AS OLIVIA PICHARDO EMBARKS ON HISTORIC SEASON, 4 WOMEN BALLPLAYERS REFLECT ON THEIR FIRSTS
Credit: Kamila Hinkson, The Athletic - https://theathletic.com/4242128/2023/02/23/olivia-pichardo-first-ncaa-baseball/
This should be a season of firsts for Olivia Pichardo. On Friday, the Brown University baseball team will take the field for their first game of the season.
Pichardo is the first woman to be named to an NCAA Division I varsity roster. And for every milestone she reaches — her first start, her first hit — she will make history.
Plenty of women and girls who play baseball know what it’s like to be “the first.” As Pichardo’s debut season nears, The Athletic spoke to four female ballplayers who achieved notable firsts of their own last year to find out what the experience was like and what advice they would give others coming up behind them.
First woman to play in the Atlantic League
Kelsie Whitmore never set out to be the first anything. It’s happened a few times in her baseball career — most notably last summer, when she played with the Staten Island FerryHawks — but she sees those milestones as a byproduct of her ultimate goal.
“As I’m going down my path of trying to play professionally, all these other little gifts and blessings come within it that you’re not really searching for,” she said. “They just happen.”
Handling the spotlight gets easier the more often you do it, she added, but it also requires being aware of how you’re presenting yourself on and off the field, and questioning whether people are in your life for the right reasons.
Pichardo cites Whitmore as one of her biggest influences. The pair know each other through USA Baseball and played together last year on the women’s national team. Whitmore said she isn’t worried about how Pichardo will fare in college; she plays with grit, works hard and is humble.
Whitmore said sticking to what she knows about herself, and not getting lost in what others think, has helped her navigate the attention she’s received, as well as having a community of people around her for support. And being able to push through when things get tough is crucial.
“Don’t let the defeat defeat you, and don’t let the losses define you,” she said.
When the pressure starts to feel overwhelming, Whitmore reminds herself why she’s been working so hard. The simplest answer to that question takes her back to the very start of her baseball career, when she was 6 years old.
“Before all the hardships, before the failures, before the naysayers, she had the hugest dream … and nothing was gonna stop her,” Whitmore said of her 6-year-old self.
“As she got older, there’s gonna be people that bring that down and try to tear that dream apart. And so I go back to her, I go back to the 6-year-old me and I remember like how badly she dreamed of the things she wanted and how badly she wanted to pursue her goals, and so I do it for her.”
First to play baseball at the Canada Games
As Jaida Lee was warming up on the mound ahead of her first appearance at the Canada Games last summer, she could hear the PA announcer in the background setting the stage.
“… and making history,” the man said to cheers and applause as she paced the mound, waiting for the first batter to come to the plate.
Lee, who is now 17, says she’s generally good at handling pressure. But after that introduction? She was feeling it.
“It was kind of like, I have to do good, because it wasn’t like just about me,” she said. “It was more like I was the placeholder for girls coming up. And if I didn’t do good, that would ruin their chances. You know what I mean?”
She was inundated with interview requests before and after her appearances, even missing a team trip to Niagara Falls to fulfill her media duties. It was a lot, especially for someone who says she doesn’t particularly enjoy public speaking, but she’s used to the attention — the older she got, the more attention she received for her baseball exploits.
Lee relies on skills that she learned, such as visualization, meditation and yoga, and some self-taught techniques that help her focus, to block out the pressure and lock in when she has to play.
She said years of being the first or the only woman on a team or in a league or tournament has made her mentally stronger and has helped with her confidence, too.
“There’s so much pressure that … like when I go into any competition or anything, I’m not as scared to do anything because I know like, I’ve had more eyes on me before,” she said.
First to pitch in the Australian Baseball League
Genevieve Beacom’s first baseball firsts happened when she was 12 — the first girl to play for her local charter baseball team, and the first girl to play for Australia in the Cal Ripken World Series.
So in a way, she was used to the attention that comes with that distinction. But last year was something else entirely.
Leading up to her only appearance for her team, the Melbourne Aces, last January, she said she never thought about what the reaction to her pitching might be.
“It was just like, I want to pitch to the best of my abilities and show my coaches that I’m actually good. Like, I’m a legit player,” Beacom said.
She pitched a scoreless inning in the game, which the Aces lost, 7-1. That night, she received congratulatory messages from people in her circle, and figured that would be it. She got home around midnight and eventually went to sleep.
When she woke up, the circus began in earnest. Her email inbox was flooded with interview requests.
“That was like sort of overwhelming, but I guess in a good way,” the 18-year-old said. One positive thing that came out of all the attention: Meeting little girls who told her they’d decided to take up the sport again after hearing about her, being the role model she never had growing up.
But, of course, with attention comes negativity. She’s heard the familiar refrains — she should be playing softball, she’s not made for this sport — and says she’s been using them as motivation for most of her baseball career.
Her advice for anyone trying to deal with the spotlight is simple.
“Just be yourself,” she said. “You got recognition for the baseball player that you are, so I wouldn’t try and change yourself because you got that recognition. I would just stick with what you know because it’s obviously getting you places.”
Alexis “Scrappy” Hopkins
First woman ever drafted by an American professional baseball team for an on-field role
Alexis “Scrappy” Hopkins was a softball player most of her life; she estimates she had about two years of competitive baseball experience before landing with the Genomes.
She was the team’s bullpen catcher and toward the end of the season got into four games, collecting her one hit on a line drive up the middle.
Hopkins said she went into the experience without expectations because she wasn’t sure what she was getting into and didn’t want to limit herself.
Her teammates and other people she encountered during the season became her family, and helped her figure out the ins and outs of independent ball.
“In general, anyone who’s doing something difficult, especially for a good reason, there is a community there. Sometimes it’s hard to find … but I really believe there are a lot of people on Team Scrappy, on Team Women in Sports,” she said.
Hopkins said people loved to see her at the field, and in turn she loved that she was able to make others happy and excited about the game.
“I think someone like me stepping into a stadium brings so much hope,” Hopkins said. “Even if I don’t step up to the plate. I think that is so critical, the hope.”
She said for other girls and women coming up, it’s crucial to have confidence in your approach and know why you want to be out there.