With Spring Training just weeks away, Major League Baseball is preparing its return by opening the sport up to a younger, female audience.
In late January, MLB launched the “MLB Grit: Girls ID Tour,” a new baseball development initiative designed specifically for female athletes who are 18-years-old and under. It’s the league’s latest effort to bring baseball to an audience it hasn’t necessarily connected with in the past.
MLB Grit is one of three MLB and USA-baseball operated events designed to support and provide exposure for girls playing baseball. More than 100,000 girls play youth baseball, but only 1,000 go onto play high school baseball, according to Baseball For All, a nonprofit that promotes girls’ participation in the sport.
“We wanted people to know that MLB is interested in girls baseball and is trying to move the ball forward in terms of promoting and advocating for girls baseball,” Kim Ng, MLB’s senior vice president for baseball operations, said. “We really want to try and identify girls outside of our normal application process and identify those girls with great talent.”
The league began prepping for the new-and-improved MLB Grit series last year, Ng said. It was originally a showcase-type format, with the first MLB Grit baseball tournament taking place on March 8, 2019 during International Women’s Day. The league saw 60 girls from 21 states – as well as Washington D.C., Canada, and Puerto Rico – come out for the four-day development and instructional camp at Globe Park Field in Arlington, Tx.
During this off-season, MLB changed MLB Grit into a five-city, three-weekend endeavor that aims to better connect with parents and baseball officials across the United States. It will now host five events, with the five top performers being selected to participate in the first-ever Girls Baseball Elite Development Invitational, a one-week program that provides training and instruction.
Those same five girls will also be invited to partake in the annual Girls Baseball Breakthrough Series, both of which take place at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Fl.
“MLB Grit is really to identify the best girls in those various regions and from all over the country to see if they could make it into one of those five spots,” Ng said.
MLB Grit’s first two events were held in California in January: one in San Francisco and one the MLB Youth Academy in Compton. Approximately 30 girls participated in the San Francisco event, with many more appearing in Compton, according to Malaika Underwood, a member of the U.S. women’s national baseball team. A third event was held at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex this month.
“Those 30 girls who showed up were really talented and it’s really inspiring for me to see girls at that age and the talent level and the opportunities that they’re getting to develop as ballplayers,” Underwood said. “It shows that the future of our game is really bright and that these girls eventually will be competing for spots on the women’s national team.”
“It’s only going to make the team better as they come of age and have an opportunity to represent our country in baseball,” Underwood added.
In total thus far, more than 100 girls have attended the three MLB Grit events, according to the league.
“Baseball realizes that its future is dependent on attracting a younger audience, so it’s become a business imperative for them,” Richard Lapchick, director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, said. “I think through their programs to try and develop youth baseball, particularly in the area of diversity, they have been really genuine.”
Jennie Finch, former USA national softball player and gold-medal winning Olympian, agreed. “To see so many young girls loving the game, whether it be baseball or softball, it’s exciting,” Finch said. “Especially as the time passes, I think more kids are falling out of sports and now is a great time to hopefully get them back outside, being active, having fun, and having goals and dreams in their lives.”
While MLB is taking steps in introducing more girls to baseball, its job is not done yet. Lapchick acknowledges that despite the league’s authenticity to improve diversity within the sport, it still is struggling to find success.
Underwood is also confident that MLB’s intentions are pure in expanding baseball through female players. As she and the U.S. women’s national baseball team gear up for the Women’s National Open, which serves as the primary identification event for the club, she expects to see results in the growth of the sport over the next few years.
More time is needed to evaluate MLB’s attempts at finding and retaining female ballplayers, but no one is more qualified to judge than Ng, who started her first full-time job with the Chicago White Sox in 1991.
“In my time in baseball, we’re doing so much more than we used to,” Ng said. “I think there’s definitely great recognition and acknowledgement of what young girls and women bring to the sport. We’re really starting to see a groundswell here of what women can do in this game.”