Working My Way to the Big Leagues

Clara Mokri/The Players' Tribune

So there’s this one facial expression.

I’ve seen it hundreds of times, maybe thousands — so many times that I actually have my own name for it. 

“The Look.” That’s what I call it. 

Any girl who’s ever played baseball on boys’ teams has gotten The Look. They know it well. But for everyone else out there, let me try to break it down for you. It happens when someone who’s used to seeing only boys on the field looks over and spots you. They see you on the diamond or in the dugout, or walking toward the field, and they realize, like … Hey, you’re different. You’re not like everyone else

It usually starts with a double-take. Then it’s just this stare, with a little bit of a squint, and a real serious face. There’s no smile or anything like that. The best way I can describe it is a look of pure judgment. One that says, “What are you doing here?” without actually using any words. It’s like: Why are you here? You don’t belong … but just in the form of a glance. 

It cuts right through you. 

The biggest thing of all that I did was … I believed. I believed in myself, and I visualized my goals. Every day.

Kelsie Whitmore

And sitting here thinking about that facial expression as I write this, I’m realizing something about it for the first time. 

I’ve been playing baseball with boys pretty much my entire life — from coach-pitch as a little girl all the way up to now, as a 24-year-old woman who just finished up a season of playing professional baseball in the Atlantic League for the Staten Island FerryHawks. And growing up, obviously, every time I got that look … it made me feel completely and totally uncomfortable. I’ve always known that. But I’m realizing now that I had this one way of responding to it — of coping, really. I hadn’t even thought about this before, but whenever someone would shoot me that look, my head … it would immediately drop down. 

I’d see The Look on someone’s face and, like clockwork, my head would go down, eyes to the ground.

I feel like it was almost subconscious. Like I didn’t even really know I was doing it, or even tell my body to do it. It just kind of … automatically happened. To help me avoid feeling uncomfortable, avoid being judged. It was probably like, I don’t want to continue looking at this person, or to have to explain myself. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to even be … so I’m just going to look down.

Then I’d shake it off, run out onto the field and do what I loved. 

My love for baseball comes from my dad. It all starts there.

And I don’t mean that he loved baseball, or a certain team, and so I just started liking the game because he did. No. I mean that me and my dad would go outside and play catch constantly when I was a kid … and that was pretty much my favorite thing to do in the entire world. 

As I got older, he’d give me these challenges. It’d be like: O.K., now try to hit my glove when it’s over here, or Yeah, but can you hit that third brick from the bottom on your first try? It was so much fun! I couldn’t get enough.  

Baseball was all I wanted to do as a kid. And pretty much everything I owned was baseball related. I’m from California, but I was a Boston fan growing up because I played on a few Red Sox teams in Little League. So what did I do? I painted one half of my room navy blue and the other half red. Obviously. Then I hung up a bunch of Red Sox posters on the wall. 

My trash can was a Red Sox trash can. To this day, in my room back home, the floor mat is a giant baseball.  

I was the kid who had a leather baseball-seam phone case.  

Courtesy Whitmore Family

Back then, my little brother and I would drive our mom nuts because any time it rained and we couldn’t go out into the yard to play Wiffle Ball, we’d just set up a makeshift field in the living room and play there. The fireplace was home plate. We used couch pillows as bases. There was this one wall we called the Green Monster. (Not because it was green — it wasn’t — just because it was really tall.) We’d hit the picture frames in there all the time during our games, so we’d have to take them down so we wouldn’t get in trouble. 

We did whatever we had to do in order to play ball. And we took those games super seriously. I’d be doing anything I could to get my brother out — dropping down and going submarine style, pitching left-handed, whatever I had to do.

It was baseball 24/7 back then. 

Once I got started, it never bothered me that I was the only girl on my teams.

Kelsie Whitmore

The crazy thing is, when it came time for me to sign up for Little League, I actually almost didn’t play. I remember my dad coming up to me and asking me about it a bunch of times, and my answer would always be the same. 

“No, no,” I’d say to him. “That’s O.K. I just want to keep playing catch. Let’s just keep doing what we always do.”

He didn’t really understand, but he didn’t press me on it. Then, when I was like six or seven, my dad was like: “Kelsie, I love playing catch with you, but are you sure? You really don’t want to play baseball on a team?” So I finally explained.

“Dad, I really love baseball … but I don’t want to have to wear my hair up to play.” 

It probably sounds ridiculous. But that was a huge deal to me at the time. I’d always played baseball with my hair down. And I guess I was scared that they’d make me put it up, like all the girls I saw playing softball. 

I knew that I didn’t want to play softball because that wasn’t what we played at home, but at the same time I also didn’t want to have to change who I was in order to play baseball. 

My dad set me straight right away. “You can wear your hair however you want, Kelsie. However you like it.”

And that was all it took. Just like that … I was in. 

