Georgia Highlands College freshman Ashton Lansdell prepares to run to second base to play outfield during a baseball intrasquad scrimmage at the Lakepoint Sports Complex in Emerson on Sept. 26, 2019. Ashton, the only female to play on the college’s baseball team, is a redshirt, so she can use this year to develop without losing any of her eligibility. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Breaking boundaries in baseball

Ashton Lansdell, 18, steps to the plate at a baseball field in Emerson, Georgia, on a warm fall afternoon. She’s already walked and stolen a base.

Her teammates shout their support from the dugout to pump her up.

He’s scared of you, Ashton.

Here it comes. Don’t miss it.

Goodbye, ball!

Facing pitches nearing 90 miles per hour, Ashton shows patience. She draws another walk and advances to first base.

At first glance, this Georgia Highlands College baseball intrasquad scrimmage is not particularly significant. There are no fans in the bleachers. And the coach ends the game in the seventh inning because a pitcher feels tenderness in his throwing arm.

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And yet, Ashton, who started playing baseball at age 4 and has been a solid player at every youth level, sometimes a star, is making history once again on this picture-perfect baseball field about 10 miles northwest of Kennesaw. The young Marietta woman is the first female player on the Georgia Highlands baseball team, an NJCAA Division I program. Ashton is also believed to be the first girl to start a varsity game as a pitcher at Wheeler High School, known for perennially strong sports programs. And last year, at only 17, she landed a spot on the roster for the USA Baseball Women’s National Team.

“I’ve always loved the game of baseball,” said Ashton. “Everything is faster and more competitive in the next levels, and no matter how fast or how hard it is, it doesn’t change my mind of whether I want to play or not.”

Ashton is part of a tiny but growing group of girls in Georgia and across the country determined to play baseball and search for ways to keep playing when they reach their teen years — and beyond. And while the number of girls playing baseball remains small, they are determined to break the gender barrier, even as they age, and it becomes increasingly challenging to keep playing.

Ashton Lansdell, the only female to play on the Georgia Highlands College baseball team, slides safely into home base during a baseball intrasquad scrimmage at the Lakepoint Sports Complex in Emerson on Sept. 26, 2019. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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.

Biology plays a role. Boys, especially older boys, often have an edge over girls in size and strength, allowing them to throw faster and swing harder. But girls will say the toughest obstacles are against stereotypes — that baseball is only for boys.

Georgia Highlands College freshman Ashton Lansdell (center) sits in the dugout with her teammates Trace Twardoski (left) and Jonathan Bergmoser (right) during a baseball intrasquad scrimmage at the Lakepoint Sports Complex in Emerson on Sept. 26, 2019. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

A growing support system

According to the latest Georgia High School Association participation study, a total of 23 girls played baseball at 15 schools. That’s up from 10 girls playing baseball at seven schools in 2014. The actual number is likely even smaller because at least a few of these girls counted in surveys as players are serving as managers or statisticians for a team.

In contrast, more than 400 schools in Georgia field softball teams with over 8,000 participating, according to the GHSA.

Even so, momentum appears to be building for supporting girls to stick with baseball. And across the country, the number has been steadily rising. Close to 1,300 girls play baseball in 28 states, with California home to the most with 418 female baseball players, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Justine Siegal created the nonprofit Baseball for All, advocating for girls having the opportunity to play baseball, several years ago. The organization helps communities create girls baseball teams, and she runs girls baseball camps in Florida. In 2011, Siegal made history by becoming the first woman to throw batting practice to a Major League Baseball team. She first threw to the Cleveland Indians and later to the A’s, Rays, Cardinals, Mets and Astros.

Over the past few years, MLB has partnered with USA Baseball to host multiple events for young women who want to play baseball. This year, MLB and USA Baseball provided three events (the Trailblazer Series, the Girls Baseball Breakthrough Series and MLB Grit) for young women to improve their skills, promote the sport, increase participation numbers and support the women in the baseball community.

