For the Love of Baseball

In the unassuming town of McLean, Virginia, the Eastern Women’s Baseball Conference plays its championship. Photo credit: Heather M. Epstein

The town of McLean, Virginia has two distinct, juxtaposed faces. When you exit the highway a few miles west of Washington, D.C., the town intimidates with over-landscaped corporate headquarters and clandestine government intelligence enclaves. Drive past them, and you will find the cul-de-sacs and Olive Gardens of suburbia. McLean High School (home of the Highlanders!) is guarded by middle-class homes and 25 mph residential streets on all sides. The outfield fence of the school’s best baseball field is 335-340-325 from left to right, and the playing surface is only slightly uneven.

In this unlikely place, I found championship baseball.

On August 25, the Virginia Flames of the Eastern Women’s Baseball Conference (EWBC) defeated the Virginia Fury 9-2, completing a perfect season.The four-team league also includes the Baltimore Blues and Montgomery County BarnCats, and features games on most weekends from Memorial Day through August. Athletes ranging in age from teenagers to septuagenarians come from all over the Baltimore-D.C. area to engage in competitive baseball.

“We have attorneys… active duty military, retired military, EMTs, nurses. We have the whole gamut,” says Cindy Monohan, EWBC secretary, member of the Flames, and an analyst with the Department of Defense. “We all love baseball so much. I tend to work my life around it.”

Stemming from that shared love of baseball, the EWBC players and organizers have helped the league persist for more than a quarter century. “(In 1993) we went to softball tournaments. We went around to every field and recruited female baseball players,” recalls JoAnn Milliken, co-manager of the Flames and one of the league’s founders.

“It’s very difficult to keep a league going; it’s just human nature. A lot of people are willing to come out and play, and that’s great, but we always need leaders to recruit and do the administration. If we have (more of) those people, I’m convinced the league would really be able to grow.”

“It’s always been pretty competitive,” says Monohan. “It’s not just about the game… it’s about the friendships and relationships. (Flames players Jennifer Hammond and Rosie Anderson) were bridesmaids at my wedding. We wore our baseball cleats and socks at the wedding, because what else are we supposed to do?”

The Tournament Circuit

If the concept of an adult women’s baseball league sounds obscure, that’s because it is. The EWBC is one of the few such leagues in existence. 

The top tier of women’s baseball is international competition. Beyond Team USA, there aren’t nearly as many opportunities for non-male athletes to play baseball as there are in other sports. The Japan Women’s Baseball League is the only professional or semi-pro league in the world. A rung below Team USA, there are tournaments, for which teams travel great distances to seek competition at their level.

Bonnie Hoffman manages both the Baltimore Blues and the DC Thunder — the traveling tournament team comprised largely of EWBC players. “There are maybe a handful — four or five — tournament opportunities a year. The ability to be a home for all these women to come in and compete has been fantastic. We’re seeing some really highly competitive baseball. We have a number of women who play or have played for the national team, and young women who aspire to play at that level.”

Hoffman also organizes the Diamond Baseball Classic, one of the mainstays on the women’s baseball tournament circuit. “This is maybe the 13th year of the tournament. At our high we have maybe 12 teams, and we draw from all over the country and a steady presence with teams from Canada as well.

“The tournament is a fabulous opportunity to showcase women’s baseball and to really give a place for women to be able to play in a competitive environment.”

Girls Baseball

While there are smatterings of tournament teams, softball leagues, and co-ed opportunities, few organized leagues specifically for women’s baseball exist in North America. As a result, growing the sport becomes a chicken-and-egg problem: adult women’s teams and leagues often struggle to find young players, while young players are often shunted away from baseball for lack of opportunities as they grow up.

“There aren’t (many) places for women to play,” says Flames catcher Jennifer Hammond. “Where there are plenty of men’s recreational leagues available, there are local youth leagues available for the boys. Really for girls unless they’re ‘good enough’ to play at the high school level, the opportunities really dry up. They’re faced with this decision of, ‘Do I switch to softball or do I quit playing?’”

A Spin on the Rotations: The Best Ever
By the numbers, this season's World Series starters are the best in history.