I immediately told him to sign me up for baseball. 

Clara Mokri/The Players' Tribune

Once I got started, it never bothered me that I was the only girl on my teams. When you’re little, it doesn’t really matter so much because it’s just a bunch of kids running around together. Plus, it was all boys I’d grown up with, so they didn’t treat me any different. 

It also helped that I was good. 

Up until about 12 or 13, I was taller and faster than a lot of the boys. I could hit. I could throw harder than most of them could. In Little League, the coaches would draft players before the season started, and I would always be one of the top three or four players picked. Then at the end of the season I’d be selected for the all-star team. I absolutely loved it. All of it. And everyone was totally accepting and supportive. 

Every once in a while, a parent would say something like, “Hey, is that a boy or a girl?” Or people who met me would assume I played softball instead of baseball — even after I told them otherwise or corrected them, which would really bug me. But there was never anything truly negative. Everyone was happy for me, basically. 

It wouldn’t be like that forever, though. 

I’d have people out of nowhere telling me that I was never going to be as strong or as fast as the boys.

Kelsie Whitmore

Fast-forward about five years, right around the time I was getting ready to start high school. That’s when The Look started happening. And the comments. That’s when it started being like, “Why is that girl on the field,” and “What is she doing here?” 

And it just so happens that when that stuff ramped up, I mean … it was right at the age when judgments like that can really have a huge impact on a kid. In some ways it messed with my self-confidence. I’d hear stuff like that, and all of a sudden it would be like, Maybe I don’t fit in anymore. I’d be having all sorts of thoughts that’d never entered my mind in all the years I’d played baseball. And look, I wish I could tell you I took it all in stride. But I’d sometimes let it eat me up. That’s just real.     

I’d have people out of nowhere telling me that I was never going to be as strong or as fast as the boys. That I’d never be able to hit it as far. That no matter how much I worked at it, I’d never be able to throw it as hard as my teammates. “So,” they’d say, “Why even bother? Like … what’s the use?” At one point, I even overheard a teammate saying that stuff. 

My friends would tell me to just block it out. “Don’t listen to any of that garbage,” they’d say. “Don’t let that bother you. Ignore it!” And like … of course. It’s not like I was trying to let stuff like that affect me. But it’s like, you’re not the one hearing all that negativity. It’s not aimed at you, you know? I mean, it’s easy to tell someone not to let something terrible bother them. But being the actual person it’s happening to? That’s different.  

Clara Mokri/The Players' Tribune

It’s sad to think about, but right around that age, early high school, I feel like maybe I began to lose trust in people a little bit. Before that, I kind of felt like everyone was pretty much cool with me — that people were happy to see me playing. But all of a sudden I had to come to grips with the fact that, like: Kelsie, not everyone is going to be on your side. Not everyone is supportive. Not everyone wants to see you succeed. So just continue to surround yourself with good, supportive people.  

I chose to use that negativity as fire to play and work harder. But at some points I let it affect me. Sometimes I felt like there were so many eyes on me, so many people just waiting for me to mess up so they could point at me and be like, “See, I told you so.” It was like I needed to be perfect — like every throw, every at bat, was make or break. Before that, I’d never really felt like an error or a strikeout was something that people were going to focus on or magnify. I was able to just have fun and play free. But it’s really hard to do that when you feel like you’re going to be judged for every little thing that happens, you know what I mean?  

So during high school I began overcompensating to try to keep up with the boys. I started to try to max everything out — throw as hard as them, swing for the fences to try and hit it as far as they could — instead of just focusing on my game and what I did best. Looking back on it now, it was the exact opposite of what I should have done, but I was frustrated, what can I say? I wanted to be able to hold my own in every way. I compared myself to the boys. I shouldn’t have. I wish I wouldn’t have. But I did.

And in retrospect that made me … sort of miserable. 

It wore on me. 

I still loved the sport, but actually going to the field and playing the game was taking a toll on me. Something had to change.

Things turned around for me when I got a bit older and got back in touch with myself. When I looked more inward and shifted the expectations I was putting on myself. 

I had to be real with myself. Be honest. 

I’d gone through phases of trying to fit in, or feeling like I needed to. But once I began to find myself, I got back to the roots of who I am.  

Clara Mokri/The Players' Tribune

It was like: Be yourself, Kelsie. You are who you are. This is the only body you have. You’re not going to be able to throw 90-plus. You need to be a contact hitter. Work with your mid- to upper- 70s fastball. Hit the ball on the ground and use your speed. Take advantage of what makes you … you! 

I needed to be my biggest fan, basically. I had to believe in myself to an extreme. So that’s what I started doing. 

Since then, I can’t tell you how many little talks I’ve had with myself — hundreds, probably. 

Lots of them have been in the outfield, just me out there in the grass waiting for the next pitch. Or walking up to the plate, or jogging to the mound, that kind of thing. 