The event, hosted at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Florida, is a developmental camp specifically designed for girls baseball players. It features instruction and appearances by former MLB players, and former and current members of the Women’s National Team for USA Baseball.

Kim Ng, Major League Baseball senior vice-president for baseball operations, and right, Maybelle Blair, who played in 1948 for the Peoria Redwings, during a celebration of the Rockford Peaches' 75th Anniversary. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Kim Ng, MLB senior vice president for baseball operations, said the league has been building on its relationship with USA Baseball and strengthening ties with the women’s national baseball team. She said the MLB is making a concerted effort to increase opportunities for girls to play baseball.

“When you see the fire, the drive, and the determination with which they play, you can’t help but want to provide more opportunities for them,” said Ng. “The structures in place, which have been in place for decades, make it difficult for girls to continue on with baseball, past a certain point. They have to compete with the boys, which obviously has its trials and tribulations, but we try to provide opportunities for them to see and compete against girls just like them.”

A deep love of the game

Ashton started playing baseball when she was 4, tossing plastic balls, swinging a tiny wood bat in her family’s yard. From the start, she was making easy contact with the ball. Her parents could tell their older child, and only daughter, had exceptionally good hand-eye coordination. And she was fast, too.

She hit a home run at her first at bat at her very first T-ball game. By the time she was 10, she was on a competitive traveling team.

Ashton said she rarely heard snide comments about her playing baseball — and when she did, they came from players on other teams, not from her teammates.

At least one softball coach tried to recruit Ashton to play softball. And when she was 12, she acquiesced — to one practice. She didn’t like the smaller field, larger ball, underhanded pitch.

“I tried it but wasn’t feeling it,” said Ashton. “It’s just so different than baseball. It’s like comparing pingpong to tennis.”

Gabi Yulo, a 14-year-old high school freshman, is shown at a baseball tournament. “I’ve never been told you have to make a switch (to softball), but I’m asked: Are you going to make the switch?” said Gabi, who lives in Tucker. CONTRIBUTED

Gabi Yulo, a 14-year-old high school freshman who has been playing baseball since she was about 5, can relate.

“I’ve never been told you have to make a switch, but I’m asked: Are you going to make the switch?” said Gabi, who lives in Tucker.

But Gabi’s affinity for baseball has never abated.

“I always loved the game of baseball and it stuck with me,” said Gabi. “It just feels so natural and it doesn’t feel forced. It just flows.”

Gabi started in small local leagues and then progressed to travel teams. She’s also been invited to participate in several tournaments for highly talented girls baseball players, including the Girls Baseball Breakthrough Series.

Siegal of Baseball for All said she knew Gabi was a special player, and person, when she met her several years ago.

Even at age 6, Gabi Yulo’s love of baseball was obvious. As she got older, she was invited to participate in several tournaments for highly talented girls baseball players, including the Girls Baseball Breakthrough Series. CONTRIBUTED

“I first saw her at 6 years old and she was too young for the camp, but her mom convinced me to let her come,” said Siegal. “She was on the field all day and then she would practice afterwards. I knew there was something special about her. She has this personal strength you don’t see everyday.”

Siegal said while acceptance is growing for girls playing baseball, obstacles remain. She said she hears from girls across the country looking for guidance when they are told by a coach, an athletics director, a parent they can’t play baseball. Sometimes it’s a not-so-subtle urging to play softball. Other times, it’s a more outright prohibition. She recently heard from a California family whose young daughter had been playing Little League for years, but when they went to sign her up this year, the only way to register was to select “boy” gender — essentially preventing any girls from joining the team.

“I think you’ll find many of the girls who play baseball — they are little warriors just to play baseball and they shouldn’t have to be,” she said. “They shouldn’t have to wear their gender on their shoulders every time they are at bat.”

When Gabi was younger, there might be a couple of other girls on the team. She currently plays on Atlanta Lightning, which practices at North Atlanta High School and includes players from around metro Atlanta. Gabi, whose primary position is catcher, is the only girl on her team, but she’s used to it.

