After three weeks, the female players on the Sonoma Stompers are still making history
UPDATE: After Anna Kimbrell officially joined the Sonoma Stompers on Friday, she and Kelsie Whitmore combined to make history as the first all-female professional battery in nearly 70 years. Things started out well, with the duo retiring the side in order in the first inning before giving up four runs in the second.
Kelsie Whitmore's first pitch was put into play for an out. Whitmore retired the side in order in the first. pic.twitter.com/Sm5yaLzDaB— Sonoma Stompers (@SonomaStompers) July 23, 2016
As you enter Sonoma, you might already think you've reached paradise -- arriving in an idyllic city square after driving through fields and vineyards. What you probably don't expect is that the town has one of the most progressive independent baseball teams in the country.
At the start of July, the independent Sonoma Stompers team signed Kelsie Whitmore and Stacy Piagno from the US Women's National Baseball Team. The two have not only played with the Stompers for the whole month, but they're also part of the first year of a three-year plan to field a co-ed team, an idea put in motion when Francis Ford Coppola (yes, that one) teamed up with the Stompers and their GM Theo Fightmaster (yes, real name).
Not only that, but the team will add another player from the national team on Friday when Anna Kimbrell makes her debut behind the plate -- the first instance of an all-female battery in professional baseball since the All American Professional Girls Baseball League in World War II, according to the Stompers.
How have things gone for Whitmore and Piagno now that they're a few weeks into their professional careers? Well, on July 15, Piagno struck out her first batter with a two-seamer on the outside corner:
And on Wednesday, Kelsie collected her first professional hit.
"First month's been great. They've been incredible," Fightmaster told MLB.com. "They aren't just good baseball players, they're even better people. They're smart, they're sophisticated. They have a good approach to the game. They've assimilated really well in the clubhouse."
Piagno echoes that sentiment, herself. "It's really been great just to be here," she said. "It's a great family vibe. The guys on the team have been so supportive of us. They have been teaching us a lot -- they're kind of like coaches and friends to us."
Not that there wasn't some doubt when they first signed. After all, would this be just another promotional stunt? Infielder/hitting coach Joel Carranza, who has taken the two players under his wing, admitted he was a little wary at first. "You're always skeptical with what you hear and stuff like that," he said. "They came out here and they did a tremendous job with us. Nobody has any complaints."
Carranza explained that the team has rallied behind the two women, and when Piagno "got her first strikeout with us, that was a big moment that stood out. The whole team was excited and happy for her. And yesterday, Kelsie got her first hit with us. I know it was something I was very proud of."
Yet, his statement possibly downplays the pride Carranza and the team feel for their new teammates. "He was the first guy out to run out and get the ball from the umpire and make sure her Dad got it," Fightmaster said of Whitmore's first hit.
This excitement extends all the way from the dugout to the fanbase. Tim Livingston, the assistant GM and play-by-play man for the team, said you can tell there's something special happening from the moment Whitmore steps into the on-deck circle: "The crowd just gets electric. You can hear it before you even see it."
It's not just the home crowd, either. When Whitmore collected her hit on the road against the San Rafael Pacifics, Livingston recalled, "just the roar you heard when it was announced that it was her first professional hit -- from the away team, with a bunch of kids there -- was just incredible."
Signing autographs before the game on Thursday, it's obvious these women have already made an impact. Perhaps surprisingly, it's not just young girls looking up to them.
"Girls and boys honestly come up to us and thank us for what we're doing," Piagno said. "They're so supportive and they're so excited to meet us and be a part of it all."
"The best part is when I have a little boy that comes up to me. They're so innocent and they don't know the difference between a guy and a girl playing baseball. It's cool to see little kids coming up and [us] being an inspiration to them."
"Growing up I never really had a female baseball player that was at a high level that I [could] look up to," she said. "To think that 'Hey, everything's gonna be okay because they're doing it, so I can do it.' I never had that growing up. I want to be that for younger girls."
She may just inspire a few more when she takes the mound to pitch on Friday with Kimbrell behind the plate.
Throwing a two-seam fastball, a four-seamer, a slider and a knuckleball, Whitmore is already used to throwing to her new Stompers teammate, as the two teamed up in the Pan-Am games, where her ERA was 1.40. "I've pitched to her on the National Team and I'm comfortable. And she's a good catcher. I'm trying to get mentally prepared, but at the same time, trying to focus on my swing."
While Kimbrell will only be with the team for a few games, she's a player that the Stompers have long eyed.
"If you can frame a good game, if you can call a good game, if you can manage a pitching staff and you can control the running game, then you don't have to be a .320 hitter with power," Fightmaster said, pointing out that Kimbrell catches a former Triple-A pitcher in a men's amateur league. "She knows how to receive 92-93 [mph], with a good breaking ball. So it's going to be fun to see what the two of them can do tomorrow."
Of course, if you were in attendance on Thursday night, you didn't have to wait to get a sight of baseball's future. Piagno entered in the eighth inning with the Stompers trailing 7-2 to the Pacifics. She proceeded to use her two-seam fastball, knuckle curve and slider to throw two shutout innings.
"We're not trying to go out there and be heroes, to be a big part of history," Piagno said. "It kind of comes along with the territory, which is great. And we're opening doors for other young girls, which is really important. It is important to us as well. [But] we're just trying to better ourselves as ballplayers, and we're able to focus on baseball while all these other great things are happening along the way."
But if the women have critics, they've surely been silenced by their on-field performance: The Stompers won the first-half championship with Piagno and Whitmore on the team.
"We signed a couple women, and the sky didn't fall. We're still winning baseball games, and we're still a good team. It's been really positive," Fightmaster said.
Squad up 👀⚾️ pic.twitter.com/xz1LeM86gN— Whit⚾️ (@KelsieWhitmore) July 9, 2016
Unfortunately for the Stompers, the trio won't be around for the stretch run at the end of the year. But, you will be able to follow them this fall as the US looks for gold at the Women's World Cup in September.
"It will be fun to watch in the World Cup in South Korea and see how they perform after being baptized by fire at this level of men's professional baseball," Fightmaster said.
Of course, the thinking might need to get much larger than a single tournament. Livingston imagines the young girls who, after hearing about the three women on the Stompers, might be given the option between baseball and softball and choose baseball. "This is for them in a lot of ways. To give them this opportunity, [to show] that women can come and play. We've had this motto, 'if you can play, you can play,' for a reason. And it's been phenomenal."