I became an expert at giving myself pep talks. I fully grasped that if I was going to continue along this path I had to be my own support system. Because, at the end of the day, you’ve only really got yourself, right? And I know that might sound sad and depressing, but it’s true. I know myself better than anyone, and I know what I need to do to stay confident and locked in. So, for me, any time I’d do something positive, I’d be talking to myself like: Alright. That’s how it should be. Keep it up. Act like that’s normal. Just keep doing what you’re doing! 

And that stuff really worked for me.

I’d gone through phases of trying to fit in, or feeling like I needed to. But once I began to find myself, I got back to the roots of who I am.  

Kelsie Whitmore

Around the same time, I also stopped being so tough on myself, so rigid and inflexible. I guess I just realized that there’s more than one way to do things, you know? That’s actually how I ended up playing softball in college, now that I think about it. Prior to my senior year in high school, I never wanted to hear about softball. Not for a second. I’d never played softball in my life — even though lots of people assumed that I did. For me it was like: I play baseball. Period. I want to play pro ball after I graduate. So I obviously want to play baseball in college. 

I was a good player in high school, super solid. Someone who definitely could’ve helped a college team somewhere, even if just as a role player. But no one was looking to give me a chance. So I basically had to come up with a Plan B. And that meant expanding my horizons. 

I showed up at a softball camp one afternoon — looking all out of place, the only one with a baseball cap on and her hair down — and almost immediately had a bunch of Division I softball coaches calling the house. Next thing I know, I’m playing college softball at Cal State-Fullerton. 

And it was great! I enjoyed playing softball and loved being around my teammates. 

But at the same time, I stayed focused on my ultimate goal. So we’d have night games and afterward I’d go over to the baseball cages and hit a bunch of balls. Or I’d throw a bullpen session, or hit baseballs off a tee for an hour. Just anything I could do to keep my skills honed. Then, after our season finished up, I went and played independent pro ball in the summer with the guys.

Softball was cool. Don’t get me wrong. I had a lot of fun playing it, but for me everything about the game was temporary. I considered myself a baseball player who just happened to be playing softball. 

I never wore those visors. It was always a baseball cap for me. And I borrowed uniform pants from the baseball team. I wore baseball stirrups, and ¾ cut-off sleeves. 

Now, I will admit that, early on … I put my hair up a few times for games. But it didn’t take. Because … of course it didn’t. I didn’t want to feel like I had to change who I was. So I quickly went back to wearing my hair down and everything felt right.

Again it was just like: Be yourself, Kelsie.

After I graduated from college, everything was all about getting back into baseball. It was pretty funny the lengths I went to. I hit up so many tryout camps and clinics back then, way too many to count. And I’d go to diversity-and-inclusion events meant to bring women into the scouting and coaching professions … just so I could pick scouts’ brains and make connections. I’d ask what they look for in players, and then I’d go back home and work on all those things. I made calls. I sent emails. I’d talk to coaches and be like, “Please be brutally honest with me. Be real. What do I need to improve? You aren’t going to hurt my feelings.” 

It was like: Whatever it’s going to take, I’m doing.  

But the biggest thing of all that I did was … I believed. I believed in myself, and I visualized my goals. Every day. Playing pro ball was the first thing I thought about when I woke up and the last thing on my mind before I fell asleep. I kept telling myself it would eventually all pay off. And then one day this past spring, the GM of the Staten Island FerryHawks called me up and said he wanted to give me a shot. 

Clara Mokri/The Players' Tribune

Right now, I’m having the time of my life. 

The past few months with the FerryHawks were all about growth and development for me, and getting better every day. I learned so much about myself, as both a player and as a person. 

It was definitely a grind, with six games each week, but I learned to really prioritize staying mentally and physically prepared. And all the guys on the team were super supportive. It was almost like having 30 new brothers, all of whom know a ton about baseball. They were always around, constantly talking with me about the game. That was one of my favorite parts about all this. I was able to learn from guys who have played in the majors, guys who were successful in minor league ball. I could pick their brains. 

People always want to know what it was like being the only girl on the team, and honestly, it was pretty much the same as it’s always been for me. When you’ve always been the only one, you get used to feeling a little different, you know what I mean? You get used to being by yourself sometimes. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. 

I woke up each morning feeling beyond grateful to be able to go to the field and call that my office. It didn’t feel like it was a job at all.

It just felt right.

Al Bello/Getty

But it certainly hasn’t been glamorous. This has been a real journey. To get to this point. It’s not been smooth sailing, that’s for sure. 

Recently, the pushback has mainly been taking the form of negativity and hate on social media. After MLB did a post on me not too long ago, it seemed like the floodgates opened. Just a lot of sexist remarks — mean comments intended to be hurtful and put me down. And that stuff … it affected me. It got me down sometimes. I won’t lie, it messed with my mental health.  