In the 1970s, Maria Pepe won a lawsuit against Little League, making it illegal for it to exclude players on the basis of gender. Still, societal pressures pushing back against girls playing baseball remain intact, driving young athletes away from the sport.

“When you’re playing as the only female on the field, there’s an added burden,” says Hammond. “Whether you want it or not, the attention is on you. You’re basically representing your entire gender. You start to question, ‘If I make a mistake, are they going to assume it’s because I’m a girl and I don’t belong?’”

Nearly all of the EWBC athletes are familiar with this burden, but they are uniquely situated to make it easier for future generations. Several of them are involved with DC Girls Baseball to lend their experience and expertise.

Hammond explains the relationship between DC Girls Baseball and the EWBC. “DC Girls Baseball has grown tremendously over the last three years. A couple of us reached out to them and said, ‘We have a women’s league… Is there an opportunity here to provide some mentorship?’ That’s grown into a situation where a number of the women associated with our league are now coaching.

“For those girls, there’s a lot of encouraging signs; there’s more pathways. They’re also getting basic logistical help—folks providing legal resources to them when they want to play in high school and they’re being told, ‘No, you have to play softball. You cannot play baseball.’”

Monohan adds, “Most of the women (in the EWBC) played Little League, and then we had nowhere else to go… I remember being the only girl in Little League, the only girl in Babe Ruth. They would tease me, then they would tease whoever I got a hit off of!

“It’s slow going, but there is progress being made. Now, the younger girls are more assertive about it. They’ll ask, ‘Why can’t I play on your high school team? I’m just as good as everyone else.’”

Setting aside the mentorship and resources the EWBC provides for DC Girls Baseball, the league promotes baseball at the younger levels just by existing. In her capacity with the DC Thunder and tournament level women’s baseball, Hoffman recognizes the necessity of a continuum of opportunities. “There’s a joy that comes from playing a competitive game. If you don’t have places for women to go and play — places for girls as they grow up — then that sort of dies off… You have to have a place to be able to go ‘after.’ Creating that opportunity is vital to be able to have the sport be vibrant and grow.”

Passion for the Game

When I first met Hammond immediately after the Flames’ championship game victory, she pulled off her catcher’s mitt to reveal a splint. She had just finished catching an entire game with a broken middle finger on her left hand! “We certainly have another person who could suit up and catch and do quite well, but the trickle-down effect on our defense was such that we said we should probably do it. There’s a comfort level for our pitchers as well.”

Half joking, she adds, “I may have an unhealthy relationship with the game, I don’t know.” 

The EWBC players don’t play for money; the league is a nonprofit. They don’t play for fame or recognition; the players on both teams outnumbered the fans in attendance (though not by much). From the perspective of carving out time in their busy lives, it’s almost certainly inconvenient. Flames starting pitcher Rosie Anderson, who wore cleats in Monohan’s wedding party, is a mother of six.

Yet for everyone in the league with whom I spoke, it was clear that playing baseball is absolutely an essential part of their lives. After our interview, Hammond emailed me to emphasize the importance of the EWBC. “For me, Sundays in the summer are my therapy. For a few hours, I can take the field with my baseball family and leave the craziness of the world behind. It is my happy place. And I am forever grateful for it.”

These athletes play for the competition and the ecstasy of victory. They play for all the times they were told they couldn’t, and for all the non-male athletes who are still excluded today. They certainly play for each other. Most of all, they play for the love of baseball.

Thanks to Beth Woerner for research assistance, and to everyone at the EWBC for being so open and welcoming.


Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. He is a writer and editor for Beyond the Box Score. Tweets @depstein1983.
newest oldest most voted
Jim
Member
Member
Jim

Wonderful. Just wonderful.

jondowd51
Member
Member
jondowd51

This is great to see, I have no idea such an institution existed, anywhere. I wonder what it would take to create such a league from scratch, and what size population it would take to sustain that league.

Bobby Mueller
Member
Member

Loved this. My little sister was one of two girls in our local Little League in the mid-1980s. She played against the boys until she was 12 and that was it for baseball. A few years later, she played softball in high school (slowpitch back then). From what I remember, no girls played after Little League where I lived.

rothayato
Member
rothayato

So is there any evidence of that being done? What do you know… pitchers have been complaining that the seems are lower on the 2019 baseball since… when?