Facing men in Maui was highlight for women baseball pioneers
NEW YORK (AP) — As an 8-year-old girl, Beanie Ketcham dreamed of pitching for the New York Yankees.
Baseball never got Ketcham to the Bronx, but her playing career did take her far — including nearly 5,000 miles from Yankee Stadium, to a ballpark in paradise.
There, the right-hander at least got to pitch against a famous Bronx Bomber.
“She struck me out,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone recalled. “On TV.”
“I would say it’s my claim to fame, I guess,” Ketcham said.
This year is turning out to be a big one for women breaking barriers in baseball. Kelsie Whitmore is the first woman ever to play in the Atlantic League, a Major League Baseball partner where the competition level is comparable to Triple-A. Rachel Balkovec is managing the Yankees’ Class A club, the first woman to lead an affiliated team. Last month, Alyssa Nakken coached first base for the San Francisco Giants, the first woman to coach on the field in a big league game.
It’s an entirely different landscape than nearly 30 years ago, when Ketcham and teammate Julie Croteau are believed to have become the first women to play in a league affiliated with MLB when they were invited to join the Maui Stingrays of the now defunct Hawaiian Winter League.
The pair were asked in 1994 to play in Hawaii among Class A and Double-A minor leaguers and pros from Japan and Korea. They got the chance after starring that summer for the Colorado Silver Bullets, a women’s team managed by Hall of Famer Phil Niekro that barnstormed the country to face men’s amateur and semi-pro teams.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is the best job I’ll ever have,'” Croteau said of Hawaii.
It was the highest level of baseball either got to play. Croteau, a left-handed first baseman, fit seamlessly among the pros on defense, but she admits to being overmatched at the plate. She swung a Little League bat because everything made for the men was too heavy, and the outfielders played her so shallow, even a solid hit had trouble finding the grass.
She ended up with 1 hit in 12 at-bats.
“It was a fastball right down the middle, and I remember it was a line drive, right above the pitcher, and it fell in before the outfielder came in,” she said. “It just felt so wonderful.”
Ketcham recalls working anywhere from 77-84 mph with her fastball, but a bout with dead arm took the zip off everything when she landed in Maui. It took her nearly a month to recover enough to pull mop-up duty for the Stingrays.
Her high point was striking out Boone, a third-round draft pick by Cincinnati in 1994. Even though he didn’t debut in the majors until 1997, he was likely the most famous player in Hawaii because of his family ties. His brother, Bret Boone, had just enjoyed a breakout season with the Reds, and their father and grandfather were also big leaguers.
Ketcham punched him out with a breaking ball, and Boone threw a tantrum in the dugout.
“Threw my helmet in the trash can,” said Boone, who became New York’s manager in 2018. “I threw all my stuff in the trash.”
The moment was captured by a local TV broadcast, and Boone said replays surfaced soon after he reached the big leagues.
Ketcham kept an eye Boone’s career, which included one of the most famous home runs in baseball history, a game-ending drive in Game 7 of the 2003 AL Championship Series against the rival Boston Red Sox.
“That is a memory that will stick with me for my entire life,” Croteau said of the strikeout, “because it was just validating for her.”
The experience was affirming for them both, and a high point for their playing days. Croteau, who was also a double in “A League of Their Own” with a small speaking part, puts her time in Maui up there with working alongside Tom Hanks and Geena Davis.
Ketcham and Croteau had different experiences in the early parts of their lives when it came to playing with the boys. Ketcham always felt welcome enough, but Croteau became a national news figure in the late 1980s when she sued her high school in Manassas, Virginia, to allow her to play baseball. The court sided with the school, which claimed she’d been cut after a fair tryout.
Croteau went on to play Division III college baseball and pro ball against male players. She saw plenty of blow ups like Boone’s, but there were fewer of them in Hawaii. Several players from that league became big league regulars, including Stingrays teammate Craig Counsell, now manager for the Milwaukee Brewers. Those players showed Ketcham and Croteau as much respect as they ever received.
“I found in my playing career that the more confident players were in themselves, the easier it was for them to accept me on the team or a female in their presence,” Croteau said. “And these guys were all really good and all really confident in their ability.”
Both women went into coaching, and Croteau also became a TV analyst, broadcasting World Series and All-Star Games for MLB’s international feeds. Neither works in baseball anymore — Croteau is the director of communications in the human resources department at Stanford University, and Ketcham lives in England and works as a prosthetist.
They’re thrilled to view progress being made from afar.
“It’s been really wonderful to see what’s happened in the sport,” Croteau said. “Obviously, would I like more to happen? Yes. Would I like it to happen faster? Yes. But the trajectory is a good trajectory.”
Both are sorry to see that growth hasn’t included more venues for women baseball players to compete against each other. The Women’s Baseball World Cup debuted in 2004, but there remains no pro league for female ballplayers.
Which means that — just like nearly 30 years ago — the only playing career available to women is one that pits them against men.
Croteau was frustrated as a player when people asked if she thought she could reach the majors. Like Whitmore, her goal was to play as long as possible — against the men was simply the best option.
“It’s not the right question to be asking, and it shouldn’t be the end all, be all,” Croteau said.
“I’m confident a woman can compete offensively and defensively at the highest levels of professional baseball. In my opinion, it’s not helpful to ask each woman, as she rises to the ranks, if she will ultimately achieve the highest level, because she’s going to achieve the highest level possible for her.
“She shouldn’t have to carry the weight of her gender anymore than anyone representing any group should.”
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