by Maggie Heaphy
I walk up to bat for the first time of the year. My hands shake as a Division I committed pitcher stares me down, with a slight grin on his face. He had clocked in at 89 mph in the first few batters of the game, which was nothing for him. "Wait-" I hear from the other team's dugout. "There's no way!" Their chirping goes silent, as they come to the classic realization that the next batter had a ponytail peeking from under his batting helmet. He was short and skinny, had long hair, and seemed to be called 'Maggie' by his teammates. It wasn't a 'he.' I was a girl- the first one they had seen.
Unfortunately, the silence didn't last very long. Instead of channeling their surprise, the dugout decided to increase their levels of vocal harassment even more- some by yelling, some by laughing. “Don’t get too close to the ball, sweetheart!”
Breathing heavily, my mind was racing. The pitcher, starting to laugh, threw two balls before taking time to collect himself. Fastball, just up, was the third pitch, in which I just missed. Foul ball. I gripped my bat tighter as the heckling continued. Another fastball, but this time hit on the barrel. It was firm contact, but unfortunately for me, the second baseman was playing in the right spot. As I ran back to our dugout after the groundout, theirs was still erupting. “How does that feel?” they yelled at the pitcher, laughing.
This was my first at bat of varsity high school baseball. I was more than prepared to be there. I had collected multiple hits in the preseason scrimmages before, but this new stage, against this ruthless team, was a completely different story. For the whole day before, messages from friends and coaches across the country flew in, wishing me good luck for the game. It’s just baseball. I was ready.
I went 0-4 in that game. Three groundouts, and yes— a strikeout. If you know me, you may know that striking out is not how I like to play the game. ‘Put the bat on the ball’ has been the motto I have lived by since I started playing the game. If you look out the ways I’ve gotten out in my career, a very large majority of them were put in play. Although my average wasn’t great my first varsity high school season, I had the second-highest contact percentages on the team. So for me, a strikeout wasn’t a measure of my hitting incapabilities. It was a measure of my mental incapabilities.
I’ve been playing the game since I was seven years old, and softball never really crossed my mind. I went through the classic youth baseball journey: Little League to travel ball to higher level travel ball and high school and so on. Growing up in the college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, I was surrounded by a pretty tight baseball community. There had always been the same struggles of being a girl on the field: coaches on the other team telling their outfield to play in when you went up to bat, being without a partner while playing catch because nobody chose you, and of course, the chirping. There wasn’t really a question of if I wanted to play high school baseball, as I already knew a good amount of people in my grade who would be playing with me, and my team didn’t have a reputation of being exactly competitive.
My freshman year was amazing. I was on JV, which I expected, but for the first time experienced being a part of a high school sport. I loved my team, and I was the starting shortstop, which I absolutely loved. This is, all until my season was cut short when I dislocated my wrist after diving for a ball at practice. Still, I loved my team so much that I went to every game and cheered from the dugout fence, as being within the fence of a baseball field was my favorite thing in the world.
When sophomore season came around, it was a completely different story at first. I had some experiences with other teammates over the summer that had really changed my perception of them, and took a piece out of that excitement and eagerness I had for the program. Of course, I still was a part of the team, as I wasn’t going to let that factor take away from my experience. Tryouts were terrifying. Not only did I have to pretend to love every one of my teammates, but the team I was going to make was really up in the air-- in my head, at least.
At the end of the final day of tryouts, the coaches called each player up to the press box one-by-one to discuss their placement for the 2022 season. I watched as each guy walked out, either trying to hide their smile or their tears. For some reason, my coach thought it would be fun to call me up very last-- after everyone’s fate was known but mine. I went up there, and was told that I would be the starting second baseman for the varsity team.
There aren’t many words to describe the feeling, as there was a piece of just about every word on the ‘feeling scale’ somewhere inside of me. I walked down the steps, and gave my friends who had stayed, awaiting my results, a slight nod with a grin on my face. They all started cheering.
While I’ll never forget that moment, it’s also worth noting that the season ahead of me was one of the best and worst experiences of my life. I struggled a lot with mental health, and found myself with a concussion, COVID-19, and a nagging shoulder problem that still haunts me to this day. Through it all, though, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
I was on a team with some of my best friends, and some guys that I couldn’t stand being around. As stated before, there were some personal issues between me and someone on my team, but there were also issues throughout the year that consisted of me being put down because of my gender-- even by those wearing the same jersey as I. Our team was full of talent, with several high-level college baseball prospects, but found ourselves with a heavy losing record. Because of this, I was an easy target for anger to be taken out on. Without doing anything, or even making some great plays in the field and hitting well, I found myself being yelled at by teammates for reasons that I could not control.
