Scott Whitmore along with the concourse on a recent spring night watching the final inning of a Staten Island FerryHawks home game wind down when a New York City police officer approached him from the third-base side.
“After the game,” the officer said sheepishly, “Do you think I can get your daughter’s autograph?”
Sure, Whitmore chuckled, though he knew the receiving line would be longer. Outside of a handful of Yankees and Mets stars, the most famous ballplayer in New York this summer might well be Staten Island’s leading two-way player, Kelsie Whitmore.
Standing 5 feet 6 inches, with dark chestnut hair that unfurls past her uniform number, it is impossible to mistake the FerryHawks’ dugout, warming up on the field or signing autographs. She is an unusual sight even in a league known for taking chances and pushing buttons.
The Atlantic League’s professional baseball is widely considered to be the highest level among baseball’s independent minor leagues, hosted by former All-Stars Roger Clemens, Jose Canseco and Rickey Henderson. But a woman had never started an Atlantic League game, nor pitched in one, until Whitmore, who has done both. She’s the first woman to play in a league partnered with Major League Baseball since Lee Anne Ketcham and Julie Croteau joined the Maui Stingrays in the Hawaii Winter Baseball League in 1994.
That league was about the Class A minor-league ball, while Atlantic is thought to be closer to the Class AAA, one step below the big leagues. At 24, Whitmore, a former Cal State Fullerton softball star, is making a run at sticking in professional baseball.
For Whitmore, that represents a return to normal. She played softball because it was the only way she could earn a college scholarship. But she is – always has been – a baseball player, and she shares many of the telltale traits. She wears her cap pulled low, swings a 32.5-ounce bat, curses impulsively and spits reflexively.
Filipino imagery on the left forearm of the tattoos – an homage to her mother’s heritage – including a string of crocodile teeth, representing an aggressive hunter lurking under a quiet, tranquil facade.
“It symbolizes me,” she said, “as a person and a player.”
Whitmore has been surprising unsuspecting baseball men since she was a teenager. She was the only girl on the varsity baseball team at Temecula Valley High School in Southern California, and at 17 was one of two who were signed to play professionally for the Sonoma Stompers of the Pacific Association, an independent league.
Now, she’s on her own in a league filled with former major leaguers, a team managed by a former Mets player, Edgardo Alfonzo.
There are other women carving paths in baseball, a male-dominated sport. This spring, Rachel Balkovec of the Tampa Tarpons becomes the first woman to manage affiliate baseball. In March, Alexis Hopkins was drafted by the Atlantic League’s Kentucky Wild Health Genomes to serve as the team’s bullpen catcher.
But Whitmore, who has twice started in the left field and made four appearances on the mound, is making his case that he belongs on a professional baseball diamond as a player.
“That ‘s a groundbreaking event for us,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said of Whitmore. “It gives you an honest-to-God, real-life example of what we’ve been saying for years, aspirationally: Someday, we’re going to have women playing professionally for us.”
A Ponytail Protest
After a recent night game was postponed because of the weather, Whitmore was working out and negotiating with some teammates at the stadium who was going to make chop cheese sandwiches – a bodega specialty that has become an obsession in the FerryHawks’ clubhouse.
She suddenly stopped walking to figure out how to leap across a roughly eight-foot-wide puddle that had formed on the concrete, which she cleared with ease. “I did a long jump in high school,” Whitmore shrugged.
Her athletic career has also included soccer, lacrosse, flag football and volleyball. She can clear 280 yards with her driver and dead lifts 400 pounds.
Was there any sport she hasn’t tried?
“Cheer,” Whitmore said.
Scott Whitmore, a physical-education teacher, said baseball was his daughter’s first love. At age 6, Scott brought Kelsie to register for the Little League, but she declined. She was content playing catch and taking swings in the backyard.
“Finally I said, ‘Why don’t you want to play with kids your own age?'” Said Scott Whitmore.
It was because she thought she would have to wear her hair in a ponytail. She preferred to leave it long.
Her dad laughed and told her she could wear her hair however she wanted. It has stayed down ever since.
“I guess part of me was like, if I do have it up, I’ll just be like all the other girls,” Whitmore said. “It was not comfortable. It was not me. “
It’s not uncommon for girls to play Little League. But it didn’t take long before Whitmore began to recognize just how gendered the constructs were for baseball (boys) and softball (girls).
“You’d hear the doubters,” said Scott Whitmore. “‘Hey, the boys are going to get bigger, and she’s not going to be able to hang with them.’ They said that at age 12, and it never happened. “
Justine Siegal first saw Whitmore pitch when she was 15. Siegal, who was the first woman to coach a major league organization, founded nonprofit baseball for all to promote gender equality in baseball and offer opportunities for girls who want to play on youth teams. General Chat Chat Lounge
From that first introduction, Siegal kept tabs on Whitmore, thinking perhaps she could break through and advance into professional woman baseball more than any woman in decades.
“She had something special,” Siegal said of Whitmore. “It was clear she had the physical abilities to compete.”
But in high school, Whitmore wondered if she had the mental stamina to press on.
“I started to get that feeling, I didn’t mean to be here?” Whitmore said. “Do I not belong here? People keep asking why I’m here, people are wondering, outsiders are trying to push me towards a different route. It started to mess with my head. “
Loneliness became a factor, too. Always the only girl, the standout, the outlier. It became draining emotionally, she said.
“You just want to know what that feeling is to fit in,” Whitmore said.
Unable to secure a baseball scholarship, she entered a softball recruiting showcase with limited experience with the game. Her athleticism and her baseball instincts proved enough to attract a flood of offers from coaches who thought, within time, they could mold her into a star.
She used to recoil at the thought of switching to softball. “It just wasn’t what I wanted to do,” Whitmore said. “The high school softball team wanted me to play for them. To be honest, that ‘s like telling me to go play soccer. In my head, it’s a completely different sport. “
Yet college softball looked more appealing as Whitmore considered that the spotlight might not be so focused on him.
“I thought, if I go on a team full of girls, I know that feeling is not the one everyone is always looking for or wanting to change,” Whitmore said. “When I stepped on a softball field, I was like, ‘OK, cool, I’m finally a part of them.'”
She was still different.
She moved like a baseball player, wore a hat, wore baseball pants. She had to relearn how to hit, how to judge fly balls, how to swipe bags. Even the atmosphere in the dugout was foreign to her – a roster of girls interacted differently from guys.
After games, she would slip into the batting cages to take cuts against overhand pitchers. In the summer, after the Fullerton season was over, she pitched for the USA Baseball Women’s National Team. “I told myself, this is just temporary,” Whitmore said of softball.
She also reached out to Joe Beimel, a former big-league reliever who opened a training facility in Torrance, Calif., That helps pitchers build velocity. When Whitmore arrived, her fastball maxed out at a little over 70 miles per hour.
“We need to get her in at least the 80s,” Beimel said in a phone interview. But he was impressed with the movement on his pitches.
Whitmore’s pitching arsenal includes a two-seamer, four-seamer, slider, curve – and something else entirely. “It’s this weird knuckleball-changeup she throws,” Beimel said.
Whitmore calls it “The Thing,” and the pitch has become a source of fascination on the FerryHawks. A former teammate, Julio Teheran, who has historically pitched for the Atlanta Braves, the Los Angeles Angels and the Detroit Tigers, has been making his grip before he recently left for the Mexican League.
Whitmore will never blow professional hitters away (she now throws in the upper 70s), but Eddie Medina, the FerryHawks’ director of operations who had pushed to sign her, felt Whitmore could keep hitters off-balance.
Her pitching coach, the former major leaguer Nelson Figueroa, has succeeded despite a lack of velocity, and he has helped Whitmore adapt. In her second pitching appearance of the season, she allowed six runs in two-thirds of an inning during a blowout loss. She notched a scoreless inning in a recent appearance on June 5.
Despite the mixed results, fans cheer her name and show up to see her. Life in baseball means dressing up in his locker room and showering used by a team’s coaches.
But she calls her teammates her “big brothers,” and they have reciprocated the embrace.
She also has a source of comfort and laughter around her dad. Scott Whitmore retired in late May, packed the car and drove across the country.
He didn’t intend to miss a game. “I’m going to spend the whole summer watching my daughter play baseball.”