If you liked Little League World Series sensation Mo’ne Davis, then let me recommend Ghazaleh Sailors.
The 21-year-old Sailors pitches for the University of Maine-Presque Isle baseball team. NCAA and school officials believe she is the only woman currently playing collegiate baseball. But she is no novelty act. Last season as a junior, Sailors led her team in ERA and appearances. She won her first game as a sophomore. And she has thrown two scoreless innings — one as a sophomore, one as a junior — against Division 1 University of Maine.
On Sunday afternoon, with Sailors as senior cocaptain, Division 3 Maine-Presque Isle is scheduled to open its season against Anna Maria College in Northborough. Watch Sailors play and you’ll see a respected leader, a relentless competitor packed into a 5-foot-4-inch frame, a savvy righthander who tops out in the upper 70s but throws batters off balance with a killer curveball.
Recalling her freshman year as a relief pitcher, Sailors says, “The guys on the other teams thought they were going to whack the ball over the fence. I was really successful because I got guys to swing out of their shoes . . . My big thing was I wanted to prove that I was a baseball player, not a gimmick. I wasn’t doing this to get all the attention. I wanted to do this because I love baseball.”
Growing up in Santa Barbara, Calif., Sailors never listened to anyone who told her that baseball was for boys and softball for girls. It was baseball or bust. “If you want to play softball, go for it,” she says. “But you shouldn’t be told you can’t do something just because you’re a girl, especially in this country.” That conviction kept Sailors in baseball when a lot of young girls quit.
Consider this disheartening statistic from Baseball For All, an organization that helps girls play the national pastime: More than 100,000 girls compete on youth baseball teams in the US, but only 1,000 girls play high school baseball. So, Baseball For All asks, “What happened to those 99,000 players?” In other words, why doesn’t youth baseball produce more players such as Sailors? There is no one answer. Sometimes it’s peer and parental pressure to play softball. Sometimes it’s the scarcity of female baseball role models in high school and college. Sometimes it’s a lack of awareness about girls’ rights to play on boys’ teams.
But this much is certain: Every time Sailors takes the mound or plays third base or steps into the batter’s box, she shows young female baseball players what is possible. Every game, she chips away at the 99,000 girls who leave baseball before they reach high school. The more people see, coach, and compete alongside players such as Sailors, the more people accept women’s baseball. At least, that’s her dream.
“Women’s baseball is big, respected in a lot of countries outside the United States,” says Sailors, who has played for USA Baseball women’s national team. “Canada, Japan, Australia, even Korea. The US has women’s baseball, too, but it’s hidden because we focus so much on men’s sports in this country.”
And so the struggles and talents of Sailors and other top female baseball players remain hidden, too. At the first high school Sailors attended, she says there was “abuse from every aspect you can imagine, bullying, harassment, things got physical, things got out of control.” The abuse came from her teammates and she adds, “the boys kind of scared me out of telling anyone.”
“I was never tempted to quit baseball, but I was extremely depressed because I felt like I was alone in my fight, like I was fighting a battle that couldn’t be won,” remembers Sailors. “Baseball is my life. And I remember saying, ‘Man, I hate baseball.’ One time I actually said that out loud when I was a sophomore in high school. That’s when I knew I needed to leave.”
Sailors transferred high schools, fell in love with baseball again, and set her sights on a college career. She looked for a school that would see her talent, not her gender. It seemed like a hopeless search until former Maine-Presque Isle baseball coach Leo Saucier called and told Sailors, “I don’t care what you are. If you can help me win, you’re going to be on my team.” Sailors scheduled a January recruiting visit.
When she left Santa Barbara, it was 65 degrees. When she landed in Presque Isle, it was minus-11. Once the cold shock faded, she found a small, tight-knit community that felt like a perfect fit. “After what happened to me in high school, I had a hard time trusting people,” says Sailors. “I came up here and everyone seemed like they were a family. It seemed like a really nurturing environment. I’d never been in that kind of environment.” Now, she considers Presque Isle home more than Southern California.
Following graduation, Sailors will compete for the Virginia Marlins in the World Baseball League, a low-level professional league where players earn salaries through sponsorships. Then, she’ll travel to Germany with the Marlins, play foreign professional teams, and coach baseball clinics for kids. After Europe, Sailors will play women’s baseball in Australia because “it’s as professional as women’s baseball gets.”
When asked if her addition to the Marlins might be a gimmick, Sailors confidently answers, “No.” She explains that the general manager’s brother saw her play for Maine-Presque Isle and came away impressed. Still, she knows all too well the reality of being a woman in baseball.
“I feel like I have to prove myself every day because there’s always going to be haters out there,” says Sailors. “My dream is that 20 years from now girls who want to walk in my shoes and play baseball don’t have to go through any of what I’ve been through. If I can make it so that girls don’t get looked at funny, get bullied, get harassed, and abused to play baseball, I’ve done my job. That’s what I bring with me to the field every day.”
Fair Play is a regular column that explores the challenges girls and women face in today’s sports world, as well as their athletic accomplishments. Shira Springer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ShiraSpringer.