KElsie Whitmore is one of three figures on the baseball field at Staten Island Community Park. The stands at the baseball stadium are empty, more or less a few hot dog vendors open their booths in the halls. Her coach, Nelson Figueroa, throws balls to her which she waits for before reading the angle of arrival, motioning towards the ball, then receiving it in his glove with his left hand and returning it with her right.
Next to her, a girl watches and does the same. She is much smaller than Whitmore. His throws don’t come comfortingly back into Figueroa’s glove like Whitmore does, but die halfway through before bouncing off the ground. She looks to Whitmore after each, who nods, watches the action and then turns to receive.
Whitmore wears the #3 shirt for Staten Island FerryHawks. In April, she signed to play professionally with the team, alongside 24 men. She is the first woman since 1994 to play in a league affiliated with Major League Baseball. The Atlantic League, in which Staten Island plays, is the highest form of baseball outside of MLB. It is often referred to as “the league of second chances”, where players of Major League caliber try to come back while playing the closest possible standard. No woman has played at the same level.
“We’re seeing a lot more girls going to games these days,” says team general manager Gary Perone as he watches from the “best office in the world” on the second floor, overlooking Richmond Park. “Even for Little League teams. They all want to go out and talk to him. She inspires a lot of people. Not just here, but in all five boroughs of New York. »
Today’s fan, he says, was granted time with her idol because Today’s opponents gave up batting practice. Her mother had brought her in early, fully equipped, and told Whitmore, “You are her inspiration.”
The FerryHawks’ home sits on the lip of Staten Island, set back from shore only by the ferry port. From the game’s perspective, everything beyond the baseball park appears to consist entirely of water until it meets the skyline of the rest of New York City. You’d be forgiven for imagining, if you only featured this view, that Staten Island might just be the baseball stadium, the ferry showing up every once in a while with the boat full of people coming up for the Statue view of Liberty, then leaving with them the otherwise still.
Despite being bottom of the North Division at the start of the season, Perone calls Staten Island’s culture “bridge to bridge, the best baseball borough in the city,” with attention like never before because of their new pitcher and outfielder.
Whitmore walks away from the return ferries, towards the dugout, back from the impromptu session. The men who make up the rest of the FerryHawks begin to prepare for warm-ups. As they bounce on each other, beginning the ritual of their training drills, there are seas of code in the secret handshakes, body checks and high fives. A catcher is half equipped and receives pitches. One of them escapes his grip, falling to the ground alarmingly. He takes off his helmet, retrieves the ball and studies it as if it must be defective. He shakes his head existentially before tutting, passing the ball and doing it again.
Whitmore didn’t see it, but as if it did, she laughs: “If you want to play this game, the first thing you have to know is that you’re going to fail. You need to figure out if you’re okay with that.
Whitmore — not starting in the outfield — is setting up for a potential relief pitch. Like her teammates, and seemingly all baseball players, she constantly spits. She has been playing baseball since she was six years old. She is now 24 years old. “There were just no women playing,” she says of her debut, spitting again. “All my inspirations were men. It just made me want more. My thing is not to try to be the first. It’s about trying to do something that I love.
At 14, the youngest possible age, she was chosen for the USA women’s team. Otherwise, she has generally been the only woman on her teams, with each level progressing against all odds. The received wisdom tended to be that the boys were going to get too strong for her and she wouldn’t be able to keep up. It never happened. In her FerryHawks debut, the first ball in play poetically went straight for her. She pulled it off perfectly. She falls asleep imagining such plays. “I will visualize it and try to feel the feeling. I’m all about the feel. I try not to be too robotic.
There was a time when she tried to imitate precisely what men did, but found it counter-intuitive. “It wasn’t until I admitted to myself that I would never be able to throw a ball 400 feet that it really started to work for me. I realized, ‘Oh, I just need to play how I to play.’ That’s the thing with baseball – you make it work for you somehow.
