Canada-U.S. friendly series players in Thunder Bay hope it’s a win for women’s baseball

Elite-level international baseball returns to Northern Ontario this week as Thunder Bay hosts a five-game friendly series between the Canada and United States Women’s National Teams.

This is the first international competition for both teams since the 2019 COPABE Women’s Pan American Championships in Mexico, where the Americans won gold. Canada and the United States are in the top five in the world rankings.

The players are looking for wins on and off the field, as they also hope to raise awareness for women’s baseball.

“When you’re younger, it’s like, ‘Oh, you switch to softball, right?’ Like, ‘Girls play softball, don’t they?’ No. We’re here to show that we play baseball,” said Zoe Hicks, who is on third base for her first time with the Canadian national team, under the guidance of Ashley Stephenson, a former hockey player and Ontario baseball.

Hicks grew up playing softball and competed on a varsity team, but on a trip home one summer, she found herself on the senior men’s team at her old high school.

Players of the Canadian women’s baseball team take part in drills on a field in Thunder Bay, where the five-game women’s friendly series runs through Monday. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

“From there, I fell in love with it,” Hicks said of baseball.

She was drafted to play with Team Manitoba before making the National Women’s Team.

Hicks said it’s important to show young girls that they can choose to play baseball.

“I think it’s important to be representations of what little girls want to be and to show them that it’s possible and that it’s an opportunity that’s going to be given to them.”

Social expectation that women play softball

During a morning practice before the first game on Thursday, Malaika Underwood shouted encouragement from the first goal to her American teammates.

At 41, Underwood is the oldest player on the USA team and has played with the national team since 2006.

“When I was growing up in San Diego, I thought I was the only girl in the world that played. I played Little League,” Underwood said. “I struggled to play in high school. I dropped out of baseball – or so I thought – when I went to college,”

Without a women’s college baseball team, she decided to play volleyball instead.

It wasn’t until 2006, years after graduating from college, that Underwood came across open tryouts for the United States Women’s National Baseball Team, which had only been created two years earlier. early, in 2004.

Malaika Underwood (center), who plays first base for the United States Women's National Baseball Team, listens to her coaches during practice in Thunder Bay, Ont., ahead of an international friendly series against Canada.
Malaika Underwood, center, who plays first base for the United States Women’s National Team, listens to her coaches during practice in Thunder Bay ahead of the International Series against Canada. (Logan Turner/CBC)

She said that in the years since her first introduction to the national team, the level of talent and opportunities for girls and women to play baseball have continued to grow. But still, she said, barriers remain.

“I can’t tell you how many times when I say I play baseball people correct me and say, ‘Oh, you mean softball?'” Underwood added. “The truth is, I know what game I’m playing, and it’s baseball. There’s still this social expectation that boys play baseball and girls play softball, so we have a lot of work to do to change that. that.”

“I Stick to Baseball”

Her teammate, Alana Martinez, the youngest player on the American team at just 16, agreed.

“I was first put in softball when I started, and I didn’t like it. Competing just wasn’t for me. I wanted to play baseball,” Martinez said.

“Still to this day, I’m pushed. But I don’t feed myself. I just keep working and stick to baseball.”

Back in her home state of Florida, Martinez is the only woman on her traveling baseball team as there are no all-female teams. This is something she hopes will change in the years to come.

Alana Martinez, 16, is the youngest player on the U.S. Women's National Baseball Team.  She says she was pressured to play softball instead of baseball, but held on because of her love for the sport.
Alana Martinez, 16, is the youngest player on the United States Women’s National Baseball Team. She says she was pressured to play softball instead of baseball, but resisted because of her love for baseball. (Logan Turner/CBC)

Underwood said there are more opportunities now than 15 years ago, “but I think we still have a lot of work to do to open up those opportunities, both locally and at a higher level. “.

She said more resources for women to play baseball at all ages — especially in high school and college — will be important in growing the sport, as will more media coverage.

“The more we can cover the game at the highest level…it’s important not only to inspire girls who might want to play, but also to break that mold so people know that women play baseball at a very high level. “

The series between the North American rivals runs through Monday, with games daily at Baseball Central in Thunder Bay.

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