I just did my best to focus on the good, and to try to stay positive. And, fortunately, my teammates all had my back. That meant the world to me. A buddy of mine on the team even helped me out by grabbing my phone and showing me how to adjust all the settings to make my DMs private and block people and filter out as much of that stuff as possible. 

Another thing that really helped was — and this was a total surprise to me, I wasn’t expecting it at all — people I don’t even know showing support and having my back. When I first signed with the FerryHawks, there were a bunch of articles in the local papers, and so, of course, you had some people who weren’t supportive and left negative comments. And, well….

Turns out there were a lot of kind, thoughtful people out there who don’t even know me but who were just like totally not having that. They jumped into the comments sections and showed support for me. They let those commenters know that what they were saying was out of line. 

It was so special. I actually get emotional thinking about it.  

Those people, they had my back. And that felt so good. It took some of the weight off me, you know what I mean? I’d never really seen something like that happen before. And now some of those people who stepped up in support have become good friends. 

At the end of the day, we all have little things we’re insecure about. And that’s O.K. — 100% O.K. 

Kelsie Whitmore

This whole thing, though, all of it — doing my thing as the only little girl on boys’ teams as a kid, working my way up to pro ball, grinding to try to reach my ultimate goal of making it all the way to the bigs — it’s definitely been a process, with lots of ups and downs. 

And some of my past experiences, they still come up all these years later. The impact, it still resonates in certain instances. It’s crazy because I find myself at times now, even today … I try not to, but I find myself … when there’s a big crowd or I can feel a lot of people looking at me, my head immediately goes down. Just like it did back in the day. 

I guess maybe I’m still using that to cope in a way. 

I had thought that I’d trained myself to walk tall in college, to hold my head high and project confidence. But to this day, I still find myself in certain situations getting that same feeling I would get 10 years ago. And I’m sure this is going to sound overly dramatic, but it’s almost like this traumatized feeling for a second. A feeling where my mind senses some judgment, and my head goes straight down. 

That may never go away, who knows. At the end of the day, we all have little things we’re insecure about. And that’s O.K. — 100% O.K. 

But when you put so much time into one thing, and when you for your whole life have dreamed of that one thing, nothing else truly matters. The money doesn’t matter. What people say about you, or how they look at you … it doesn’t matter. Because all you really think about is that goal, and how good it’s going to feel when you reach it.

I’ve trained myself to be strong over the years because I have to be that way. Allowing things to eat you up only takes you backward, when the goal is to always keep moving forward. So, I can handle anything that comes at me. I can deal. Especially because I know that in some ways what I’m doing … it’s important.  

When you put so much time into one thing, and when you for your whole life have dreamed of that one thing, nothing else truly matters. The money doesn’t matter. What people say about you, or how they look at you … it doesn’t matter. Because all you really think about is that goal, and how good it’s going to feel when you reach it.

Kelsie Whitmore

I would be lying if I said I didn’t pay attention to the history involved here. 

When you’re working hard on your game every day, it can sometimes be difficult to spend much time thinking about how you’re helping to change the sport of baseball and clear a path for future generations. But it does pop into my head every now and then. And when I hear from little girls or their parents about how I’m impacting their lives with what I’m doing, it inspires me to keep going and move beyond the tough times. 

Earlier this season, something happened that I’ll never forget, because it drove home the fact that I’m doing this for something that’s so much bigger than just myself. I was sitting in our locker room after a game and was having a rough time. Everything was weighing on me. I was really down. I kept saying to myself that once I got through the day everything would be O.K. But it was one of those things where you tell yourself that, but like … you’re not really convinced. Then, as I walked outside, I heard this tiny, little voice calling my name over and over again. When I turned the corner, there was this little girl with a huge smile on her face waiting for me so she could get an autograph and a photo.

In that moment, I saw how, even when you’re feeling really down or having a bad day, this game can bring you some of the greatest, most joyful moments you’ll ever experience.

Just seeing her gigantic smile … in an instant, I was overjoyed on the inside. I could see how excited she was, the happiness in her eyes. She had no idea about the rough day I was having. She just wanted to show her support and connect with me. And it truly brightened my day.

Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty

I want to always be there for moments like that. Those experiences … they’re truly priceless. 

I want to be an example for little girls everywhere. I want to show them — be actual living proof — that they can play this game. They can do it! 

It won’t be easy, of course. That’s just the truth. It’s going to be hard. It just is. There will be people who judge you, people who don’t want to see you succeed. But I just want little girls all over the world to know for a fact that they can get through all that … because they know of somebody else who has! 

It may sound silly to some people, but that symbolism, that influence … it’s a big deal for me. It’s special. 

It matters.

And it’s why I’m so excited for the future, wherever this game may take me.