By Andrew Thompson
Even at fourteen, Valerie Gonzales could be considered something of a veteran in her sport. Having spent almost a decade playing pitcher, catcher, first base, shortstop – indeed, every position on the diamond – she knows a thing or two about how to contribute to a team.
That’s why Valerie wasn’t the least bit shaken when, as a freshman at Canyon High School, she decided to attend a tryout.
“It just felt like a regular tryout – like I’ve always been trying out,” she says. “It didn’t feel any different.”
But while her experience was nothing more than typical, Valerie is not just a typical player. After all, Valerie tried out for her school’s baseball team – not its softball one. And when she made it onto the roster, she became the first female baseball player ever to do so in the history of Canyon High.
“We’re pretty proud… [we] think it’s a really big accomplishment,” Valerie’s mother says.
To her, Valerie’s decision to try out for baseball rather than softball was no surprise.
For whatever reason, softball has never been attractive to Valerie. It’s hard for her to put a finger on a single reason softball doesn’t suit her; there’s nothing “bad” about it, she concedes, it’s just that baseball has always been her sport. If for some reason she didn’t make it, Valerie notes, she would probably run track instead.
“I wouldn’t train for just softball, ever,” she says with a hint of a smile.
Valerie’s parents say that her preference for baseball may even date back to before her birth.
“She has an older brother that – that ate, drank, and slept it,” Valerie’s mother says. “So, when I was pregnant with her, she probably heard it the whole time, and then [we] brought her to every practice, every game when she was a baby.”
Valerie’s mother recalls how Valerie crawled with her brother’s helmets on, then started wearing his uniforms. At three she was already swinging baseball bats, and at four she landed on her first Parks and Recreation team. It would be the first team of many.
As Valerie grew older, however, the external pressure on her parents to push her toward softball seemed to increase. Other parents often questioned her participation in baseball, Valerie’s father says, and they usually weren’t shy about expressing it.
Still, her parents wanted the choice to be hers alone.
“It’s her decision; it’s not ours,” Valerie’s father says. “We’ll support her whatever she decides to do. If she wants to play baseball, well, that’s what it’s going to be.”
Of course, the entire family is aware of the surprise she sometimes causes when she takes the field against an opposing team.
“They’re always, like, whispering in the dugout and stuff,” Valerie says. “I’m kind of used to it, because it’s, like, been happening since I was little… they just whisper. But I don’t really know what they’re whispering about.”
“They’re surprised,” admits Valerie’s mother. In a recent Saturday game in which Valerie had been playing catcher, she recalls, a boy on the other team did a double take after passing Valerie on the field.
“Until they see the long braid, they don’t really realize,” Valerie’s mother points out. “All he could say is, like, ‘You had a great throw down,’” she adds.
Fortunately, Valerie’s parents acknowledge, most of the more negative reactions occurred in the past, when Valerie played in travel leagues. Now that Valerie has reached the high school level, she’s playing with many players she’s known for quite a while, and both the surprise and outside criticism have somewhat subsided.
As for Valerie’s parents, they aren’t exactly complaining about her choice – especially considering the success that has followed it both on the field and off.
In addition to playing baseball, Valerie frequently volunteers, often participating in tasks such as cleaning fields at Hart Park, where she used to play. And she excels in the classroom as well. Her most recent progress report indicates she been able to manage a schedule that includes honors classes with a 4.0.
“With her grades, and with her playing softball… we wouldn’t have to pay anything for college,” her father says hopefully, with a laugh.
If Valerie does decide to take it that far, she can take comfort in knowing that there is actually some precedent of female baseball players going on to make a college team. Marti Sementelli, a female pitcher from California, recently made news when she was offered a spot on the baseball team of Montreat College in North Carolina.
And while Valerie’s parents know that she’s still young, they also know that there are no limits on what the future could hold.
“It’s not unobtainable,” Valerie’s mother says, referring to the possibility of a college baseball career. “It’s a matter of how far she wants to take it from here until there.”
As far as the big leagues, that’s also not necessarily out of the question. Valerie has already made the acquaintance of Justine Siegal, the first woman to pitch batting practice and bullpen for the Major Leagues. Siegal is also the founder of Baseball for All, a non-profit that focuses on providing instruction and support for young baseball players, especially girls. Valerie and Siegal connected through Facebook.
But it’s too early for Valerie to seriously consider joining Siegal as one of the first women to contribute at the professional level just yet. Valerie’s mother is the first one to acknowledge that Valerie is only in ninth grade; her more immediate goal is simply to make varsity. But Valerie’s mother is pleased to see that she seems to have made such a connection with her current team.
“They take her on, on the team, as one of them… they don’t look at her differently, they don’t judge her, they bring her right on in,” her mother says.
Valerie agrees that that camaraderie is one of the best parts of playing the sport.
“Everybody… takes me in,” she says. “It’s like a family, kind of.”
And so, for now, perhaps Valerie can be forgiven if she just takes a moment to enjoy being one of the guys.