The sport has a particular fondness for people who slip through the cracks, finding ways the game works for them. Whitmore’s skill manipulates his lack of pitching speed as an asset, developing a delivery now known on the tour as “The Thing”. Figueroa, a successful major league pitcher despite her own lack of speed, has overseen an ever-growing variety of pitches in her arsenal. She crosses them on the dugout, reconfiguring the hand on the ball. As she shows them, her opposite forearm is exposed, bearing a tattoo of crocodile teeth – depicting a hunter hiding below the surface.
Four-seam fastball: a basic scheme for a pitcher that takes its name from the revealing of all four seams in flight. Change: A pitch disguised as a fastball that comes slower than it looks. Vertical break separator: so named because the fingers are slit over the ball, causing it to die when it reaches the batter. Change of circle “with a positive break on it”: a change with the fingers forming a circle. And finally, the joint change (AKA “the thing”). Figueroa called it “the strangest thing he had ever seen”, a pitch that seems to have little precedent.
Although the reaction to Whitmore’s introduction to the Atlantic League was overwhelmingly positive, there were inevitable incidents. In Charleston, tennis balls were thrown at Figueroa and her before opponents profusely apologized on behalf of the crowd. There have been tweets in the meantime on the basis that she wasn’t good enough to be there – Whitmore is keen to point out that the accusation is far from exclusive to her. It’s an intense lens that Whitmore seems to wear lightly, but feels its constant presence. “I’m getting over this feeling that all eyes are on me and I have to be perfect.”
If not, she sometimes worries, there are implications beyond herself, “when you hold a title like this, you want to show it off so well.” If things aren’t going well, I can sometimes think to myself, “I let all those little girls down” or, “I just proved all the people who don’t believe they’re right.” ‘ There are still a lot of people like that.
“You have to act like nothing happened. This is the part where you get stuck because you feel, as a woman, that you can’t show emotion or that you will be seen as weak or not powerful. But there’s the other side where it’s like, ‘We want to be okay with who we are. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed one day. You tend to shut it down because if we give in to that, people will say, “That’s why you shouldn’t be here.”
There’s been a small wave of women making their way into high-level baseball lately. This year, Alyssa Nakken became MLB’s first on-field coach – for the San Francisco Giants, positioned at first base. Alexis Hopkins is employed as a bullpen catcher in the Atlantic League. Rachel Balkovec leads the Tampa Tarpons, part of the New York Yankees organization.
“The question I get asked the most,” she said mockingly for a second, “is, ‘How does it feel to be a girl?’ I just want to be remembered as someone who deserved it. Someone who made it as far as possible. She thinks again before rephrasing: “Someone who made it as far as possible. she possibly could.”
She gestures towards the lush green in front of her. “I learned more about life on that baseball field than at school or on the streets. It’s because you go through mistakes, ups and downs, successes, interactions, relationships, friendships. She points again, as if praising, “And it was all about the diamond.”
The first throw is approaching. “What time is it?” she asks. It’s a quarter to five. “Quarter to five? What does that mean? 4:45? Is it time?” I nod. “I haven’t done math in a while,” she says proudly, smiling. “I’ve been in the field. There was another day when I didn’t use y=mx plus b.
With that, she spits again and is back, blending into her teammates, merging with the handshakes and body checks.
When Staten Island takes to the field, Perone stands beside his desk, staring out. The minor league game is sparsely attended, with families and people dressed as falcons or bowling pins making maniacal and gleeful use of empty seats. Whitmore is there, arms crossed on the dugout, watching the game like the rest of her teammates, recognizable by the bang of straight black hair that falls flat on her lower back.
“When I found out about Kelsie, I talked to her for about two and a half months,” Perone says, reasoning, “She’s a hard worker and she’s really good.” He occasionally pauses as he speaks to wave to the game’s DJ, circling his arms to signal them to turn up the music between plays. “You know, you’re in a locker room with all the men and you have to sort this out. She hears her fair share of stuff everywhere she goes.
He waves again to make the music louder when a batter is retired for the end of an inning. “But whether it’s our team or the visiting teams, all people want is to meet Kelsie. When you do, you understand that she is a special person. She’s going to do something for the future of baseball.