October belongs to baseball and this year’s playoff picture is a historic nod to the beleaguered fanbase as Mets, Cubs, and Blue Jays die-hards prepare for a long-awaited taste of the postseason.
But two women accustomed to firsts have ensured that October baseball history won’t just be made by the teams in the playoffs. Jessica Mendoza, the first woman to call a Major League Baseball game on ESPN, will become the first woman to announce a nationally televised postseason game when she hits the broadcast booth for the AL wild-card match-up next week. And Justine Siegal, who’s joining the Oakland Athletics for two weeks of its Instructional League camp, will become the first woman coach working for an MLB team.
The team announced this week that Siegal will work with minor league players from this Sunday through October 17. “We feel like Justine has a lot to offer and that (the Instructional League) is a great place to get her feet wet,” A’s assistant general manager David Forst told the San Francisco Chronicle. “She’ll be doing a little bit of everything.”
Siegal is no newcomer to professional baseball or coaching: In 2009, she became the first woman to coach a men’s professional baseball team when she served as the first base coach for the Brockton Rox, and in 2011 she became the first woman to throw batting practice to a major league team.
In her spare time, Siegal runs Baseball for All, a nonprofit aimed at providing more opportunities for girls in baseball, which hosted the first-ever national all-girls baseball tournament earlier this year.
I spoke with Siegal by phone this week about her new position, how she got here, and why it’s so important to bring more women and girls into baseball (not softball, but baseball).
Tell me how long this has been in the works with the A’s and how they first approached you.
I first approached the A’s. We’ve been talking for a few months.
And why the A’s?
Oh, well I love Billy Beane, you know, he is the first person who said I could throw BP to his team. So I’m indebted to him for believing in me. I like to work with people who are progressive and can see the big picture and Billy Beane can definitely see that.
So what exactly will you be doing with them?
I’m going to be doing a little bit of everything. I’m a rookie coach — that trumps gender — so I’m there to learn and serve and I hope to hit a lot of fungos and throw BP. They expect to use me a little bit in the classroom, as I have a PhD in sports psychology, but I’m really ready to do whatever they need.
[I’ll be working with] a group of minor leaguers from different levels. Right now its the last two weeks of the Instructional League, so I’m really focused on the two weeks and they’ve kept it open-ended with possibility. But I just want to do a really good job at this moment.
What is your motivation for doing this — is it your professional aspiration to be a coach or is it more driven by the desire to show people a woman can do this and you’re the best positioned person to make that push?
Well, I love baseball. And I love coaching. I’ve wanted to be a college baseball coach since I was 16 and, at that time, a woman had never done that. Then I got to coach with the Rox, which was professional. For me, you can’t ask whether it was one or the other — am I doing it because I love coaching or am I doing it to show that it can be done? — because it’s both. I consider it an honor to be a role model and almost everything I do is in essence to show girls that their dreams can come true. But it’s not just girls that need to be shown that they have a place in baseball, it’s that boys need to know that girls have a place in baseball. And when you can be a productive member of staff, then you get the best of both worlds, which is be in the game you love, help players become better, and show the world that girls and women can be part of this game.
Why does it seem so much harder to bring women into baseball compared to other sports, like basketball?
I can say that from a playing standpoint, our society is bought in to this myth that softball and baseball are the same sport. It can be hard to think of coaching baseball if you’ve only played softball. That limits your possibilities.
I played baseball — I played for my high school. I didn’t switch over. I played two weeks of softball and I hated it. But that was me — it just wasn’t for me. They’re just different sports. And I’m a pitcher. But it’s really about giving girls true choice and at the moment, we’re not giving girls true choice.
I think there are plenty of men that haven’t played past high school that are in the front office. But women have to work double as hard. So women need to be more qualified to get the same position — which is why I got a PhD. I knew at 16 that I would not have the same playing opportunity as men so I figured I would at least out-educate most of them and that was my whole reason for getting a PhD. And I spent three years as an assistant coach at Springfield College, which was my goal in getting my PhD.
I realize you haven’t even started with the A’s yet, but looking past October, what are your goals?
Right now, I’m just focused on the two weeks and I really am pleased that the A’s are saying they’re open because I really don’t want to be a publicity stunt. I feel am qualified and I feel I can help the A’s organization and it’s really satisfying that the A’s feel that way as well.
As far as Baseball for All goes, you had your first tournament this year, right? How did that go?
We had our first nationals. And ah… It made you want to cry. To see a whole tournament of girls playing baseball and most of those girls are the only girls on the boys teams or in their leagues and for them to be supported by one another, it’s incredible. That was a real moment and we’re really excited to do another one this year.
That’s what I was going to ask next — so there are plans to do another one?
Yes, it’s going to be in San Francisco. That just happened [laughs]. It was not coordinated or anything with the A’s.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.