If there was one clear message that emerged from the recently completed Women's Baseball World Cup in Viera, Fla., it's that a majority of girls who play baseball eventually want to become women who play baseball.Worldwide, efforts are being made to clear paths for that to happen. But there is
If there was one clear message that emerged from the recently completed Women's Baseball World Cup in Viera, Fla., it's that a majority of girls who play baseball eventually want to become women who play baseball.
Worldwide, efforts are being made to clear paths for that to happen. But there is still a long way to go, and a lot has to happen, both financially and otherwise. Lots of girls grow up playing baseball, sometimes with boys, sometimes with other all-girl teams. But when they're older, about to start high school or college, they switch over to softball -- not because they necessarily want to, but because that is what's available.
Judging from the extraordinary talent pool just showcased at the Women's Baseball World Cup, is this necessary?
"I was at the age where I stopped playing with the boys and I was kind of done with it," said Team USA pitcher Brittany Schutte. "I wanted to go somewhere big and get away from home, so the opportunity for me was softball."
Schutte, a California native who grew up playing baseball, played softball as a catcher for the University of Florida. She speaks of her transition to softball fondly, without a hint of wistfulness or regret. Receiving a scholarship to play college softball gave her the freedom to go to a faraway place and earn a degree, two goals she set for herself in high school.
But what if Schutte had the same opportunity, only with baseball?
"I wouldn't have even thought twice about moving to softball," Schutte said. "I would have stayed with baseball all the way."
That's where the competitive discrepancies come in. Japan, an absolute women's baseball powerhouse, dominated during the World Cup, as expected. Ayami Sato, the best female pitcher on the planet, lived up to the billing throughout the tournament, earning her third consecutive Most Valuable Player Award, throwing five innings in a 6-0 win in the finals over Chinese Taipei.
Sato, whose team captured its sixth straight World Cup title, throws 80 mph with a curveball that buckles hitters' knees and a slider that few can touch.
The most unsurprising fact about the 28-year-old ace? She pitched in college, on scholarship.
That's commonplace in Japan, where 20,000 girls and women play some form of baseball -- some with a rubber ball, and some with a hard ball. Thirty high schools offer girls' baseball programs. Eight universities offer women's baseball, with scholarships.
It's a lot easier for Japanese players to rise to international baseball stardom than women from other countries, simply because Japan develops women into players in the same manner as men in the United States -- they play college ball, and if their talent dictates it, they go on to play professionally.
While it's unlikely that the majority of countries who participate in international women's baseball competition will reach that level of development, efforts are being made to make the women's game more mainstream.
In the United States, Major League Baseball has partnered with every youth baseball program in the country and has committed to increasing interest in the sport among young people. It has hosted two major events for girls who play baseball -- the Breakthrough Series at Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., a four-day amateur development camp, and the Trailblazer Series in Compton, Calif., a weekend-long baseball tournament for girls ages 11-13. Both are sponsored by MLB and USA Baseball.
In Venezuela, where political unrest and financial constraints have thwarted the advancement of women's baseball in recent times, people are slowly working to build better foundations for the women's game.
The Federation -- FEVEBEISBOL -- is working on a project with schools to attract talent for future women's baseball teams. Additionally, they're preparing to start a high-performance program and a training program for both players and coaches.
They also have plans to relaunch the Venezuelan Women's Baseball League, consisting of four teams with the country's best 80 players.
"In Venezuela, baseball is played with passion, and that helps us develop women's baseball," Venezuelan Baseball Federation president Aracelis Leon said. "The biggest challenge we have is the economic situation in our country, but we are confident that we can count on national and international support to overcome and realize the projects."
Cuba weaves baseball and education together, starting when girls are very young and just beginning to play baseball. The system involves four categories: education, health, sport and culture.
Between the minister of education and sports, girls and boys from elementary and high school compete in events for all sports. They hold national championships involving the multiple providences, and players continue to compete even after their educations are complete. Continuity is a big deal for Cuba -- players grow up to be teachers and coaches for the younger kids, creating a circle of education that is considered one of the most important traditions of the sports programs.
"I'm thankful for women's baseball, [which has] helped these girls from the rural areas to get an education and play," said Margarita Mayeta, director of women's baseball for the Cuban Baseball Federation and a former Olympic volleyball player. "And now many of them are giving back by being teachers, mothers, helping the next generation."
In August, the Cuban teams conduct an exhibition tour to promote women's baseball -- "to break the barrier that women can play any sport," Mayeta said.
"In the sport, baseball, it's the symbol of our country. It's the national sport, that's the beauty of it," Mayeta added. "And to begin to practice the sport year-round and being a truly national sport, we couldn't leave the women out."
Tying education to baseball may be the trick for other countries. For now, the lack of girls' baseball programs in high school continues to be a worldwide issue. Countries that also lack funding from their governments, as is the case in many Latin American countries, have even bigger hurdles to jump.
"That is one of the main problems for us in our educational system," said Jose Quiles Rosas, president of the Baseball Federation of Puerto Rico. "Boys and girls cannot play high school baseball. Girls can only play softball. We need to encourage more participation from our youth, ages eight, nine and 10."
In a perfect world, girls would have the freedom to choose. It's likely that given that choice, most girls would never leave baseball.
But they can return to it. The talent level of these athletes suggests the transition would be seamless. Consider Schutte, for example. Years after her college years as a catcher, she was on the mound in the bronze medal game at the Women's Baseball World Cup, throwing heat in an intense extra-innings game with Canada.
"That's my first love," Schutte said of baseball. "So I wanted to go back to it. If I was going to end my athletic career in any way, I wanted to do it with baseball."
Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.