Mo'ne Davis, and why no one should laugh at the idea of a woman in Major League Baseball

·MLB columnist
Pennsylvania's Mo'ne Davis delivers in the fifth inning against Tennessee during a baseball game in United States pool play at the Little League World Series tournament in South Williamsport, Pa., Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. Pennsylvania won 4-0 with Davis pitching a complete game two-hit shutout. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Everybody is watching her. It's not just the teenage girls who look at Mo'ne Davis and see an anomaly: the preternaturally confident adolescent, one with the self-assuredness necessary to march out onto a baseball diamond surrounded by boys on all sides, stand in the middle of it and belong. Not just act like she belongs, either, but manage the attention and the stardom thrust upon a 13-year-old from South Philly and the responsibility of maybe, possibly being the one. Best of all is what she has owned from the instance she introduced herself to the country: the moment.

No wonder, then, that in addition to the girls it's old men and soccer moms and little boys and grandmas and dads and office workers and doctors and neighbors and even those utterly and wholly disinterested in baseball who are tuning in to the Little League World Series this year for her. Even though it's because she's a she – because the novelty of a girl who can throw a baseball 70 mph and hurl a shutout against the elite of her age group's elite is a match made in zeitgeist heaven – it's more because of who she is than what she does.

Mo'ne, like her namesake, traffics in beauty. Her achievements are of one variety, her comportment of an entirely different sort. And the latter is the luminescent part, the one that makes everyone wonder what, exactly, Mo'ne Davis might be when she's not a kid anymore. Women populate baseball front offices, broadcasting booths, newspaper space. They've umpired games, run training rooms, done so much more than hew to assigned gender roles. Across the country this spring, 1,259 girls from 227 schools played baseball, according to the National Federation of State High Schools Association, and this week USA Baseball is holding Women's National Team tryouts in California to select the team headed to Japan in September for the Women's Baseball World Cup.

None is the one, not yet, not even with a high schooler whose fastball works into the 80s or the standout on scholarship playing college ball against men. It’s going to take more than someone who can thrive against lower-level competition. The first woman to play affiliated professional baseball – to have a direct pathway to the major leagues – is going to need poise and presence and talent. Which happen to be the very things Mo'ne Davis plans to show the world again Wednesday.

Julie Croteau's son wears purple soccer cleats. This delights her. Twenty-five years ago, when Croteau walked on to the St. Mary's College baseball team in Maryland, the gender barrier extended beyond the appropriateness of sport for each sex. It was a time when boys and men wouldn't dare dress in an objectionable color – purple or, egads, pink – lest their manliness come under fire.

Mo'ne Davis threw a shutout in her first LLWS start. (AP)
Mo'ne Davis threw a shutout in her first LLWS start. (AP)

Now Mo'ne Davis is striking out boys, and she's not a novelty so much as an equal, and "you see this beautiful arc of progress," Croteau said, which starts decades ago with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and goes to Toni Stone and Mamie Johnson in the Negro Leagues and continues with Susan Perabo and Croteau playing college ball and crests at Ila Borders joining an independent league team and brings us to today, when that final step remains elusive for any number of reasons.

Perabo is a writer and professor now, and she crafted an essay later anthologized alongside the works of George Plimpton, Roger Angell and Frank Deford. It was about the career she dreamed, the mere possibility of it existing, and how one day a girl may turn her fictitious life into non-fiction. It's honest, sometimes depressingly so, because it lists all the impediments between a girl who plays baseball and a woman whose vocation is to do so.

"There are a lot of amazing girl athletes, and they're lost before they have a chance to be found," said Perabo, visiting her parents in New Hampshire on a break from her job running Dickinson College's study-abroad program in Norwich, England. "It would be rare for one of those girls' parents or coaches to say, 'Hey, what about baseball?' You'd say 10, maybe 20 things before baseball."

She's right. Girls who play baseball get pushed to softball, not just because it's the traditional bat-and-ball sport for women but because scholarship opportunities abound. And if it's not softball, it's basketball, or track and field, or soccer, or anything that isn't baseball.

"Mo'ne fits that profile that I put out there, the imagined profile of what I thought the girl and the woman would be who would eventually break that barrier," Perabo said. "But she's only 13. The best thing personally that could happen to her is everyone forgets her for a while. It's overwhelming to be in the spotlight."

