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A woman's touch

Throwing batting practice in the majors puts this pitching pioneer in a league of her own

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By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / March 2, 2011

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PHOENIX — Peering out at pigtails, Oakland A’s outfielder Coco Crisp playfully made a face at Justine Siegal, who is believed to be the first woman to pitch batting practice to a major league team.

“Better not hit me,’’ he joked. “I’ll charge the mound.’’

Had he done so, Siegal probably would have killed him with kindness.

“That’s how I react to adversity,’’ said the 36-year-old righthander from Springfield, Mass. “I’ve been fighting my whole life.’’

So she decided to toss batting practice — not for the publicity, but to nudge open closed doors.

“So when I throw, all of a sudden we have a dialogue about how much girls and women love baseball, and how they want to be a part of it,’’ she said.

She’s been very successful.

Siegal became the first female coach in organized professional baseball with the Brockton Rox in 2009. For three years, she was the only woman coaching men’s college baseball (at Springfield College, where she is completing her PhD in Sport and Exercise Psychology). She is the founder of Baseball For All, which advocates for baseball opportunities for girls and women.But all of that was irrelevant to Crisp, who tapped his bat on home plate, peered out at the 145-pound Siegal, and hollered, “Come on, ponytails. Bring it to me.’’

Dipping into a crate full of shiny major league baseballs, Siegel, who slept in her A’s uniform jersey the night before, took a deep breath and threw a four-seam fastball over the top from behind a screen 50 feet away.

She was a tad wild at the outset.

“You walked me and I’m stealing,’’ taunted Crisp.

But she soon found her rhythm and fired strike after strike to a small group of A’s starters. When Crisp popped up on his last swing, he flipped his bat in the air and caught it.

“What are you doing?’’ he yelled at his Louisville Slugger. “It’s your fault.’’

Afterward, Crisp was full of praise for Siegal, whose lifelong dream became a reality last week when she pitched BP first to the Cleveland Indians and then the A’s.

“She puts it right in there,’’ said Crisp. “She did really well. I’d take BP off her every day.’’

Pitching her dream Siegal’s quest to pitch started in Cleveland Heights nearly 20 years ago when she was a 17-year-old Indians fan. Her grandfather had seats above the dugout at Municipal Stadium, and Siegal wanted to be the next Orel Hershiser.

“It turned out I wasn’t quite good enough, so my next goal was to be a batting practice pitcher,’’ she said.

Last November, Siegel wrote letters to every general manager in Major League Baseball. She received one polite rejection.

So she went to the winter meetings in Orlando, Fla., and staked out the hotel lobby. Siegal approached Red Sox manager Terry Francona.

“I ambushed him in the lobby,’’ she said with a smile.

Francona, used to the quirky passions of Red Sox Nation, quickly dismissed the notion of her pitching BP.

“No, no, no, we already have people,’’ he told her.

But Siegal pushed her credentials, and Francona changed his tune.

“He starts apologizing profusely, and says, ‘Yeah we could do this,’ ’’ she said.

But Siegal said a subsequent e-mail to Francona bounced back to her.

“I don’t blame him,’’ she said with a laugh. “Some woman comes up to him with a beer in her hand at 1 a.m. . . .’’

Eventually, Oakland GM Billy Beane and Indians GM Chris Antonetti invited her to toss BP in Arizona. The Indians scheduled her first.

“We wanted her dream to come true,’’ said Antonetti. “She has demonstrated her passion and commitment to baseball.’’

The Tribe wanted her to throw to the minor leaguers first just to make sure she had the right stuff.

So on Feb. 21 Siegal arrived three hours early at the Indians complex in Goodyear. In the parking lot, she napped in a rented Volkswagen bug with her daughter, Jasmine, 13. Jasmine’s dreams don’t include baseball, but her ceiling has no limits thanks to her mother’s mantra. When Siegal signs an autograph, she writes, “Follow your dreams.’’

Siegal was ushered into the umpires’ dressing room by an Indians official. That was appreciated, but not necessary, she said.

“I’m actually capable of changing in front of a whole busload of men,’’ she said with a giggle.

Once inside, she saw a No. 15 Indians jersey — her daughter’s birthday in February — on a hanger in the locker.

“That made it very real and I couldn’t stop smiling,’’ she said.

She duct-taped a patch in honor of Christina-Taylor Green to her right sleeve. Green was the 9-year-old killed in the Tucson shootings and was the only girl on her baseball team. Her dream was to be the first woman to play in the major leagues.

On the field, Siegal ignored the photographers poking their lenses in the batting cage netting and threw strike after strike to a group of minor leaguers for 30 minutes.

