Kristy Just Wants to Play Baseball

We’ve come a long way since 1991, the time of this story, in championing women as equal and valued athletes — men and women, both.

Let the girls play!

Davina Sanchez loved her Little League uniform.

The Forest Park, Ill., 11-year-old stood in right field before her Saturday morning game, fluffing her navy jersey and meticulously smoothing her pants. The pants were what separated her from the girls on the diamond behind her, playing softball. Only Little Leaguers were issued baseball pants.

Satisfied with her appearance, Sanchez engaged in one last ritual: She stuffed a plug of bubblegum in her mouth, just like the Chicago White Sox players she watched on TV. Now she was ready to play. “Davina!” a teammate shouted from the dugout. “Davina, we’re counting on you!”

Watching from beyond the right field fence, 12-year-old Kristy Bogdan felt a pang of envy.

Bogdan knew Sanchez. They had been Little League rivals two years before in their suburban Chicago town. Bogdan had been every bit as good as the younger outfielder, maybe better. But like most of the girls who have played in the Forest Park Little League, she had quit after one season, choosing to play girls softball instead.

“People don’t understand how hard it is on girls like us,” Bogdan said, as Sanchez’s game began. “Playing is the easy part. It’s getting accepted that’s tough.”

Fitting in is important at Bogdan’s school, and playing Little League had set her painfully apart. Bogdan had assumed that it would be the boys on the team who would make her life difficult.

“I knew all along I’d have to prove myself to the boys, and I actually looked forward to that. I remember the first time I batted,” she said. “It was a practice game and my teammates all moved in, saying, ‘She can’t hit. She’s a girl,’ and I pounded the ball over their heads. After, they apologized. ‘You really showed us,’ they said. Maybe they didn’t want me at first, but by the end of the season I was their pal.”

The girls at her school were another matter. They talked behind her back and giggled when they passed her in the hall. Bogdan quit the league when she couldn’t take their name-calling anymore.

“All my friends were calling me ‘Tomboy,’” she recalled. “In the lunchroom they’d come up to me and say, ‘A lot of people are talking about you. Why are you playing baseball? You’re a girl; you’re not supposed to be doing that.’

“At first I didn’t care what they said, because I was playing and having fun. But I guess the pressure got to me. We finished last that year, and everybody was saying it was because we had a girl on the team. At that point, I would have done almost anything to stop their talk.”

In Bogdan’s eyes, that is what makes Sanchez so remarkable. She, too, plays for a losing team. Yet despite the heat she endures at school, Sanchez is the first girl in the memory of those who run the league to have lasted more than a season.

Following the ballgame, which Sanchez’s team lost, 8–1, Sanchez explained why she keeps playing.

“Sports to me means lots of action,” she said. “I grew up watching my brother and his friends play in the park, and everything was aggression, aggression, aggression. I liked that. That’s why I also play floor hockey and basketball. Next to that, girls softball seemed so slow. Hitting that big ball is too easy. I need challenges. My next goal is playing in the Senior Little League [ages 13–15]. I don’t know what I’d do if I had to give it all up and play girls softball.”

Sanchez is fortunate; she has the one thing Bogdan lacked — a close girlfriend who once played Little League in whom she can confide at school. And she has an older brother Anthony, her teammate, who looks out for her on the ballfield.

Listening to Sanchez made Bogdan nostalgic for the game. “I miss batting most of all,” she said, sitting in a bleacher seat behind home plate. “It was such a challenge because the pitches came in so fast. It was so much different from softball. I remember hitting a double once and standing on second and hearing everybody in the stands cheering. I was happy because I had proved I could play. I’m okay now playing with the girls, but I miss playing baseball. I’d still be playing if I could.”

This piece first ran in 1991, in the Chicago Tribune.

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Ron Berler

Author of “Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America’s 45,000* Failing Public Schools.” Has written for the New York Times Magazine, Wired and ESPN.com.