldn’t hit her heat.
“He wasn’t the best hitter,” she said.
In the second inning, Venezuela nearly pulled off a triple play.
The United States had runners on first and second, and American Anna Kimbrell hit a sharp hopper to third. Venezuela’s Daily Gimenez touched third, got the force and second, but Kimbrell beat the relay to first by a step.
The Americans are represented by a firefighter, a nurse, two high-school students and a wide mix of players, most of whom grew up playing baseball. Some also played softball, but Underwood guessed about two-thirds played only baseball — on women’s teams, or men’s teams.
The United States has no professional league for women, although Japan and several other countries do.
“I just want to get women’s baseball more out there and open the doors for younger women knowing they don’t have to convert to softball if they don’t want to,” Hudek, adding the response is always the same when she says she plays baseball.
“They try to correct me. They say: ‘Oh, you mean softball’.”
She replies: “No, baseball. I hope one day we can get to where people don’t correct us.”
Hudek will be a freshman this year on the men’s team at Bossier Parish Community College in Louisiana.
“This is going to be a new atmosphere and it’s definitely a little nerve-wracking,” she said. “I’m just going to have to earn their respect.”
Underwood grew up in San Diego, California, played baseball on the boys’ team at La Jolla High School and earned a volleyball scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Baseball was not an option.
“Growing up a kid I definitely dreamed about being the first woman in the pro leagues,” Underwood said. “I think at some point I realized that was unlikely.”
Women’s baseball has been in the news the last few weeks. French player Melissa Mayeux, a 16-year-old shortstop, recently became the first woman on Major League Baseball’s international registration list, making her eligible to be signed by pro teams.
Men’s baseball and women’s softball were cut from the Olympics after the 2008 Games in Beijing. Both might return for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, although women’s baseball would be a long shot.
“I don’t think anybody on this team has aspirations to make it to Major League Baseball,” said Underwood, who works in sports marketing. “Really, we just want to play at the highest level for women. We’re not looking to play with guys, but those are the opportunities at the moment. We’re just looking for equal treatment and inclusion in events like this.”