The Indians immediately invited her to pitch later that day to the major leaguers on Practice Field 5.

Siegal asked Jasmine to accompany her on the long walk to make history.

“I’m very proud of my mom,’’ said Jasmine. “She’s my hero.’’

Siegal also had a bad case of butterflies, confessing to her daughter that she “felt like throwing up’’ as she waited to pitch to the major leaguers.

“I was really nervous and my heart was beating fast, ’’ she said.

Her hands were clammy, but her mind was focused.

When Cleveland manager Manny Acta played catch with her to loosen up her arm, she threw one ball over his head, sending reporters and cameramen scurrying and evoking thoughts of Rick “Wild Thing’’ Vaughn from the movie “Major League.’’

“It was not a warning to the hitters,’’ she said sheepishly. “The new balls are slippery.’’

Indians backup catcher Paul Phillips, the first major league hitter she faced, was nervous, too. The thought crossed his mind that he didn’t want to strike out during batting practice.

Siegal, singing U2 songs in her mind to calm herself down, fired a first-pitch strike. The Indians were impressed during her 20-minute stint.

“Phenomenal, she did great,’’ said Phillips. “She fit right in. Had you not seen her ponytails, you would’ve not thought anything of it.’’

She took her unpaid batting practice assignment seriously. Since the fall, she has worked out with a personal trainer, two hours a day, six days a week, tossing a medicine ball and a football to build up arm strength. She did so much work on her abs that she dropped a pants size.

She also threw BP at several Massachusetts colleges. At Babson, she got an endorsement from head coach Matt Noone, who also throws BP for the Red Sox.

“She’s an A-plus,’’ said Noone. “I’m lucky she’s a righty, otherwise I’d be out of a job.’’

Fighting stereotypes Siegal has been playing baseball since she was 5 years old. She still plays for fun in a Springfield men’s pickup league.

“I’m a bit of an old lady now, but when I was 19-20, I threw in the upper 70s,’’ she said. “Now I rely on my curveball to get ’em out.’’

Siegal believes that a woman will one day play Major League Baseball.

“There’s no reason why there can’t be a lefthanded female knuckleballer throwing 75 miles per hour,’’ she said.

But that is not her goal.

“My goal is not integrating Major League Baseball, it’s creating women’s professional baseball,’’ she said.

Her dream is to start baseball teams at every level — youth, high school, college, and pro — because “100,000 girls are already playing youth baseball, and 40 percent of all major league baseball fans are already women.’’

She called her barrier-breaking career “a spiritual journey.’’

“It’s a very difficult journey,’’ Siegal said. “I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘No.’ To be honest, I grew up with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder.

“I remember when I was 12, I was playing shortstop, having the greatest time ever. Then at 13, I had to fight for everything I did from then on.’’

Her coach in the Tris Speaker League in Cleveland Heights didn’t want her on the team, even though she was one of the best players.

“I remember him hovering over me, kind of scaring me,’’ she said. “He said that girls shouldn’t play baseball.’’

Siegal didn’t cry — she knows there’s no crying in baseball — but she was confused.

“Our society is set up where baseball is for boys and softball is for girls,’’ she said. “At 13, you are supposed to go off into your own caves, and that’s still happening today.’’

But she always has battled back.

When she attended Hawkins High School, she wasn’t allowed on the baseball team.

She also tried out for men’s baseball at Beloit College in Wisconsin.

“They had a no-cut policy and they decided I’d be their first cut in history,’’ she said.

She believes there’s room on the field for women in men’s professional baseball.

When she joined the Rox in 2009, it was thanks to owner Mike Veeck, whose father, the legendary Bill Veeck, once hired a dwarf, Eddie Gaedel, to bat for the St. Louis Browns as a publicity stunt. Siegal doesn’t deny that when she coached first base, it was part publicity stunt, although she insists she was qualified.

“It was the only way to get on the field,’’ she said.

Siegal was accepted by the players, coaches, and manager in the independent Can Am League, but she was released after six weeks for “financial reasons.’’

“I’m really grateful to the Rox for giving me the opportunity,’’ she said. “It takes a lot of guts to be a first, so it was good.’’

Siegal insists that her pitch for women is a strike against gender stereotypes.

“If you tell a girl she can’t play baseball, what else will she believe she can’t do?’’ she said. “It’s just the greatest game on earth, so why shouldn’t we all play it?’’

Even the feisty Crisp walked off the field impressed with Siegal. Asked if there was a future for women in baseball, he said, “Why not? If they have the right abilities and the right skills, why couldn’t they?’’

The equally feisty Siegal was asked what she would say to someone who told her she threw like a girl.

“I’d say, ‘Thank you.’ ’’

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.

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