Breakthrough Series focuses on future of women in baseball

November 12th, 2023

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Coming off its second-ever World Series appearance, the D-backs organization is still making contributions on the diamond almost two weeks after Major League Baseball's season concluded.

Hillsboro Hops manager Ronnie Gajownik -- a history-making skipper with the D-backs' affiliate in the High-A Northwest League -- is one of a number of coaches, many of them female, who were at Jackie Robinson Training Complex this weekend as part of the Breakthrough Series Girls Baseball instructional camp.

The country's top 30 female high school baseball players were at the former Spring Training home of the Dodgers, learning from some of the game's finest coaches -- from a diverse array of backgrounds -- as part of a two-day event. Friday was for regimented instruction and practice, while Saturday’s highlight was an afternoon game to wrap up the activities.

The first female manager to reach the High-A level, Gajownik said the camp's intensity would be helpful in teaching the girls about the rigid, regimented approach taken by players who succeed in the sport.

“They’re busting their butts and asking questions and not scared to talk. Just for women in baseball and just for baseball in general, the fact that we’re out here [is amazing],” she said. “At their age, the information that I’m giving them, [former MLB pitcher] LaTroy [Hawkins] is giving them and Veronica Alvarez [of the A's organization] is giving them … we didn’t have that information when we were their ages.

“I’m not only learning for myself, I’m learning for them, too, and for the future of women in baseball and baseball in general.”

Gajownik managed the Hillsboro Hops to a 56-76 mark, which gridded them last in the six-team league. She will return there next season.

“There was a lot of stuff that happened in the season,” said the former University of South Florida softball player, who also competed 15 miles south of JRTC at the Juco level. “I loved every bit of it. Everyone had good days and everyone had bad days, but it’s about learning and relying on your staff members. I’m more of a servant leader -- like, ‘Hey, what do you need? You’re capable, what do you need from me?’ Making sure everyone had their stuff together.

“Great atmosphere, great front office, great GM -- I mean, great everything. They do it all really well up there.”

Gajownik said the spirit of the D-backs’ run through the National League to the Fall Classic electrified the organization.

Arizona toppled the Brewers in the NL Wild Card Series, swept the NL West rival Dodgers in the Division Series and stunned the heavily favored Phillies in seven games in the NL Championship Series before ultimately falling to the Rangers in the World Series.

“Our GM Mike Hazen sent out an email saying that the World Series was a culmination of so many different factors and so many different people,” said Gajownik of the organization, which flew its coaches to the World Series games. “[Manager] Torey Lovullo always reiterates that a connected team is a dangerous team. They were like 65-1 [odds] to win the NL, and you have all of these analytics and numbers.

“But at the end of the day, none of those can account for the human factor.”

Alvarez has become a fixture at JRTC, as well as a heavy hitter in women’s baseball and MLB, as manager of the women’s national team for USA Baseball and coordinator of player development for Latin America for the A's.

Eight members of the national team are participating -- half as players, the other half coaches.

“To kind of have that full-circle [moment] just shows the development that it’s creating, not only on the playing side but on the coaching side as well, and just creating opportunities to continue to grow within the game. This event is the best of the best for that reason,” Alvarez said.

Currently the hitting coach for the Guardians' Arizona complex academy, Amanda Kamekona said it is important for the coaches to come to JRTC and make themselves visible to the upstart baseball players.

“It’s important to see women in these roles, but there’s not any one path or anything specific that they’re doing," said Kamekona. "We’re all doing different things in the game. I think it’s really powerful to be seen doing that.”

She was hired in February by the organization, becoming the first woman to join the Guardians in an on-field role.

Camp invitee Demi Chaney, a standout middle infielder and pitcher from Homewood, Ill., said it is easy to be impressed by the coaching staff.

“It’s truly an honor to be coached by this coaching staff,” Chaney said. “People do not get the opportunity to be coached by such big people in this game. It’s really a blessing to be coached by them.

“They can help me as an athlete because they know what they are doing. … They’ve been at the professional level before and played the game all their life. They just make me a better player.’