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Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014
Martin Fennelly Columns

Chelsea, 17, tries out her knuckler against Rays

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Published:   |   Updated: June 24, 2014 at 11:09 AM

Baseball history was made Monday. For the first time, Tampa Bay Rays batters faced someone wearing cherry lip gloss, though I could be wrong.

But name another time Rays third baseman Evan Longoria was hit by a pitch and the person who hit him later tweeted a photo of the two of them with the words, “Whoops, I hit bae” — Internet slang for “babe.”

It’s all true. When the batting-practice pitcher donned a Rays jersey with her name on it, she was happy it was No. 25, her high school number. She was equally happy that there was a hole in the back of her ball cap for her ponytail.

Chelsea Baker, 17, the engaging, growing legend behind those tortoise-shell Ray-Ban eyeglasses, will soon be a senior at Durant High. She digs jewelry and going to the mall. She loved homecoming and prom. She plays piano and is learning guitar and saxophone. One day she’d like to be an orthodontist. She has a tattoo on her left wrist, one word: “Believe.”

Also, the first female pitcher on a boys varsity baseball team in Hillsborough County owns a devilish knuckleball. We saw it flutter and float before Monday’s game at Tropicana Field.

“I’ve done a bunch of things, but this is more than anything I’ve imagined,” Baker said. “It’s like a dream.”

And this kid dreams big.

“When she puts her head to something, she does it,” said her grandmother, Dot Hutchison.

Baker, all 5 feet, 3 inches of her, came over from her home in Plant City to throw to some Rays, including Longoria, her baseball hero. She was invited by Rays manager Joe Maddon, who met Baker last week while presenting her with an award at the “Sneaker Soiree” in Tampa. Baker gave Maddon an autographed ball from her complete game against Armwood last season.

Chelsea Baker was wired with two microphones as she pitched to Longoria, Rays catcher Jose Molina and pitcher David Price. One belonged to Major League Baseball Productions. The other was for ESPN, which broadcast some of her pitches live.

Baker’s mother, Missy, took pictures nonstop. Her stepfather, Rod, talked to anyone who wanted to hear Chelsea’s amazing story. And there was this:

That ball moved.

Believe.

“She has very good composure,” Maddon said. “She really knows what she’s doing out there. It’s not a gimmick.”

It was this very knuckler that helped Chelsea to an 0.74 ERA over 19 innings in her first season on the Durant varsity. Monday, there were Rays swings and half swings and complete misses — and wide smiles. Price smashed one knuckler. Longoria lined one. Baker said they were going easy on her. She hit Longo when one got away.

“Me just being scared,” Baker said.

When she was 5, she fell in love with the game. She played with the boys, easy enough because she grew up with three brothers. A lot of people told her parents that would end at Little League. Then they said it would end at travel ball. Then it was high school. No way. Chelsea Baker’s story is still going strong.

She has done a bunch of things. Baker drew national attention when she threw two perfect Little League games as a 12-year-old. She has been featured on two ESPN segments. One of her jerseys is at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Stepdad Rod says Universal has purchased the rights to Chelsea’s life story. She recently tried out for the U.S. women’s national baseball team. She has an offer from a women’s league in Japan, where she has played exhibitions and where fans crowned her “The Knuckleball Princess.”

“I like that name,” Baker said.

She says she throws each knuckleball partly to honor the man who first taught her the pitch: “Coach Joe,” former major-league knuckleballer Joe Niekro, who had moved to Plant City and helped coach his son’s Little League team. Chelsea was on the team. She was 7. And she wanted to learn the knuckler.

“He didn’t want to show me at first,” Baker said. “I kept asking him and asking him.”

When she puts her head to something ...

Joe Niekro died in 2006. He was just 61. Chelsea Baker put a baseball and note in his casket.

“My Coach Joe passed away and that’s what made me want to keep playing baseball,” Chelsea said. “That’s why I keep throwing the knuckleball.”

Evan Longoria smiled when asked about Chelsea.

“This is her day,” he said. “I hope it was special for her.”

After throwing, Baker took grounders next to Longoria at third base before moving to the outfield. That ponytail bobbed as she chased baseballs. Later, she threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Rays played the Pirates, but she had already decided which pitch Monday was her favorite.

“Definitely when I hit Evan. I’m not going to forget that, ever.”

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