The Sonoma Stompers are set to make more history by signing two women to their roster
The world of independent baseball is filled with unique promotions and even stranger giveaways. For the Sonoma Stompers of the Pacific Association, they're a bit more forward-thinking than a simple bobblehead or cat video festival, though. Last year they became the first team to cede control to a couple of sabermetrically inclined baseball writers and were the first team to have an openly gay professional player on their roster.
While many teams host LGBTQ pride nights, the Stompers celebrated theirs by moving Sean Conroy from the bullpen to the rotation -- his teammates wearing rainbow-colored socks and armbands in support.
Now they'll be the first professional team to have women on the field since Toni Stone, Mamie "Peanut" Johnson and Constance Morgan played in the Negro Leagues back in the 1950s.
On Friday, July 1, when the Stompers take on the San Rafael Pacifics, 17-year-old Kelsie Whitmore will start in left field while 25-year-old Stacy Piagno will take the mound, armed with a knuckle-curve, slider and fastball.
It's official! @KelsieWhitmore is a member of the Stompers! A historic day for baseball. pic.twitter.com/HdZAO9KfQg— Sonoma Stompers (@SonomaStompers) June 29, 2016
But don't think this is just a one-game stunt. Theo Fightmaster, the brilliantly named GM for the Stompers, told MLB.com in a phone call:
"This isn't a one-day event. That's been done a dozen times. Let's give women a chance to be part of a team, let's give women a chance to play against men. What will they learn? What have they not been coached because they haven't had the same coaching as boys? I remember being really disappointed with my sister's coaches because they coached the girls a lot different than how I was coached."
He hopes that this is just the start of a women's baseball movement. While other countries like Japan have girls high school baseball, that simply doesn't exist in America. "There's not enough places or ways for women to play baseball in this country," Fightmaster says. "Women get funneled into softball -- if they want to play baseball, they end up playing softball."
As for how the two players made it to the team, that's all thanks to Francis Ford Coppola. Really. Fightmaster admits that while he grew up with his mom being the baseball fan in the house and his sister starring on the varsity baseball team, he likely would not have thought of this on his own.
During a meeting with Coppola and his wife at their vineyard in Geyserville, Calif., the director told Fightmaster of his hope to have co-ed baseball teams. Though the Stompers GM told Coppola how "crazy and difficult this was going to be," Coppola still wanted to try and the two made made a deal to put out a three-year search to make it happen. "When Francis tells you to try, you try," Fightmaster said.
From there, the Stompers GM dove into the world of women's baseball. A friend who scouts for the D-backs put the Stompers in touch with Justine Siegal, the first female coach in the Majors. Soon Fightmaster was on a plane to see the 17-year-old Whitmore in a high school game. Though Fightmaster was skeptical at first, he was easily swayed.
"After spending five minutes with Kelsie and shaking her hand, watching her throw and watching her be around with the guys, I was really comfortable," he said.
It was even easier once he saw her on the field. With a runner on second base, Fightmaster watched Whitmore field a grounder in left field. Rather than send the runner, the third-base coach already knew and respected Whitmore's arm and held the runner at third. It was a smart call. "She threw a one-hop throw to the catcher and the guy would have been dead to rights," Fightmaster said.
After Whitmore took a pitch to the ribs and was "spitting up blood" while at first base during her next at-bat, Fightmaster says he "knew she was tough, knew she had a strong arm. She moved like a baseball player and had a good head on her shoulders."
The Stompers' scouting mission next sent them to the U.S. Women's National Team tryouts in Cary, N.C., where they spotted Piagno. While there were a number of women the team was interested in -- with players like Malaika Underwood and Tamara Holmes -- a number of them had jobs and careers they couldn't interrupt to "sign up for some independent pro team and move to the West Coast for the next 90 days or whatever it may be."
Not even on their shortlist, once they saw Piagno displaying a good arm while playing third base -- and saw that she had no-hit Puerto Rico at the Pan American Games -- they were quickly intrigued.
As for how both women will do in the Pacific Association, Fightmaster can't say. "I've never seen [Piagno] pitch against grown men," he said. "It was girls and aluminum bats and it was a different environment." After getting their first starts on July 1, their roles (with Whitmore likely to get a chance on the mound) will be decided based on their performance.
Congrats to @KelsieWhitmore & Stacy Piagno who have been recruited to play with the @SonomaStompers July 1st! pic.twitter.com/kZimx1jJTG— AAGPBL Official (@AAGPBL) June 24, 2016
"Both of these girls are on the roster," Fightmaster said. "They're gonna play however much they earn. They are not gonna be in the starting lineup every night so we can sell more tickets. It's a big game on July 1 and they'll both be in the lineup and after that we'll see what their performance dictates."
No matter the outcome, Piagno and Whitmore aren't the end of the Stompers' foray into women's baseball. With the two leaving at the end of July -- Piagno to start her teaching career and Whitmore on a softball scholarship to Cal-State Fullerton -- Fightmaster said, "There's a couple more women we'd like to bring out throughout the season."
With at least a three-year endeavor with Coppola, Fightmaster hopes to "find a couple more women who come to us and say, 'Hey I've always wanted to play baseball and never had the chance. But here, I have this left-handed knuckleball that no one can hit in my men's league team that I play on.' That's the dream for me -- we start letting women and girls realize there's room for them in the game."