Year after year, Trailblazer Series has lasting impact

April 14th, 2024

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- There was a palpable energy, a nervous -- and excited -- anticipatory electricity that laced the air at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex on Sunday morning.

About 24 hours before Jackie Robinson Day, when MLB honors one of the foremost pioneers and barrier-breakers in the sport, a different group of trailblazers gathered.

It was Day 1 of the seventh annual Trailblazer Series, and 96 girls ages 11-13 from across the U.S. and Canada were gathered to learn from and connect with some modern-day legends.

But for some in attendance, those jitters were almost nonexistent. This was, after all, not their first time participating in the event. Take Youki Aoshima, for example. A 13-year-old catcher from San Diego in her third season at the Trailblazer Series, Aoshima already sees herself in a vastly different light.

“The first year was definitely like I was a newborn,” Aoshima said. “I was new to this -- even though I've played baseball since I was about six, I was a newcomer and like, so young, and I just wanted to show that girls can play baseball and just kind of [be] part of the group. But now as a third-year [participant] in Trailblazers, I feel like I can show the way to some of the newcomers.”

So, Aoshima is focused on instilling the same hustle in others as Trailblazer has instilled in her. She’s learned to do more: to pick up twice as many balls as anyone else, to run twice as hard, to just do more. And for good reason. This year, Aoshima has one mission: win MVP.

“I want to put it all out there,” Aoshima said. “... To win the MVP, I would say, definitely, you have to have the Jackie Robinson criteria. You definitely have to show the work and, obviously, skills. But it's not just on the field, it's off the field, too.

“It means a lot [to be a veteran here], because I don't want to be the one in the corner and being the shy one without saying anything. I want to be the leader. I want to lead the way for everybody else.”

Like Aoshima, this isn’t Michaela Beachy’s first time at the JRTC, either. A 12-year-old pitcher from North Port, Fla., Beachy identified one of the biggest differences between her first year and her second: Rather than looking to prove herself, to show off her skills, this year her focus is on learning. That was, of course, her focus in her first year at Trailblazer, but it’s different this year.

“Last year, I feel like I was just trying to show off how I could play and what I can do,” Beachy said. “But this year, I really want to learn from these coaches, because I know how great they are. And I really want to learn how they do it so I can just be more like them and become a role model for somebody else.”

Unlike Aoshima and Beachy, this year is the first for Tana Buffalo, a 12-year-old catcher from Ashburn, Va. Buffalo applied last year, but wasn’t accepted. And, if she’s being honest, she was sort of OK with that (she is not a fan of airplanes).

But Buffalo put in the work to improve her overall athleticism, her hitting, her strength and her baseball IQ over the past year. So, lo and behold, she received the coveted invitation to the 2024 Trailblazer Series.

“I felt relieved, you know? Because I felt like I'm good enough to be out here,” Buffalo said.

“It's so inclusive -- you get that sense of belonging. Like, I know I'm new here, but I love it here. ... Everything's great up here. I enjoy it so much, you know, [I was] kind of nervous coming in, but I found my way.”

So, what’s the coolest thing Buffalo has experienced so far at Trailblazer?

“Well, just everything,” Buffalo said. “Like, the fact that I'm being interviewed right now; like, that's just crazy to me, you know? I'm just trying to put in the work, make myself known. And I mean, the National Team players are here. I feel so special to be here right now.”

Beachy echoed that sentiment, highlighting the all-women coaching staff featuring a plethora of pioneers in baseball.

“Even when I went with my old girls team to Cooperstown, we still didn't just have an all-girls coaching staff,” Beachy said. “And at home, obviously, I only have [all-guys] coaching staffs. Just having the females [it's] just like -- as I'm playing right now as a female in a male-dominated sport, it's just different.

"And [getting to see] what they've learned from that and seeing how they've grown, it’s cool.”