Kelsey Whitmore catches on with Staten Island FerryHawks

Scott Whitmore was standing in the lobby on a recent spring night, watching the final half of the Ferry Hawks’ home game in Staten Island, when an NYPD cop approached him from third base.

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

Of course, Whitmore chuckled, even though he knew the line would be long. Aside from a handful of Yankee and Mets stars, the most famous baseball player in New York this summer may very well be Kelsey Whitmore, Staten Island’s groundbreaking two-way game.

At 5’6″, with dark brown hair that flows outside of her uniform number, she’s unmistakable in a FerryHawks dugout warming up on the field or signing autographs. She is an unusual sight, even in a league known for taking risks and pushing buttons.

Considered the premier independent minor league baseball, the Atlantic Professional Baseball League played host to former All-Stars Roger Clemens, Jose Canseco, and Ricky Henderson. But the woman never started or participated in an Atlantic League game until Whitmore played both. She is the first woman to play in a league affiliated with Major League Baseball since Lee Ann Ketcham and Julie Kroto joined the Maui Stingrays of the Hawaiian Winter Baseball League in 1994.

This league was roughly equivalent to a class A ball, while the Atlantic is considered closer to the AAA class, one notch below the major leagues. At 24, Whitmore, a former California State softball star at Fullerton, is doing his best to establish himself in professional baseball.

For Whitmore, it’s a return to normalcy. She played softball because it was the only way she could get a college scholarship. But she’s always been a baseball player, and she has a lot in common with character traits. She wears a cap pulled low, swings a 32.5 ounce bat, swears impulsively and spits reflexively.

The tattoos on her left forearm contain Filipino imagery – a nod to her mother’s heritage – including a chain of crocodile teeth representing an aggressive hunter lurking beneath a quiet, calm façade.

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

Whitmore has been a surprisingly unsuspecting baseball player since she was a teenager. She was the only girl on the Temecula Valley High School varsity baseball team in Southern California, and at age 17 she was one of only two to sign a professional game contract for the Sonoma Stompers of the Pacific Association, an independent league.

Now she’s alone in a league filled with former major league players, on a team run by former Mets player Edgardo Alfonso.

There are other women leading the way in baseball, a male-dominated sport. This spring, Rachel Balkovec of the Tampa Tarpons became the first female manager in affiliate baseball. In March, Alexis Hopkins was selected by the Atlantic League’s Kentucky Wild Health Genomes as the team’s bullpen catcher.

But Whitmore, who started twice from left field and appeared on the mound four times, proves she belongs in professional baseball as a player.

“This is a groundbreaking development for us,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said of Whitmore. “It gives you a God-honest, real-life example of what we’ve been talking about for years: someday we’ll have women playing professionally.”

After a recent night game was postponed due to weather, Whitmore was on stage with several teammates practicing and debating who was going to run for chop cheese sandwiches, a wine cellar specialty that has become an obsession at the FerryHawks club. .

Suddenly she stopped to figure out how to jump over a puddle that had formed on the concrete, about eight feet wide, which she easily crossed. “In high school, I did the long jump,” Whitmore said with a shrug.

Her sports career also included football, lacrosse, flag football and volleyball. She can go 280 yards with her driver and deadlift 400 pounds.

Was there any sport she didn’t try?

“Hurrah,” Whitmore said.

Scott Whitmore, a gym teacher, said baseball was his daughter’s first love. At the age of 6, he brought Kelsey to sign up for the Little League, but she refused. She was content playing catch and swinging in the backyard.

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

It was because she thought she would have to wear her hair in a ponytail. She chose to leave him free.

Her father laughed and told her that she could wear her hair however she wanted. Since then, it has remained below.

“I think a part of me thought that if I succeeded, I would be just like all the other girls,” Whitmore said. “It was not comfortable. It wasn’t me. “

It’s not uncommon for girls to play in the Little League. But Whitmore soon began to realize just how gendered baseball (boys) and softball (girls) designs were.

“You would hear the doubters,” said Scott Whitmore. “Hey, the boys will get stronger and she won’t be able to hang out with them.” They said so at the age of 12, and it never happened.

Justine Segal first saw Whitmore Field when she was 15 years old. Segal, who was the first female coach in a major league organization, founded the nonprofit Baseball for All to promote gender equality in baseball and offer opportunities to girls who want to play on youth teams. .

Since that first meeting, Segal has been following Whitmore, thinking she might be the one who can break through and advance further in professional baseball than any woman in decades.

“There was something special about her,” Segal 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 toughness to keep going.

“I got this feeling, shouldn’t I be here?” Whitmore said. “Doesn’t this belong to me? People keep asking me why I’m here, people are confused, outsiders try to push me to a different path. I started messing around in my head.”

Loneliness has also become a factor. Always the only girl, outstanding, standing out. According to her, it became emotionally draining.

“You just want to know what it means to fit in,” Whitmore said.

Unable to get a baseball scholarship, she entered a softball recruiting contest despite her limited playing experience. Her athleticism and baseball instincts were enough to attract a flood of offers from coaches who thought they could turn her into a star over time.

She used to recoil at the thought of switching to softball. “That was not what I wanted to do,” Whitmore said. “The school softball team wanted me to play for them. To be honest, it’s like telling me to go play football. It’s a completely different sport in my head.”

However, college softball looked more appealing as Whitmore felt the spotlight might not be as focused on her.

“I thought if I played on a team full of girls, I would recognize that feeling that I’m not someone everyone is always looking at or wanting to change,” Whitmore said. “When I stepped onto the softball field, I thought, ‘OK, cool, I’m finally a part of them.’

She was different though.

She moved like a baseball player, wore a hat, baseball pants. She had to re-learn how to hit, how to evaluate flying balls, how to brush away bags. Even the atmosphere in the dugout was alien to her – the girls did not communicate like the guys.

After games, she would slip into the batting cages to get hit by overhead pitchers. In the summer, after the end of the season in Fullerton, she played for the US women’s baseball team. “I told myself it was temporary,” Whitmore said of softball.

She also reached out to Joe Beimel, a former major league pitcher who opened a practice facility in Torrance, California that helps pitchers build up speed. When Whitmore arrived, her fastball accelerated to just over 70 miles per hour.

“We needed to bring her back to at least the 80s,” Beimel said in a phone interview. But he was impressed by the movement in her fields.

Whitmore’s pitching arsenal consists of two-seam, four-seam, slider, curve – and something else altogether. “It’s a weird substitution that she throws,” Beimel said.

Whitmore calls it “The Thing” and the field has become a source of admiration for the FerryHawks. Former teammate Julio Tehran, who played for the Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Angels and Detroit Tigers, studied her grip before he recently left for the Mexican league.

Whitmore would never blow away professional hitters (she’s now shooting for 70), but Eddie Medina, the FerryHawks COO who pushed for her to sign, felt that Whitmore could throw hitters off balance.

Her pitching coach, former major league player Nelson Figueroa, was successful despite his lack of pace, and he helped Whitmore adapt. In her second serve appearance of the season, she allowed six runs in two-thirds of an inning during the loss. In a recent performance on June 5, she hit a scoreless inning.

Despite the mixed results, fans are cheering for her name and coming to see her. Life in baseball means dressing in your own locker room and showering in a room used by team coaches.

But she calls her teammates “big brothers” and they reciprocate her hugs.

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

He wasn’t going to miss the game. “I’m going to spend the whole summer watching my daughter play baseball.”