It's not just overwhelming. It's taxing, mentally and physically, to hear the taunts, to stomach the ignorance, to cut through the lot of it and succeed on the field, which takes enough energy to begin with. Perabo got some of it; she joined the baseball team at tiny Webster University outside St. Louis because it didn't have a softball program. Croteau was a barrier breaker, trying unsuccessfully to play high school ball, then finding a college that let her play first base.

The stress overwhelmed her then, long before Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and comment sections unleashed an entire new type of bullying. Being the face of anything today can be miserable. A black girl like Mo'ne Davis in a sport historically white and male like baseball has the potential to bring out the worst.

"It gives me great pleasure to watch her, because she does seem to be the full package," Croteau said. "But I don't want to add to the pressure. She should be able to play herself. She shouldn't have to wear the flag for all girls.

"In some ways, it's wonderful. She's getting coverage and exposure, and she'll have opportunities her teammates won't get. In that way, there's a wonderful reward waiting for her. But she can't have a bad day. People will read more into that than when she throws a two-hit shutout."

While it's far premature to believe Mo'ne can be the one, Perabo and Croteau both believe a woman will play in Major League Baseball some day. Baseball, more than any other sport, welcomes those of all shapes and sizes. The barriers to entry ultimately amount to a simple question: Can she play?

So far, the human body has not answered in the affirmative.

Five years ago, researchers published a paper in the Journal of Applied Biomechanics comparing 11 elite female pitchers with 11 men at a similar level. They sought to understand the differences between men and women, and whether those contrasts could explain why men threw so much harder.

Mo'ne Davis has been clocked at 70 mph. (AP)
Mo'ne Davis has been clocked at 70 mph. (AP)

Mo'ne Davis throws 70 mph, near the top velocity in the Little League World Series this year, maybe a mile per hour or two behind the hardest-throwing boy. The difference is negligible.

Last year, scouts clocked Miami-area high school pitcher Anthony Molina at 96 mph. He was 15 years old. While Molina is an outlier, he represents the disparity between men and women that surfaces almost immediately after players graduate from Little League. Puberty strikes and turns elite boys into velocity monsters. Girls improve incrementally, and some plateau because they barely grow in size. Mo'ne is 5-foot-4 today, and there's no guarantee she'll get any bigger going forward. Marti Sementelli, among the most successful female pitchers ever – she earned a scholarship to Montreat College in North Carolina – stands 5-3.

Granted, it's not just size. Men and women's bodies function differently when throwing a baseball, according to the findings of the doctors' study. The length of the women's stride toward the plate – something that correlates with velocity – was shorter. Hip-to-shoulder separation – the rotation of hips while keeping shoulders closed, which some pitchers believe is the greatest generator of velocity – was not close to the same. Even more, the women produced 31 percent less elbow velocity, according to the study, and didn't land on their front foot with a straight knee, a sign that the force from the beginning of the delivery lagged behind the men's.

The study noted that the data wasn't the best. It came from one trial among a small sample size of players. It didn't use the markers that are commonplace in biomechanical studies to capture the image closest to the truth. "Even though several differences were quantified," the study concluded, "pitching mechanics overall is not that different between females and males."

The smallest things make a big difference in performance, however, and so baseball is left waiting for the sort of girl who throws like a boy. Or, in the absence of that, the kind of girl who takes whatever limitations her gender cast on her physically and erases them with a gift from the laws of physics.

Chelsea Baker's first day of school was Tuesday. She's a senior at Durant High in Plant City, Fla. She did the typical 17-year-old stuff: tweet a group pic, Instagram a post-school selfie, kibitz about her day. She reteweeted a kid bragging that she was in his criminal justice class. He included the hashtag #AllStar.

Chelsea Baker, a knuckleball pitcher, threw batting practice to the Rays. (AP)
Chelsea Baker, a knuckleball pitcher, threw batting practice to the Rays. (AP)

Baker is something of a celebrity in the halls of Durant. ESPN featured her as a 13-year-old. Over the summer, she threw batting practice to the Tampa Bay Rays. She played in Perfect Game showcase events, too, some featuring surefire Division I players and future draft picks. She is one of the best in the next generation of female ballplayers, a group that is more prepared, better trained and hopes to push the boundaries of what women can do in baseball.

There is Sarah Hudek, the daughter of former Astros pitcher John Hudek, whose fastball topped out at 81 mph at a Perfect Game event – and she's a lefty. Jade Gortarez excelled as a freshman and sophomore starter in Riverside, Calif., and can swing the bat as a middle infielder, too. The most famous is Baker, who threw almost 65 mph as a 13-year-old and tops out today at 77 mph, which, even she admits, "is kind of like batting practice."

