Kelsie Whitmore continues with Staten Island FerryHawks

Scott Whitmore was standing in the arena on a recent spring night watching the final inning of a Staten Island FerryHawks home game come to a close when a New York City police officer approached him from the third base side.

“After the game,” the officer said sheepishly, “do you think I can get your daughter’s autograph?”

Sure, Whitmore chuckled, even though he knew the receiving line would be long. Aside from a handful of Yankees and Mets stars, the most famous ballplayer in New York this summer could be seminal Staten Island two-way player Kelsie Whitmore.

She is 5 feet 6 inches tall with dark auburn hair that unfurls over her uniform number. You can’t miss her in the FerryHawks dugout, warming up on the field, or signing autographs. She’s an unusual sight even in a league known for taking risks and pushing buttons.

The Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, widely considered the highest tier among baseball’s independent minor leagues, was host to former All-Stars Roger Clemens, Jose Canseco and Rickey Henderson. But a woman had never started an Atlantic League game or served in one until Whitmore, who did both. She is the first woman to play in a league partnered with Major League Baseball since Lee Anne Ketcham and Julie Croteau joined the Maui Stingrays of the Hawaii Winter Baseball League in 1994.

This league was roughly the equivalent of a Class A minor league ball, while the Atlantic is said to be more of Class AAA, a notch below the major leagues. At 24, Whitmore, a former Fullerton State softball star, is trying to stay in pro baseball.

For Whitmore, that means a return to normal. She played softball because it was the only way she could get a college scholarship. But she is – always has been – a baseball player, and she shares many of the telltale traits. She wears her cap pulled low, swings a 32.5-ounce bat, impulsively curses and reflexively spits.

The tattoos on her left forearm feature Filipino imagery – a homage to her mother’s heritage – including a row of crocodile teeth depicting an aggressive hunter lurking beneath a calm, calm facade.

“It symbolizes me,” she said, “as a person and as a player.”

Whitmore has been surprising unsuspecting baseball men since she was young. She was the only girl on the varsity baseball team at Temecula Valley High School in Southern California, and at 17 she was one of two signed to play professionally for the Pacific Association’s Sonoma Stompers, an independent league.

Now she’s on her own in a league full of former major league players, on a team run by a former Mets player, Edgardo Alfonzo.

There are also other women making their way into baseball, a male-dominated sport. That spring, Rachel Balkovec of the Tampa Tarpons became the first woman to make it in affiliated baseball. In March, Alexis Hopkins was drafted by the Atlantic League’s Kentucky Wild Health Genomes as the team’s bullpen catcher.

But Whitmore, who has started in left field twice and made four appearances on the mound, contends that as a player, she belongs to a professional baseball diamond.

“This is a landmark event for us,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said of Whitmore. “It gives you an honest, real-world example of what we’ve been ambitiously saying for years: One day we’ll have women playing for us professionally.”

After a night game was recently postponed due to the weather, Whitmore was at the stadium with some teammates to practice and negotiate who would run for chop cheese sandwiches – a bodega specialty that has become an obsession at the FerryHawks clubhouse .

She stopped abruptly to figure out how to jump over an eight-foot wide puddle that had formed on the concrete, which she cleared with ease. “I did the long jump in high school,” Whitmore shrugged.

Her athletic career also included soccer, lacrosse, flag football and volleyball. She can run 280 yards with her rider and deadlift 400 pounds.

Is there a sport you haven’t tried yet?

“Cheers,” Whitmore said.

Scott Whitmore, a gym teacher, said baseball was his daughter’s first love. At the age of 6, Scott got Kelsie to sign up for Little League, but she turned it down. She was content to play tag and swing in the backyard.

“Finally I said, ‘Why don’t you want to play with kids your age?'” said Scott Whitmore.

It was because she thought she needed to wear her hair in a ponytail. She preferred to leave it long.

Her father laughed and told her she could wear her hair however she wanted. Since then it has stayed down.

“I think part of me was like, ‘If I can make it, I’m just going to be like all the other girls,'” Whitmore said. “It wasn’t comfortable. It was not me.”

