By Fabrice Samedy
They can throw, they can run, they can swing for the fences, and bigger picture, female baseball players are breaking down barriers and making sure girls have their space in a sport traditionally dominated by the boys.
“When I tell people I play baseball, they’re like, ‘Oh, you mean softball?’” Ottawa-brewed player Jenna Flannigan reflected in the lead-up to the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games, where she won a silver medal with Team Canada. “I have to explain it’s like they do in MLB, it’s 90 feet (between bases) and all that. And they’ll say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize girls played baseball.’”
Dana Bookman was well aware of studies that showed sport participants achieve better grades at school, study at university, and develop into future leaders. The problem she saw was that these opportunities needed to be created for girls, while boys were born with them.
When Bookman’s daughter – the only girl playing alongside 400 boys in her age group – was on the verge of quitting baseball, she wound up founding Canadian Girls Baseball in 2016.
“When girls play with boys, they are likely to sit in the outfield and not really try,” Bookman observed. “But when girls play with girls, their whole demeanour changes. They try really hard, they cheer each other on, they get involved in the game.”
Though girls are allowed to play with boys on most, if not all, baseball teams in Canada, the environment doesn’t always lead to the best experiences for the girls, Bookman noted.
“Nobody wants to fail, but boys and girls play differently, so a girl is going to be more comfortable failing in front of people who look like her, and who are her peers, than she is in front of people that intimidate her or play differently than her,” she highlighted.
Canadian Girls Baseball began with 44 girls playing in the GTA, but within 5 years, that number has grown to 1,500 nationwide, including its Ottawa site.
The organization promotes inclusivity by making subsidies available to players from low-income families, and hires female coaches (who are players themselves) to help promote the idea that “if you can see it, you can be it.”
‘Girls can do the same thing boys can do’
Baseball Girls Canada is not alone in offering programming tailored to females in sports that have long been dominated by males. Many local groups have established a strong foothold, such as Jill Perry developing some of Canada’s top female boxers out of the Beaver Boxing Club, and the Gloucester and Nepean lacrosse associations producing champion teams and national-level players.
Before the pandemic hit, the Cumberland Panthers were set to launch what were believed to be the first all-girls community tackle football teams in Canada.
The Panthers have long offered opportunities for girls to play touch football, cheerlead, and play flag or tackle football alongside the boys (those streams remain available), but “I think (the girls’ tackle program) will be a much more open and inclusive environment for women and young girls to participate and play this sport,” explained Jean-Charles Plante, a Panthers offensive line coach and former university player.
Part of the philosophy behind establishing the girls’ tackle teams, Plante added, was simply because “girls can do the same thing boys can do, and we want to encourage that.”