Things did get better. Along with these factors, I was surrounded by some really great guys who treated me like family, and some of the best coaches I’ve ever had in my life. After every game, which usually was a tough loss, the coaches, who were volunteers, stayed on the field, and talked to us one on one if we needed. Not only did they make us much better baseball players, but they gave us a reason to keep playing. They brought the spirit up when it needed to be, but didn’t at all shy away from letting us know what we did wrong. Most of all, for me, they were an outlet. I told them about some of the issues on the team that really bothered me, and they only ever knew to give me the advice I needed. Just by bringing a speaker for us to blast Kanye in the cages pregame, or by showing us Instagram feeds of their many college flings, we had so much fun together.
I’m so lucky to have had coaches like these who knew how to make the team better in a productive way, as I know that isn’t always the case. I’ve had plenty of bad coaches in my time, so I know the feeling.
After an especially hard game, I opened my phone to a text from someone who would noticeably take his anger out on me, apologizing for his actions. In that moment, I was sitting on my bathroom floor with my uniform still on, and the shower running behind me. Tears finally made their way down my face, and fell onto my phone screen as I picked it up. I have yet to receive a text message in my life that has meant as much to me as that one. We started to call team meetings after school before every game, where just the players came together to talk about what it meant to be on this team. We all wanted it more than anything. For the first time in my life, I was included in the team’s group chat. For the first time in my life, I never had to worry about not having a throwing partner. For the first time in my life, I never passed a teammate in the hallway without them dapping me up. For the first time in my life, running on to the infield in the first inning after my name was announced over the speakers was my favorite feeling in the world.
That first game of the season was one of the worst baseball experiences I’ve had. The next day at practice, however, one of the assistant coaches, who I barely knew at this point, pulled me out of a team drill to talk in private. I hadn’t said a word to anything about the game the night before. “What’s on your mind?” he asked me. I was confused at first. He went on to tell me that although he just met me, he knows the kind of player I am, and knew that something was off the night before. He had assumed that the other team had something to do with it, as the dugout wasn’t exactly quiet, and he even told me that the first baseman was talking about me when he was coaching next to him. In this conversation, not only did I confess my true feelings about the dynamic of our team and how it is to play baseball as a girl, but he shared his experiences in the game of being one of the few people of color on his prep school team.
A few days later, my AP Psychology teacher got a call in the middle of class to send me to see the head coach. I had no idea what it was about, but when I got to his classroom, he, too, asked me about all that was going on, and how I thought our team was. I had a very similar conversation with him as I had with the assistant. Through both of these, though, I had a new perspective of our baseball program. For the first time in my life, I was part of the family that was my baseball team.
Families love each other unconditionally. Families don’t hide things from each other. Families also sometimes have male insecurities and fragile masculinity get in the way of their interactions with girls. All of this applied to my first high school season.
It isn’t easy being the only girl, but what I have always told myself and other female baseball players is that to be out there, you must know your worth. We were wearing the same jersey. The announcer was calling us out in the same lineup. The coaches told us the same thing in the press box when we all made the same team. We sat in the same dugout. We rode the same bus. We shared the same excitement when a parent brought us Chick-Fil-A sandwiches for the bus ride to an away game. We all shed tears when we lost the game we wanted the most. We all were playing the same game.
If there’s one thing that improved in my first varsity high school baseball season, except for my ability to change into my uniform quickly in the bathroom while my teammates all changed together in the dugout, it was my mental toughness. I could go on and on about what it means to be mentally tough, and maybe I’ll save that for another story, but if I could go back in time to that first at-bat, it would all be different. The higher the level, the tougher it can get, but only if you let it get that way. Know your worth. Know your ability. Know that letting the hecklers in the dugout get in your head is exactly what they want. Know that not everyone wants you there, and if you need to, be angry. If you can channel your anger into healthy ways, enhancing your game and your experience, that’s what you need. If it helps to picture yourself whacking the pitcher’s face instead of the ball, so be it, if that means you’ll hit it even farther. However, know that at the end of the day, know that it’s just baseball, and baseball is fun. Enjoy the bus rides, the hitting games in practice, and leaving early from your last class period to go to a game. If you love this game enough, you will do great things. High school baseball is one of my favorite things in the world through it all, and I can say without a doubt that I love my team like brothers. Although you may not always be blessed with the greatest of coaches or peers, don’t let that stop you. If I can do it, so can you. Don’t expect it to be a completely smooth ride, but expect yourself to be able to smooth out even the highest bumps in this journey. Never stop trying. Never stop dreaming.