PLANT CITY - Chelsea Baker keeps proving that gender is no barrier on the baseball diamond.
This season, the 17-year-old became the first female in Hillsborough County history to pitch for a high school varsity team. Her coach at Durant High School loved her play so much that he wants her back on the mound for her senior year.
Her stepfather, Rod Mason, said he's not surprised that she continues to excel against the boys in the sport.
“At every level, people have doubted her,” Mason said. “They say she can't do it, but she does, every time.”
The Plant City resident has racked up one accomplishment after another for years.
She first attracted the national spotlight for pitching two perfect games in less than a year as a 12-year-old Little Leaguer.
She has rubbed elbows with such celebrities as supermodel Niki Taylor, who came to Plant City to help promote a Reader's Digest article on Baker, and actress Geena Davis, who narrated an ESPN “E-60” segment that heralded her as perhaps the best Little League player in the nation.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York requested her Brandon Farms' jersey to display in the Diamond Dreams: Women in Baseball exhibit.
“She was a natural at a very young age,” Mason said. “She's an athlete who can play baseball.”
The 5-foot-2 Baker credits her Little League coach, the late Joe Niekro, for her signature pitch - the knuckleball.
Rod Mason and his wife Missy, who is Baker's mom, switched her from softball to baseball when she was 6, purely for convenience. Her brothers all played baseball. It was just easier to have the whole family at the same ball fields.
Some Little League officials questioned their decision, “but she has proved at every level that she can compete and play baseball with boys,” Mason said. As a 7-year-old Little Leaguer, one of Baker's coaches was Niekro, a two-time, 20-game winner and All-Star whose career spanned 22 years. He moved to Plant City after he retired from the big leagues. Niekro knew a thing or two about playing baseball – especially the knuckleball. “Joe would play around with the kids and throw them the knuckle to see if anyone could hit it,” said Mason. “It was Chelsea who asked him to teach her how to throw it.”
Baker has fond memories of Niekro, who she often refers to as “Coach Joe.
“He always said I was special and I was the only one he would teach it to,” said Baker. “He really cared about me.”
Niekro died in 2006 of a brain aneurism at age 61. On her travel ball team, Baker continues to sport Niekro's number 36 in remembrance.
Baker continued to throw the knuckleball at Durant, where she finished the season with three saves in 19 innings and a .74 ERA.
“Boys I'm playing with now (at Durant) are so supportive,” she said. “They act like I'm just their little sister. They support me a lot.”
Durant baseball coach Butch Valdez was impressed with her season.
“All she had to do was perform – and she did,” said Valdez. “She produced and the results spoke for themselves.”
The Cougars finished the season 18-7 after losing in 7A regionals. With seven players graduating, Baker hopes to play more next season.
“She'll see more play time on the hill,” said her coach. “She does a great job.”
She has continued to hone her play with advice from Tim Wakefield, a knuckleball pitcher who spent 19 successful seasons with the Boston Red Sox. He has spent time coaching her further intricacies of their clubhouse pitch.
The young hurler's future is bright.
Baker has been invited to try out for the U.S. Women's National Baseball team in August, which will play in the World Cup in Japan this September. No stranger to Japan – Baker has played there twice before – the Japanese women's league would love to have her play there after high school. Some Japanese fans have already dubbed her “The Knuckleballer Princess.”
But for the most part, Baker, not unlike many 17-year-olds, hasn't thought much past high school. She said she hasn't had time. It's no doubt with the time-crunched teenager playing baseball year-round and hanging out with major league players on the side.
But when pushed, she'd love to play college baseball. And maybe study to be an orthodontist while she's at it.
“If I have the opportunity, that would be awesome,” she said.
For a young girl who can flutter a knuckleball like a major-leaguer, she is not daunted by new challenges. She is grounded in her skill and faith.
On her left wrist and her glove is tattooed: “Believe.”
“I'm going to show them I can do it,” said Baker. “Rather than just say it.”
Elaine Speer is a freelance writer and can be reached at email@example.com.