It’s not uncommon for girls to play little league. But it didn’t take long for Whitmore to start realizing just how gendered the constructs for baseball (boys) and softball (girls) were.

“You would hear the doubters,” said Scott Whitmore. “‘Hey, the boys are getting stronger and she’s not going to be able to keep up with them.’ They said that at the age of 12 and it never happened.”

Justine Siegal first saw Whitmore on the lawn when she was 15. The first woman to coach for a major league organization, Siegal founded the nonprofit organization Baseball For All to promote gender equality in baseball and to provide opportunities for girls who wish to play on youth teams.

From that first performance, Siegal kept her eye on Whitmore, thinking that maybe she could be the one to break through and advance further in professional baseball than any woman has in decades.

“There was something special about her,” Siegal said of Whitmore. “It was clear that she had the physical ability to compete.”

But in high school, Whitmore wondered if she had the mental stamina to keep going.

“I was starting to get this feeling, shouldn’t I be here?” Whitmore said. “Don’t I belong here? People keep asking me why I’m here, people wonder, outsiders try to push me down a different path. It started messing with my head.”

Loneliness also became a factor. Always the only girl, the standout, the runaway. It got emotionally draining, she said.

“You just want to know what it’s like to fit in,” Whitmore said.

Unable to secure a baseball scholarship, she entered a softball recruiting show despite limited experience with the game. Her athleticism and baseball instinct proved enough to draw a flood of offers from coaches who thought they could shape her into a star over time.

She used to balk at the thought of making the switch to softball. “It just wasn’t what I wanted to do,” Whitmore said. “The high school softball team wanted me to play for them. To be honest, that’s like being told to go play soccer. In my head it’s a completely different sport.”

However, college softball looked more appealing when Whitmore reflected that the limelight might not have been as focused on her.

“I thought if I was playing on a team full of girls, I would know that feeling of not being the one that everyone is always looking at or who wants to change,” Whitmore said. “As I stepped onto a softball field, I was like, ‘Okay, cool, I finally fit in.'”

She was still different.

She moved like a baseball player, wore a hat, wore baseball pants. She had to relearn how to bat, how to judge flyballs, how to wipe sacks. Even the atmosphere in the dugout was alien to her – a list of girls interacted differently than men.

After games, she slipped into the batting cages to make cuts against overhand pitchers. In the summer after the Fullerton season was over, she pitched for the US women’s national baseball team. “I said to myself, this is temporary,” Whitmore said of softball.

She also reached out to Joe Beimel, a former major league reliever who opened a training facility in Torrance, California, to help pitchers build speed. By the time Whitmore arrived, her fastball was doing just over 70 miles per hour.

“We had to get them at least into the 80s,” Beimel said in a phone interview. But he was struck by the movement in their seats.

Whitmore’s pitching arsenal includes a two-seamer, four-seamer, slider, curve—and something else entirely. “It’s this weird knuckleball changeup that throws them,” said Beimel.

Whitmore calls it “the thing,” and the pitch has become a source of fascination for the FerryHawks. A former teammate Julio Tehran, who previously played for the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Angels and Detroit Tigers, had studied their grip before recently moving to the Mexican league.

Whitmore will never knock out professional sluggers (she now throws into the upper 70s), but Eddie Medina, the FerryHawks’ operations manager, who had pushed to sign her, felt Whitmore could throw sluggers off balance.

Their pitching coach, former major league Nelson Figueroa, has thrived despite a lack of speed and has helped Whitmore adjust. In her second pitching appearance of the season, she allowed six runs in two-thirds of an innings during a blowout loss. In a recent appearance on June 5, she scored a scoreless inning.

Despite the mixed results, fans are cheering her name and turning out to see her. Life in baseball means dressing in their own locker room and showering in a facility used by the team’s coaches.

But she calls her teammates her “big brothers,” and they hugged back.

She also has her father around as a source of comfort and laughter. Scott Whitmore retired at the end of May, packed up the car and drove across the country.

He had no intention of missing a game. “I’m going to spend all summer watching my daughter play baseball.”

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