So she's trying to hone her knuckleball, taught to her by one of the masters, the late Joe Niekro. The knuckleball is the great equalizer for women, a trick pitch so effective that its mastery portends trouble for even the finest hitters. It’s not an insult to foist the knuckler on women as their best chance; two major league executives said absent top-end velocity – almost a necessity for pitching prospects – pitchers need a beyond-the-norm secondary talent, and the knuckleball is the likeliest to catch their attention.

Rays hitters swung through Baker's during batting practice, though it took her time to warm up because of the microphones clipped to her and the cameras trained on her. Being ogled by so many is part of the gig, and while the 13-year-old Baker shrugged off the attention – she didn't think it was a big deal when the National Baseball Hall of Fame asked for her jersey – she now sees it for what it can be: equal parts fishbowl and echo chamber, with the clamber hastening and loudening about now.

"When I was her age, that's when I started getting it," Baker said. "Mine was just why are you wasting your time playing baseball? The boys are going to be so much bigger than you. You're not going to throw hard enough. You're not going to be strong enough. It can get pretty bad when it keeps coming at you."

Baker would read comment sections hoping people would talk about her as a role model and instead encounter hateful remarks. She saw a half-dozen friends who wanted to play baseball never get the opportunity because of stubborn coaches or boys far too eager to bully. The beautiful arc of progress exists; it's just littered with ugly potholes.

(Sports Illustrated)
(Sports Illustrated)

And yet Baker watches Mo'ne Davis pitch, and it makes her hopeful. "I'm so proud of her," Baker said. "I've seen a bunch of girl baseball players, but I've never seen someone so passionate for the game." On one thing everyone can agree: Mo'ne is perfect for this role, the rare person who catalyzes interest in a team game by herself. She appeals to a wide swath of people for a variety of reasons. Her start Wednesday night will be the most-viewed Little League game in years because of her.

No matter what happens, she'll emerge from this a star, and Baker only hopes those in positions of authority don't take advantage of it. Because she wants this experience for Mo'ne to enrich her, not drain her. She wants to give some advice to Mo'ne, too, because so few others understand this odd slice of childhood celebrity, what it means to take a niche and turn it into a cultural phenomenon. Just remember, Baker said, "it'll all be worth it."

Mo'ne Davis was quiet when she met Justine Siegal two years ago, far from the engaging girl whose expressive hazel eyes tell as much a story as the words that emerge from her lips. A friend of a friend encouraged Siegal to introduce herself to Davis in Cooperstown, N.Y., where she was playing with a group of kids barnstorming around the country on a vintage tour bus to mimic the trips Negro Leagues players once made.

Mo'ne was the only girl, and Siegal, who runs Baseball For All, a nonprofit that gives females opportunities to play baseball, told her, quite simply, "to keep playing baseball."

Maybe she will. Maybe Mo'ne Davis will realize baseball gave her 20,000 Instagram followers and recognize her special bond with the sport. Maybe she'll embrace the idea of being the one, dedicate herself to it, leverage her talent into something greater. Maybe she'll fall in love with the game like so many others do.

Or maybe she will go back to basketball, her sport of choice, and try to fulfill her dream of playing at the University of Connecticut. Maybe she'll drop basketball, or baseball, because they just don't interest her much anymore. A lot of maybes that draw Mo'ne away from baseball exist. Far more than marry her to it.

Because to be the one, she has to tolerate the backlash and onslaught, and she has to be the physical freak who defies convention, and she has to run into someone who will take the sort of chance executives are loath to take. "The hero's not just Jackie Robinson," Siegal said. "It's Branch Rickey."

The likelihood of these things happening with one girl is minute … which is plenty for Croteau and Perabo and Baker and Siegal and every woman at the Team USA tryouts and the many more who love baseball no matter who's playing it. It may take five years. It may take 50. At least the idea of a woman playing baseball no longer is as laughable as a boy in purple cleats.

"There is a future," Siegal said. "I'm 39. There was no future."

The future, for now, is Pennsylvania vs. Nevada at 7:30 p.m. ET. It is a 5-foot-4 kid with long hair and unlimited swag standing on a mound and throwing a baseball 70 mph. It is a Sports Illustrated cover girl wagging her finger at any jinx. It is baseball in 2014. It is a big and vibrant, a Mo'ne for the modern set, capturing all of our feelings as great impressionism was meant to.

More LLWS coverage: