July 19, 2016, published in the Orange County Register
Focus on your game, Kelsie Whitmore told herself. Just play ball.
It was a Friday, the first weekend of July, a few hours before Whitmore’s first game with the Sonoma Stompers, an independent-league men’s baseball team in California that plays in the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs.
Whitmore, a 5-foot-6 outfielder/pitcher, and teammate Stacy Piagno were making history. It was the first time since the 1950s that two women would play in a pro baseball game.
Whitmore felt eyes burning her. Dozens of questions flew at her. Microphones, cameras and recorders crowded her.
Everyone wanted a glimpse of the girl who aspires to play Major League Baseball.
Whitmore, who is headed to Cal State Fullerton this fall on a softball scholarship, made several plays in left field during her start that night.
The 17-year-old won’t stop until she achieves her pro baseball dream.
“The one thing that girls in baseball lack is opportunity. So when I got this opportunity, I didn’t let go,” she said of playing for Sonoma.
“I want to show that even if there are times I may be embarrassed because I’m the only girl, even if there are times that I may be scared because I feel uncomfortable, no matter what, I’m always going to go out there because I want it so bad,” Whitmore said. “When you want something so bad, you’ll do whatever you can to get it.”
Proving the doubters wrong
As a 6-year-old, Whitmore didn’t want to play catch with anyone but her father. “All she wanted to do was throw,” Scott Whitmore said.
After watching some girls play softball, she thought there was a rule that girls had to tie their hair in a ponytail. She wanted no part of that.
She wanted to play baseball with the boys.
“She’d get gifts that were dolls and stuff, and she’d get stuff that were balls and bats, and she’d always migrate to the balls and bats,” Scott said.
Whitmore devoted herself to the game as if it were religion, fascinated that she’d find something new to learn, to challenge herself with, each day at the field.
The Temecula Valley native was the only girl on her little league and Pony teams, and her high school team. “She’s kind of a legend in the Temecula area,” said Daniel Franklin, who coached Whitmore as a senior at Temecula Valley High. “All the kids know her.”
Franklin remembers watching Whitmore complete outfield drills during the team’s first practice, running routes cleanly.
Then he saw her arm.
“She was throwing it harder than most of the boys out there,” Franklin said. “She was dang good. I mean, seriously, she’s one of the best outfielders in the whole program.”
Once, facing Murietta Valley, Whitmore faced a pitcher who had committed to a Division I school. She took a fastball in the lower 90s to the rib. Twenty seconds later, blood started coming out of her mouth.
She hustled to first base. “Kelsie, you alright?” a teammate asked. “Yeah, I’m good,” she said.
“She’s just a warrior,” said close friend Gavyn Schmidt, a former Temecula Valley teammate. “She wasn’t coming out no matter what happened.”
But some only saw her gender. Opponents would yell: “You guys got a girl on the team?” or throw looks that scream: “What is she doing here?”
Once, a teammate blurted out during a weight-lifting session: “Why is Kelsie going to the weight room? She’s not going to get stronger, she’s not going to get bigger. What’s the point?”
Another time a local athletic director told Scott: “Your daughter’s never going to make it in baseball.”
Whitmore’s developed a cow-hide thick skin to deal with doubters. She silences them with her play. “She’s kind of like, ‘The more you tell me I can’t do it, the more I’m going to show you I can,’” Scott said.
She grinds harder. That’s how she earned a 3.97 GPA. That’s how she earned conference defensive MVP playing for her school’s soccer team, switching to goalie on a lark. That’s how she became one of the top golfers on the golf team.
“There’s no one out here that’s going to push me more than myself,” Whitmore said. “If you’re not working hard, you’re not getting better.”
Last summer, she helped Team USA women’s baseball team make history by winning the gold medal at the Pan-Am games in Toronto.
She also helped the USA to a silver medal at the 2014 WBSC Women’s World Cup in Miyazaki, Japan.
She helped Sonoma (23-16) clinch the first-half title of the Pacific Association on July 13 with an 8-7 win against the Pittsburg (Calif.) Diamonds.
Young girls often come up to Whitmore after games, as they see who they want to be. Whitmore also sees herself in them, hoping to inspire the next generation.
“Her success and the level she’s at right now is a testament to her perseverance,” Scott said, “because if she would have stopped when people told her she shouldn’t be playing anymore, she wouldn’t be here right now.”
Landing a spot with the Titans
Cal State Fullerton coach Kelly Ford remembers spotting Whitmore at a recruiting tournament with some of the best softball players in the country.
Whitmore, who had hardly played softball prior, was practically winging it.
But she was a natural.
“Honestly, she looked 10 steps ahead of everyone else,” Ford said. “Her athleticism was incredible.”
She had received some interest from college baseball programs, but soon was flooded with Division I softball offers.
Ford, who this year led Cal State Fullerton to a Big West Conference crown and an NCAA Regionals appearance after collecting the most wins in over a decade, offered Whitmore a spot on her team, as well as a chance to train with the four-time national champion Titan baseball team when it fits with both teams’ schedules.
“She’s going for her dream and it’s so inspiring,” Ford said. “She’s a pioneer.”
Whitmore, who hopes to make the Team USA squad that will compete in the Women’s Baseball World Cup in South Korea in September, is excited to pursue both softball and baseball.
“I’m going to give my all on both sides,” Whitmore said.
“My heart has baseball and always will,” she said, “and I’m going to do whatever I can to get to the next level.”