A baseball gender barrier? Not if these girls have their way

One recent muggy evening, Gabi Yulo plays first base with confidence, wearing an orange T-shirt that says, “You can’t stop me.”

She catches every ball. She hustles to the plate. She delivers a nice smooth throw.

Yet, there is one thing that could stop her: She is a girl. And as the only girl on her all-star Druid Hills Youth Sports 8U Blue Devils tournament team, it remains to be seen whether Gabi, who just turned 9, will be able to fight the enormous pressure — which will only build over time — to switch to softball.

“Gabi is right up there as far as skill level with the boys,” said Gabi’s mom, Michele Yulo, at Medlock Park in the Decatur area. “My husband and I are adamant that she not switch to softball. She wants to play baseball.”

While you see the occasional girl playing Little League, nearly all of them who want to continue playing ball get channeled into softball, in part because that’s where scholarships are.

Girls and boys play tennis, soccer and basketball. They both run marathons. But when it comes to baseball, the conventional wisdom has been boys play baseball, girls play softball.

But softball is a distinct sport with different pitching — often underhanded with a windmill-style motion, different balls (softballs are larger), different sized fields, different equipment, even different rules of the game.

In general, girls are able to try out for any sport offered at any school. This is the case for all high schools that are part of the Georgia High School Association (which includes all public high schools and many private schools). This includes baseball and is true even if softball is available. According to the latest GHSA participation study, a total of 10 girls played baseball at seven schools. In contrast, 394 schools have field softball teams with almost 8,000 participating, according to the GHSA.

And while the number of girls playing baseball remains tiny, they are determined to break the gender barrier. Justine Siegal created the nonprofit Baseball for All, advocating for girls having the opportunity to play baseball. The organization runs girls baseball camps in Florida.

In 2011, Siegal made history by becoming the first woman to throw batting practice to a MLB team. (She first threw to the Cleveland Indians and later to the A’s, Rays, Cardinals, Mets and Astros.)

And just last month, 17-year-old Chelsea Baker, of Plant City, Fla., threw batting practice to the Tampa Bay Rays. And here locally, Gracie White, 15, of Marietta, plays baseball on her JV school team at Kell High School in Marietta.

“I heard last year there was a girl who wanted to pitch and I thought that was fine, as long as she has the skills, she will make the team. Gracie made the team because she had the skills. She would ‘shut the door’ so to speak when she pitched. She threw strikes. She has good control of her pitches,” said Keith Brown, head coach of the Kell High School baseball program. “The younger boys on the JV team knew her for the most part, but the older boys on the varsity team were taken aback at first last year when they first heard about Gracie, but once they saw her play, there was no giggling. It was total respect.”

Gracie, the first girl to ever play baseball at Kell High School (which opened about 12 years ago), was recently invited to try out for the U.S. women’s baseball team, which selects the country’s most elite women’s baseball players for international tournaments.

Her father, George White, said Gracie, who started playing baseball at age 4, plays both softball and baseball, but he said, “She’s a better baseball player. She’s played the game longer and understands the game, the pitch counts.” A pitcher, Gracie is known for her cutter fastball. She pitches in the low 70s, which is considered very good for her age, and is a good fielder with accurate throws.

“I love the competitiveness of the game of baseball,” said Gracie. “And if anyone says I can’t do something, it makes me want to do it and work harder.”

Tommy Malchesky first started coaching Gracie about five years ago. It all started when he posted an announcement on an online baseball forum, seeking highly skilled players for a select, traveling team based in Dalton. Gracie’s dad called him and he peppered Malchesky with questions about what he was looking for in a player. After about 15 minutes of chatting, Gracie’s dad revealed this about his child, the promising baseball player: “She’s a girl.”

Malchesky invited Gracie to try out, and she immediately drew curious and skeptical stares from the all-male players.

“Look, boys, she is just here to try out and let’s just see it,” he told his team.

And she won them over with her skills.

He turned to the boys for their opinion and they didn’t hesitate: They all agreed she needed to join the team.

“I gave her no slack, I yelled at her just like the guys, and over time the guys just looked at her as one of their teammates.”

She played outfield, infield positions and later as a closer pitcher.

“I would say to parents: You have to be very realistic. I have some other girls and at 10, 11, 12, they switch to softball or other sports. Gracie has talent and incredible athletic ability. If anyone could do it, she could do it,” he said.

In Cartersville, 15-year-old Sierrah Gani made her JV team at Cass High School, playing a variety of positions including catcher and second base. She keeps an eye out for younger girls who are playing baseball, encouraging them to keep working hard and to keep playing the game.

Meanwhile, Gabi, playing baseball since age 5, is holding her own. And she also has gained the respect of her teammates.

“She is kind and she gives a good effort,” said Nash Booth, 8. “I really like that about her.”

Gabi said she doesn’t understand softball: Why a bigger ball when girls have smaller hands? she asks, shaking her head.

“For me, baseball is a lot of fun,” said the girl with big brown eyes. “Do I think about playing baseball in high school and in college? Yes, sometimes I do.”

Gabi’s parents are committed to helping keep her dream alive.

“I told her if you want to play baseball, I will fight for you every step of the way,” said Michele Yulo. “But you have to remain competitive and you have to play at the same level and that means you will have to practice and keep up your game. If you do that, there is no reason you can’t play for a high school team and even beyond.”

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