“When you are playing baseball, you have to stay focused, and you have to let other things going on in our life, you have to let them go for a little while. It’s good to have your full focus. It’s relaxing,” said Gabi. “I would play baseball for the rest of my life if I could.”

Her regimen is intense: strength and conditioning training twice a week and team practices three times a week. She also does one-on-one batting sessions once or twice a week. On the weekends, she often has games. She recently participated in a tournament organized by DC Force, an all-girls baseball team based in Washington, D.C., that includes girls from the Southeast.

While Gabi would love to see all-girls baseball teams widely available, and at schools like other sports, she also likes playing with boys.

“I think there should be more coed teams to show we can play together,” said Gabi. “I think it would be really cool for men and women to play together in sports. Why do you need to separate it?”

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‘I can compete with everyone else’

Dash O’Neill, the head coach for the Georgia Highlands baseball team, recalled the moment he attended one of Ashton’s games earlier this year to evaluate her.

“She reached out to me like other players and asked for an opportunity,” said O’Neill, who also coached at Chattahoochee Valley Community College for several years. O’Neill has helped over 190 players advance to four-year institutions, as well as helped produce 16 players drafted by MLB teams.

He was impressed. She threw the ball well. She was fast. A good defender.

“She’s very tough mentally,” he added. She wasn’t a token girl on the field. She looked like she belonged.

“To me, the part that she is a woman was not part of the equation. I saw a baseball player who wanted to play,” Georgia Highlands College baseball coach Dash O’Neill says of redshirt freshman Ashton Lansdell. Here, he’s speaking to Ashton during a baseball intrasquad scrimmage on Sept. 26, 2019. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

While he recognizes Ashton’s trying to accomplish at a high level, something very few women have achieved, he emphasized the following point repeatedly: “To me, the part that she is a woman was not part of the equation. I saw a baseball player who wanted to play.”

O’Neill encouraged Ashton, currently playing second base, to sit out this season as a redshirt to adapt to the increased speed of the game. Ashton agreed, saying she will use the year to develop. Redshirting college athletes is a way for coaches to give players more time to develop before getting on the field or court without having to lose any of their eligibility.

At 17, Ashton Lansdell landed a spot on the roster for the USA Baseball Women’s National Team. Now, she’s on the Georgia Highlands College baseball team. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Ashton, who is 5 feet, 8 inches tall, with shoulder-length light brown hair, is confident she wins over her teammates with work ethic and skills.

“They know I put the work in and that I can compete with everyone else,” she says.

Her intense workout includes several hours of practices, CrossFit training and conditioning every week.

Palmer Sapp, who plays shortstop on the Georgia Highlands team, said he knew Ashton was a solid player from the moment they were throwing partners at the first practice of the season. They also have biology class together.

“We push each other hard,” said Sapp. “She challenges herself every day just like every other player. Whether you are male or female makes no difference. We all like to get at it. We are one unit.”

Meanwhile, Chris Gaiter from Villa Rica, who played on the same travel team over a year ago, wasn’t surprised to see Ashton play at a college level.

“I knew she could make it to this level easily,” said Gaiter, who plays first base and pitcher positions. “She never stops and she is always working hard.”

“What I love about baseball is it’s kind of my free space where I have nothing to worry about,” said Ashton. “It’s my happy place.”

For now, she wants to just keep playing, and pushing the boundaries — as long and as far as possible.

And she enjoys playing on both girls and boys teams.

“I love playing with girls because of the vibe and we understand and click better together as friends,” she said.

But she prefers playing baseball with boys, when the balls move faster, she said, because “it’s what I have done my whole life.”

Maybe someday she’ll pursue a career in sports either in broadcasting or in coaching.

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” said Ashton’s coach O’Neill. “I don’t set ceilings for any of my players. My job is to lift them up as high as I can.”

Meanwhile, Ng, already one of the highest-ranking women in baseball, and long considered a strong candidate to be a GM, has seen Ashton play, and she’s also not about to put any limits on how far she can go.

“She is a standout and she is eye-opening,” said Ng. “What do you say about a kid who made the national team at 17? Hard to say there is a limit.”

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