Breaking down barriers, one pitch at a time

GOODYEAR, Ariz. – The girl on the field spent her 13th birthday last week attending the Justin Bieber movie. She wears multi-colored sneakers with mismatched laces. And she once tried to be serious about baseball, only to discover a diamond was a more wonderful place to chase butterflies and sketch infield pictures with the toe of one of those sneakers.

While Cleveland Indians hitters launched baseballs into an empty outfield, the girl on the field sat cross-legged and pushed her cap back on her head and fiddled with her iPhone, wondering just how long she’d have to be here.

Every few minutes she’d lift her head, study the scene on Field 2, then drift away again.

Her mom was throwing batting practice, something no woman had done before in a major league setting, as far as anyone knew.

“Yeah, I’m proud,” Jasmine Siegal said. “Thing is, I can see her pitch any time.”

Thirty-one years since she first held a baseball with some kind of intent and almost 20 since giving up her dream of becoming the next Orel Hershiser, Justine Siegal, 36, continued her fight Monday to persuade and allow girls of any age to play the game she loves. The game they love.

Just like the boys.

Or, as the case may be, to pursue butterflies.

Just like the boys.

She calls her ideal (and her website) Baseball for All. And after spending her prime stubbornly refusing to go away, Justine Siegal rolled her baseball pants to her knees, rubber-banded her hair into pigtails, stood on a back field, palmed three balls in her left hand and aimed, in her words, “To throw a four-seam fastball straight over the top and right over the plate.”

The Indians, the team of her youth and her father and her grandfather’s youths, were kind enough to grant her the stage, a platform behind an L screen maybe 50 feet from home plate. She wore a dark blue jersey, No. 15, for the day in February her daughter, Jaz, was born. The team had committed to a kind of tryout, allowing Siegal to give it a go against a handful of minor leaguers in shorts and T-shirts.

Turned out she did, indeed, throw like a girl. Like a strong, loose-armed, athletic girl who’d been doing this forever. Half hour later, she was re-warming in a game of catch with Indians manager Manny Acta and then pitching to big leaguers, throwing strikes and getting hammered like any good BP pitcher should.

As she’d strided to the mound, Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said to outfielder Chad Huffman(notes), “She was good earlier.”

“She was?” Huffman said.

“Yeah, she was good.”

“That’s great. I love it. Got a little swagger to her, too.”

Minutes later, catcher Paul Phillips(notes) stepped from the batting cage and said, “Is it bad when you’re going into a round of BP and you’re thinking, ‘Don’t strike out?’ ”

The goal was to hit as many bats as possible. The mission is larger, borne of Siegal’s own experiences growing up in the Cleveland suburb of Cleveland Heights, for years pitching (and occasionally playing third) for whomever would give her the ball, then as a coach for male teams, both for Springfield (Mass.) College and later the independent Brockton Rox.

Her organization is non-profit. Her message is about choices, and the freedom to make them. Whether her own Jaz ever caught the baseball bug or not, whether any girl did, Siegal believes they should have a place to play, a team around them and a way to earn it, regardless of gender.

“What I want is girls’ baseball across America,” she said between batting practices. “So when I throw, now all of a sudden we have a dialogue [about] how much girls and women love baseball and how they want to be a part of it.”

Beyond that, she said, “I think it’s fairly simple. If you tell a girl she can’t play baseball, what else is she going to believe she can’t do?”

To her uniform sleeve, Siegal had duct-taped a patch honoring Christina-Taylor Green, the 9-year-old girl killed in last month’s Tucson shooting. Green was the only girl on her Canyon Del Oro Little League team.

As Siegal pitched, she calmed her nerves and dried her palms by singing to herself, a song by U2 called, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own.” And she thought of all the people who should have been on the mound beside her: Grandfather Alvin, who’d turned her on to the Indians of Municipal Stadium, father Michael, who loved the game like she did, and Jaz, whose precociousness, well, had to come from somewhere.

“At the same time,” Siegal said, “I feel all those people who told me ‘no’ are with me, too.”

She’ll throw more batting practice Wednesday, for the Oakland Athletics. In the meantime, Justine and Jaz almost certainly will find other things to do. On a rainy Sunday, they’d spotted a rainbow over Scottsdale, and through the puddles chased the end of it in their rented Volkswagen bug.

They got close enough for Jaz to take a picture on her iPhone, which she held up with a grin, her brown eyes sparkling.

There’d be time for baseball later.

“We should do and be whatever we want to be,” her mom said. “If baseball’s it, then go for it.”