Justine Siegal has made breaking down barriers for women in sports her life’s mission. So first stepping onto the baseball diamond as an assistant coach with Springfield (MA) College men’s baseball three years ago was just another step towards her life’s passion.
Her student-athletes, on the other hand, needed a bit of time to adjust.
“I would say during that first year, a few of the guys were a bit surprised,” Siegal recalled during a recent phone interview. “But they learned what I was about, and that I knew the game, and after that, they saw me as just another coach. Springfield has a rich history of firsts in sport, and for leading the way in access, and everyone has been unbelievably supportive.”
Siegal is founder of Baseball for All, an international non-profit organization committed to opening access to the sport of baseball to females across the globe. The organization has reached a new level of popularity in the past year, with ESPN featuring one of the organization’s young pitchers, Chelsea Baker, and a documentary about girls’ baseball in the planning stages. Regional sports channels throughout the country have been featuring Baseball for All players and sponsored teams as they reach new levels of acceptance within the baseball community.
Still, there is a lot of work to be done. “There is more access to the sport of baseball for girls since when I started out,” explains Siegal. “There have been developmental changes, more acceptance, and more structure. The U.S. now has a women’s national baseball team, which is another good step.
“But there’s still work to do. We still have to get the word out there that girls can play baseball, and that there is a difference between baseball and softball.”
The Baseball for All site provides lists of advocacy information for female athletes and their parents interested in playing baseball. A page on their newly redesigned site proudly proclaims, “Know Your Baseball Rights,” and is a crash course in gender equity decisions that athletes can use, as well as first-hand accounts from young women who have been successful in finding baseball playing opportunities in their communities.
Advocating for the right to play baseball is not for the faint of heart, something Siegal has learned through her various barrier-breaking positions. She became the first woman to coach a professional baseball team in 2009, when she was hired by the Cam-Am league Brockton Rox. The position gave Siegal and her cause a lot of media attention, but she reflects upon the time carefully.
“It is always an honor to serve in a role like that, to be the first to have a role like that,” said Siegal. “It was a difficult challenge, but looking back, it was one of the best times of my life.”
Siegal has devoted parts of the last two summers to running the Girls International Baseball Academy, which took place at former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette’s Baseball Academy in Hinsdale, Massachusetts this past summer. The camp attracts female baseball players and staff from all over the world.
“We’ve had campers from Indonesia and Canada, and staff members from Japan,” explained Siegal. “We may have campers from Netherlands in 2011. A lot of countries contact us to participate, but money gets to be an issue for them unfortunately.”
Siegel has found a way for some baseball players with financial need to have the camp experience. “Last year, we found a sponsor for an eleven year old girl who had contacted us really wanting to participate. She had never had the chance to play real baseball, but she wanted to learn. Her family had economic challenges, but we got her out here – it was her first ever plane ride to come out here. The other campers rallied around her courage and enthusiasm, and she took so much joy out of the experience.”
The Girls International Baseball Academy will be back at Duquette’s amenity-filled facility in July 2011, and that’s one of Siegal’s main focuses. Although Siegal will be restricting herself to throwing batting practice this spring with the Springfield College baseball team because of the point she is at in her academic program (“I’ve been spending a lot of time in the library lately,” she laughed), she has a plethora of new initiatives at the ready for the new year.
“I spoke at the Minor League Winter Meetings last week, and am speaking to the American Baseball Coaches Association meetings starting this Thursday,” listed Siegal. “We are working with both Pony Baseball and RBI Baseball for showcases and other promotions of girls baseball. In addition, the number of all-girls tournaments, camps and events is building. So we have a lot to do this year, and it shows that we are here to stay.
Siegal sees her work with Baseball for All going beyond promoting the sport, but teaching life lessons. “This isn’t just about playing baseball,” she proclaims. “It’s about following your dreams. It’s about throwing your shoulder back, walking out onto the field, and kicking butt in whatever you do.”