It seemed like a typical August evening in Sonoma, California — warm, with a bright blue sky and sun-drenched hills surrounding People’s Home Equity Ballpark at Arnold Field, home of the Sonoma Stompers, an independent professional baseball team. A sense of familiarity filled the crowd gathered for Friday night’s game against the Pittsburg Diamonds. Fans greeted one another, referring to players by their first names, more interested in the action on the field than the presence of former Major League Baseball star Jose Canseco — a member of the other team ostensibly in attendance that night for autograph purposes.
The Stompers, currently tied for first place in the Pacific Association, notched only a few singles and trailed the Diamonds 0–7 by the time the game inched into the 8th inning. But the crowd found a reason to cheer in the bottom of the 8th, when something extraordinary in the world of professional baseball happened: 18-year-old Kelsie Whitmore stepped into the on-deck circle to pinch-hit.
Whitmore worked a full count, fouling off two pitches before ultimately striking out — an at-bat the opposing pitcher referred to as his “toughest out.” Later, in the bottom of the 9th, with Whitmore in right field, Stacy Piagno took the mound, giving up one run on two hits and striking out one batter.
The Stompers lost 8–0 — but the outcome of the game felt far less important than the makeup of the team.
I have to give it up to the girl from Sonoma! She was my toughest out tonight! @SonomaStompers
— Joe Mello (@J_mello2) August 13, 2016
This summer, Whitmore and Piagno helped the Stompers make history — becoming the first men’s professional baseball team to have multiple women on its roster since since the Negro Leagues in the 1950s. (Pitcher Ila Borders played in the independent Northern League from 1997 to 2000.)
“While many believe it’s only a matter of time before we see a woman playing in the MLB, I’ve learned over the past several months that there are many steps in between where we are and where we should be in terms of women in this sport,” Stompers GM Theo Fightmaster said in a release. “We hope this sends a message to the rest of the baseball world that there is room for women and girls in this game — from Little League to the Major Leagues.”
Fightmaster is no stranger to pushing the conventional bounds of baseball. Last year, he signed pitcher Sean Conroy, who became the first openly gay active professional baseball player — tossing a complete game shutout in the process.
After Sonoma, Whitmore and Piagno will head to South Korea to represent Team USA in the Women’s Baseball World Cup, but the significance of their time in a professional baseball uniform will last much longer. “It’s good for baseball,” Stompers pitcher Matt Picucci told MLB.com. “If you’re a baseball fan, then you can appreciate what’s going on here. Baseball can be enjoyed by everybody.”
I caught up with Whitmore and Piagno after the game to talk about playing with the guys, the pressure of being trailblazers, and what they’ll take away from their stint with the Stompers.
Can you describe this experience, playing professional baseball, over the past month?
SP: It’s definitely been the chance of a lifetime — just to get the opportunity to come out here and play professional baseball. We’ve really just learned a lot by being here from the level of play, from the guys, all the managers and everything. And, at least for me, we’ve made a lot of good friends as well so it’s really been an all-around great experience.
KW: I love it out here. Every single day we learn something. The guys really respect us. I think it was something we couldn’t pass up. Stacey and I talk every day about how much we enjoy it and it’s something that I look forward to every morning I wake up.
What can you learn here that you maybe can’t get in other settings, like playing with other women?
KW: The guys just know their game really well. I’ve never been on a team that all the teammates really know their game, they know what they’re talking about when they’re talking to me and they give me different strategies, different advice. I know I can believe it because they’ve proved it… I’ve played with great teammates, but with them they know their game so it’s definitely a higher level and they know what they’re talking about.
SP: Same thing. It’s definitely because of the level of play. Growing up, me and Kelsie both played through high school and [I played in] college, and this is honestly the next step, this is the next level. Whether it be guys or girls, just getting to this level in general you’re going to learn a lot more and the game of play is a lot faster and people who make it to this level, they start learning and they’ve been teaching us that. So just by that level of play in general, we’ve really learned a lot that way.
— Sonoma Stompers (@SonomaStompers) July 20, 2016
Most young girls are directed to softball and not encouraged to keep playing baseball; can you talk about the difference it made for you to be able to keep playing baseball?
SP: I did go play softball in college — I was able to play [baseball] through high school like I said — and then in the summertime in college I was able to go play with the women’s national baseball team… I’ve been lucky enough to play baseball and not have to necessarily stop and then when we got this chance to come out here, it’s really been a dream come true. I’ve always grown up thinking, oh if I could ever play professional baseball, would it happen, and the older you get there’s times where that dream kind of starts to fade away and then it randomly came back — so it’s been a dream come true and a great opportunity.
How has it been integrating into the team? What sort of reception have you gotten from the other players?
