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Siegal lets girls know that baseball is for all

Initiative founder encourages female participation in game

When she was a kid, Justine Siegal never doubted where she fit in talent-wise with her baseball-playing peers.

She was 12 years old and she was good -- one of the best players on the team. A year later, however, she had a new coach and a new set of challenges. The coach wasn't that impressed with Siegal, not because she wasn't talented, but because, well, she wasn't a boy, and he simply didn't think girls should be playing baseball.

"I don't really want you on my team," he told her. "I think girls should play softball."

Siegal didn't listen to him, instead deciding to use that painful experience as a life lesson that she would eventually turn into her life's work. Siegal continued to play baseball, and she eventually parlayed her passion into the formation of an organization that was unheard of 20 years ago -- Baseball For All, an outlet that provides assistance, instruction and encouragement for girls who want to play baseball.

"It was very lonely and difficult to play baseball," Siegal remembered about her own childhood. "I just loved the game so much and I wasn't going to quit for anything. But when I had my daughter Jasmine, just at 23 years old, I thought, 'If she wants to play baseball, I want to give her those opportunities, without the discrimination, without the fight.'"

Originally, Siegal formed a women's baseball league in her hometown of Cleveland, and eventually, that turned into Baseball For All. It started off modestly, but it has grown to the point where it has a strong national presence. This spring, Baseball For All will host a 24-team tournament in Orlando, Fla., the first of its kind, consisting solely of girls ages 10-13.

"There's never been this amount of girls in the U.S. together playing baseball, playing the game they love," Siegal said. "It's truly remarkable and magical when girls get to meet other girls who love baseball as much as they do."

Scheduled to run May 30-June 4, the tournament invites girls to either register as individuals or as a community. Games will be six innings, and each team is guaranteed six games, with a maximum of seven.

Adding to the historic nature of the event will be the presence of members of the original 1942 All American Girls Professional Baseball League, along with other female baseball pioneers.

The role model angle is an important one for Siegal. There's nothing wrong with wanting to be Nolan Ryan when you grow up, as Siegal did, but wouldn't it be nice for girls to have female players to emulate? With the assistance of the International Women's Baseball Center, which helps promote all aspects of women's baseball and whose founding directors and officers are all former ballplayers, there are ample opportunities to open lines of communication between established female baseball players and youngsters just now breaking into the game.

The tournament will provide a perfect outlet for that connection.

"When these girls grow up, they can say, 'I want to be Ozzie Sailors,'" Siegal said, referring to the only woman currently playing college baseball. "'I want to be [high school knuckleballer] Chelsea Baker. I want to be [AAGPBL player] Maybelle Blair.' That's really important and really incredible for them."

Siegal may be too modest to put herself in that company, but she is also widely considered a pioneer. If her name sounds familiar, that's probably due to the tour she took through several Spring Training camps in 2011 as a guest batting practice pitcher.

She initially contacted A's general manager Billy Beane to ask if she could throw batting practice to his hitters, and after he agreed, she approached the Indians, expressing her wishes to begin her traveling BP show with them before moving on to the rest. The Indians also said yes, as did the Rays, Cardinals, Mets and Astros.

Siegal had quite a resume to present to the teams she was courting. She was an assistant coach for the men's baseball team at Springfield College and also served as the first-base coach for the Brockton Rox of the independent Canadian-American Association of Professional Baseball in 2009.

Siegal is also a graduate of the MLB Scout School Development Program, which enabled her to "understand baseball in a whole new way," she said.

Despite the endless list of accomplishments, Siegal's time these days is devoted to Baseball For All and the upcoming historic tournament that will provide another significant step in making girls baseball more prevalent than ever before.

"Every morning I just wake up and say, 'What can I do for girls baseball? What can I do to make things better, to push our sport along?'" Siegal said. "The long-term goal is girls baseball leagues around the country. With 40 percent of Major League fans being women, I think that's really doable. I think there are a lot of girls who would love to dream about playing pro baseball, high school baseball, college baseball. It's our game. It's the best game on Earth."

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.