Finch, Gajownik inspire next generation of women in sports

February 2nd, 2023

It was the first time this winter that New York City saw snow on the ground, but if you were inside the Field House at Chelsea Piers, you could be forgiven if you thought it was the middle of spring. That's because plenty of baseball and softball action was going on, with dozens of children from the nearby Guardian Angel School swinging, catching, and running around -- all under the watchful eye of USA softball superstar Jennie Finch, new Hillsboro Hops manager Ronnie Gajownik and members of the Fordham University softball team.

"We have about 80 kids coming in, who just get to play ball," Finch told MLB Network. "So, we're gonna be playing some wiffle ball, gonna be running around, just having fun and introducing these kids to the game of baseball."

While it's always a good idea to get out a bat and a ball, Wednesday's event was part of a bigger celebration: It was National Girls and Women in Sports Day.

It's a day that resonates with Gajownik, who recently became just the second woman to manage a team in the Minor Leagues after the Yankees' Rachel Balkovec. She had trouble envisioning a future in baseball because there weren't many people for her to follow in their footsteps.

"The first time I'd ever heard of even the women's national baseball team was 2011," Gajownik said. "I mean, I was a freshman in college that year. So there definitely wasn't anything [like this]."

Beyond just offering instruction and an introduction to the sport, the day was also important so the children could see a path forward, no matter what they may want to do with their future.

"It's definitely a privilege," Gajownik said about being a role model for everyone on hand. "That's something that I take with me a lot. Because again, growing up, I didn't really have that. So, the fact that you can have these little girls and also these little boys see what women are doing and what we're capable of doing."

"[It's] obviously a special day with it being National Girls and Women in Sports Day," Melissa Inouye, head coach of Fordham softball -- a position she dreamed of holding when she was still in elementary school -- said. "It's been awesome to see the kids running around. At this age -- I think a lot of them are around eight, nine years old -- which is the age I started seriously playing sports, so it's good interaction."

The day was also a reminder that there are opportunities in both baseball and softball, and your gender no longer is the deciding factor on which to participate in.

"I remember my dad putting me into softball," Gajownik said. "And I remember looking over to the baseball field and seeing all my old teammates. I remember being really upset because I wanted to be over there with them. Obviously, I got used to it because I had to. At that time, it was softball or bust. But I was always a really big baseball fan. I grew up a Chicago Cubs fan, took my dad to a Chicago Cubs game for his birthday one year. It just was never an option anymore."

"I think it's huge having [Finch and Gajownik] come and show their faces," senior outfielder Michaela Carter said. "I think that especially to females -- softball or within baseball -- I think it's huge to show these young kids that no matter who you are, whatever gender you are, you're able to make it to these places. And I think it's really exciting for them."

Of course, you can't remake the sport in a single day -- and for that, Finch has a lot of hope for what programs like Play Ball and MLB Develops can offer.

"We have such an incredible staff and development crew -- we have the Breakthrough Series," Finch said. "So, we bring girls in. And we're truly investing in every area of their life, from nutrition to getting them ready for college to anything that we possibly can and exposing them to women in the game that have done and played at every single level."

When Gajownik reports for duty later this winter and starts her managerial career, she already has a vision of what she wants it to look like. Her advice works whether you're a professional ballplayer trying to reach the Majors, or maybe a young kid just getting their first taste of the sport.

"These guys want to get to the big leagues, and they want us to help them. We're not there just for them, we're there with them," Gajownik said. "Having that vulnerability of 'Hey, this is something that you're really good at. Maybe this is something that you can get a little bit better at. All right, this area -- this is something you can get a little bit better at.' It's just showing them that it's okay to fail, that's not anything negative to do with you. We're all human. There's always things that we can get better at, and we're going to help them get better this season."