KW: They care. They care to help every single day in everything I go through. It’s like respect on and off the field that I get from them, the vibe, and I know Stacy does too. I know it’s hard for them to have a girl on their team because they’ve never had that, but for them not having that, it’s pretty good, and they handle themselves really well. The way that they care and they support us, which I know could be hard for them, but they show they really care for us and they respect us and we respect them back.
SP: Absolutely. It’s definitely a great family vibe here. I don’t feel like they think that we’re girls or anything — it’s all past that and it’s all about playing and learning and friendship and all that good stuff.
“One of the reasons I think girls are always funneled into softball is because we’ve never established a base for girls to play baseball.”
How do you feel about the exposure young girls are getting, by seeing you guys and mass cultural products like Pitch [TV show debuting on FOX this fall, centered around a female pitcher in the major leagues], to the idea of women playing baseball?
KW: I think it’s really helping the idea of women in baseball… Half the people I talk to, when I tell them I’m on the national team, they don’t even know there’s a women’s national team. So I think [us playing with the Stompers] and I guess the show can be part of it too, is just getting out the idea of it. And now that we’re doing this, it can be something we can say has actually happened. I think the exposure is getting better and a lot of girls are thinking they can do it and it’s okay to do it, and not losing their confidence.
SP: I think it’s going to be very helpful, especially in the long-run, because one of the reasons I think girls are always funneled into softball is because we’ve never established a base for girls to play baseball. And the longer that girls know they can stick with it or find ways to play baseball, then I think eventually we’ll have this giant pool of girls who are here to play ball. I think eventually it would be ideal if we can have our own league, and it’s definitely going to take a lot of time, but with all of the publicity and things, it’s definitely going to help.
Do you feel additional pressure, with the opportunity you’ve been given and with the attention you’ve gotten, to really come out and perform?
KW: Honestly, sometimes I do. It’s not a bad thing but I do, I feel that way. It’s like all eyes on us, something new, something different — if I were to see it, I would be like, expecting this and expecting that… It’s a different level; it’s the highest level I’ve ever been at. So I do feel pressure but it’s the good kind.
SP: It definitely comes and goes. As athletes, we have to put ourselves in a place where you don’t mentally want think about that — you don’t want to be pressured; you always want to be relaxed and focused on your game and have fun. I think that me and Kelsie growing up playing sports, that’s something that we’re able to mentally put ourselves through. But with the experience and everything, you’re definitely going to have times where you step back and think about the big experience and in those moments, you can sometimes feel it, but you just have to relax and have fun.
“Half the people I talk to, when I tell them I’m on the national team, they don’t even know there’s a women’s national team.”
What kind of reaction have you gotten from fans in and outside of Sonoma?
KW: I’d say a lot. Younger kids, little boys and girls, they’ll come up to us after the games a lot of times — really excited to meet us and see us. People in the crowd are really supportive, a lot of the host families and host parents are [too], and people that don’t even live here and come and visit — I’ve gotten a big supportive vibe when I’m here playing, and even when I go to other places that we play against, I get a positive vibe there too.
SP: Definitely agree with that. Just the town in general — everyone has been very supportive and very helpful and they always want to help out everyone. The same thing with our team and even other teams — we’ll have some players come up and say, ‘we appreciate what you’re doing’ or ‘good job’ or things like that. So honestly I don’t think it could’ve went any better. [As if on cue, two players from the Diamonds walk by and congratulate them.]
KW: Just like that!
So baseball-wise, what do you hope happens next?
KW: My goal is I want to try to keep playing here, at this level — to get better, to get used to it, to get reps, to feel comfortable. I mean this level comfortable — like ‘he’s throwing 90s, alright that’s no big deal’ kind of thing. And just get better where I am now and hopefully one day be able to keep moving up, but I just want to focus on becoming a better individual baseball player for right now and then try to move up from there.
SP: Absolutely. I really want to be open-minded with any opportunity that comes my way. I just want to play baseball as long as I can, get as good as I can as an athlete, and see where it takes me.
Has there been a highlight or moment that stands out so far?
SP: I have a couple moments. As a pitcher, those would be strikeouts — those are definitely good moments — or even just scoreless innings, that’s always great. And then just the whole experience — getting to know the team and the friendships we’ll take away from that… Can’t get any better than that.
KW: Probably how many people have found out about it… How much it got out for younger girls to know about it. And I’d say my first hit, too. I didn’t make it a big deal but it was cool now that I think about it. It was cool because it’s something I can look back on… And like Stacy said with the guys, the thing I’ll remember most is my teammates and how much fun I had with them, and how close we got. I’m not going to remember every single play or every certain hit or whatever, but I’ll always remember my teammates.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.