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Play Ball clinic empowers young players

February 1, 2020

NEW ORLEANS -- Hopes, dreams and having fun. Those were the basic elements of the celebration of National Girls and Women in Sports Day staged Saturday by Major League Baseball at the MLB Youth Academy at Wesley Barrow Stadium. A morning MLB Play Ball event for boys and girls age

NEW ORLEANS -- Hopes, dreams and having fun.

Those were the basic elements of the celebration of National Girls and Women in Sports Day staged Saturday by Major League Baseball at the MLB Youth Academy at Wesley Barrow Stadium.

A morning MLB Play Ball event for boys and girls age 5-12 followed by an afternoon softball and baseball clinic targeted directly at high school age girls highlighted the six-hour exercise that represented New Orleans’ second such celebration of National Girls and Women in Sports.

The official 34th annual National Girls and Women in Sports Day is Wednesday.

“This is an incredible opportunity to reach young ladies and empower them and encourage them, yes, on the field, but just as importantly, off the field,’’ said Jennie Finch, a former All-America pitcher and Olympic gold medalist for USA Softball and current softball ambassador for MLB. “It’s just a great place to fall in love with the game and excel and realize dreams that can come true.’’

“I think the most important part of this type of grassroots event,” said Kim Ng, MLB senior vice president for baseball operations, “is to make sure that [the participants] are out here having fun. That’s the most important thing.

“The more that we can encourage [girls] in a positive way and make them feel good about themselves and let them have fun, that’s what this game is about for most of us.’’

Approximately 400 youth participated in the New Orleans event, with about 250 of those 12 or younger. That group took part in the morning Play Ball session aimed at introducing the game and its skills.

Another 150 girls, ages 13-18, competed in the afternoon coaching clinic that featured a speech and instruction from Finch.

“I’ve seen firsthand athletes that have been transformed by the Youth Academy,’’ said Finch. “It’s incredible and so exciting just to see the talent that is there and the opportunity that is there. And if it weren’t for this type of event, it wouldn’t be.

“Ultimately, there are 200 kids that went home with a bat and a ball today. Hopefully, they’re at home outside in the front yard playing ball with their parents, their neighbors, having fun. That’s just what it’s all about, getting kids involved, being active and hopefully giving them something to aspire to.’’

Their aspirations may include Major League Baseball, as women are increasingly ascending into new roles at the professional level, as evidenced by the San Francisco Giants hiring Alyssa Nakken as a full-time Major League assistant coach in mid-January.

Earlier in the offseason, the Yankees hired Rachel Balkovec as a Minor League hitting instructor and the Cubs hired Rachel Folden as their lead hitting lab tech and coach with their Arizona Rookie League team.

“My focus now is completely on baseball and winning gold for our country,’’ said Amanda Gianelloni, a volunteer coach at Saturday’s girls clinic and former Nicholls State softball shortstop and current member of the U.S. women’s baseball team that will be competing in the World Cup in Mexico later this summer.

“I think with events like this, with the amazing women that play on the U.S. national team and coach in MLB that we see so many women being trailblazers now, and it’s starting to become more prominent in the media,’’ Gianelloni added.

“I think [these type of events] give young girls coming up more of an empowerment to take that initiative to play baseball and not be held back by fear that they won’t be good enough. They see women being good enough, being able to play against men and succeed.’’

Said Ng: “We actually do see a fair number of girls competing with the boys, particularly on the baseball field. We’ve really seen some eye-opening talent over the last couple of years.’’

Ng points to Ashton Lansdell, a former member of the USA Baseball women’s national team who competed in the 2018 World Cup and who last fall joined the Georgia Highlands College baseball team. The Marietta, Ga., native has been playing baseball since age 4.

“We see quite a number of young ladies participating with the boys,’’ Ng said. “They start up in tee ball and Little League. We’re seeing a lot more play high school ball. There’s maybe a handful playing in the college ranks.

“And that’s going to be one of our goals to help these young athletes, both on the baseball side as well as the softball side, to connect them to colleges, and, hopefully, they can advance through the college ranks.’’

Said Finch: “I don’t think we’re too, too far off. I think we’re seeing it at the collegiate level. We’re seeing those barriers be broken more and more. …

“That’s what these [young] women are growing up seeing, women being hired by Major League Baseball, as a softball ambassador, as a hitting coach. Before that, when I was young, there were no women in the Major Leagues, period, the end.

“Where now it’s broadcasting, it’s through technology, it’s through nutrition. There are so many avenues and ways. We’re seeing women do it all. I think this is the next generation. There’s a lot of collegiate girls that are breaking through in college [baseball]. So we’ll see.’’

How quickly will that future arrive?

“I’m not sure we can put a time period on it,’’ Ng said. “But I will say through our efforts we’re expediting that curve. I think the more women there are in higher-profile roles, whether it’s on coaching staffs in the Major Leagues or the Minor Leagues, as trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, scouts, I think the interest and knowledge that girls do participate and do play baseball can happen.

“We try to identify talent both on and off the field. The last couple of years we’ve had a program called Take the Field, which is really meant to take candidates who are interested, who have good backgrounds and introduce them to the different arenas and forums within baseball operations.’’

Gianelloni participated to help spread the games of baseball and softball.

“I think it’s important,” she said, “because it allows women to come out and be empowered by other women who are successful and then continue to grow the game as best as possible.

“So I really do think it’s important for people like me, for people like my teammates and the brave women who coach in MLB to continue their path because it’s inspiring the younger generation to come out with no fear of failing and prove that they can play with the men.

“I always tell young ladies who are aspiring to play baseball and succeed at it that, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it, because you are the only one in control of that. If you possess the grit and you don’t stop, you’re going to achieve what you set out to do.’

“So as long as you block out the naysayers and believe in yourself and surround yourself with people that bring you up, there’s nothing that you can’t do.’’

How quickly will that future arrive?

“I’m not sure we can put a time period on it,’’ Ng said. “But I will say through our efforts we’re expediting that curve. I think the more women there are in higher-profile roles, whether it’s on coaching staffs in the Major Leagues or the Minor Leagues, as trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, scouts, I think the interest and knowledge that girls do participate and do play baseball can happen.

“We try to identify talent both on and off the field. The last couple of years we’ve had a program called Take the Field, which is really meant to take candidates who are interested, who have good backgrounds and introduce them to the different arenas and forums within baseball operations.’’

Gianelloni participated to help spread the games of baseball and softball.

“I think it’s important,” she said, “because it allows women to come out and be empowered by other women who are successful and then continue to grow the game as best as possible.

“So I really do think it’s important for people like me, for people like my teammates and the brave women who coach in MLB to continue their path because it’s inspiring the younger generation to come out with no fear of failing and prove that they can play with the men.

“I always tell young ladies who are aspiring to play baseball and succeed at it that, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it, because you are the only one in control of that. If you possess the grit and you don’t stop, you’re going to achieve what you set out to do.’

“So as long as you block out the naysayers and believe in yourself and surround yourself with people that bring you up, there’s nothing that you can’t do.’’