Lori Dando, 37, started playing baseball as a girl growing up in Pittsburgh, but just before her teens she switched to softball, like many girls of her generation. She gave up her dream of becoming a baseball pitcher and eventually found success as a college athlete on the basketball and track teams at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. After graduating, she played various recreational sports, such as slow-pitch softball, but something was always missing: The games just weren’t baseball.
Just a few weeks ago that changed when, Dando, who moved to Silver Spring, Md., this year to help launch the local branch of a tech start-up, overheard Michelle Snyder, a veteran of the USA Women’s baseball team and a Virginia resident, talking about the Eastern Women’s Baseball Conference, a four-team league of recreational women’s baseball teams that plays games on regulation-sized fields in Virginia and Maryland on Sunday mornings.
The conversation continued, and as soon as Dando confirmed Snyder was talking about real baseball, she said, “Can I play?”
Next thing she knew, she was playing left field for the Virginia Flames, the league’s first-place team, which plays its home games at McLean and Langley high schools.
She started 1-for-12 from the plate for the Flames, and despite .083 batting average to open with, she said she loved every minute of it.
“It feels awesome. It’s fun to be out here with these ladies who also have a love of baseball,” she said after hitting a pair of doubles in her fifth game for the Flames, raising her average to .313. They were part of a 4-for-4 day two weekends ago in a 13-6 win against the Montgomery Barncats, the league’s second-place team. The other teams are the Baltimore Blues (third place) and the Virginia Fury. The league decides its champion in a playoff scheduled for August 23 and 24 at Kelley Park in Gaithersburg, Md.
Dando’s experience is typical for women who loved baseball as girls. Aside from unique cases, it’s hard to find places to play beyond little league. Girls who play baseball still run into high school or American Legion teams unwilling to put them on the roster. Eventually, many transition to softball, more due to the realization that playing can earn them a college scholarship than a pure love of the game. Baseball continues to be their favorite sport into adulthood.
Joann Milliken, 61, a Fairfax County resident and Flames veteran, has been involved with the league — celebrating its 25th season this year — from almost the beginning because of a love cultivated during neighborhood games in Southern New Jersey.
“I grew up in a small town where girls weren’t allowed to play Little League,” Milliken said. “My family was pretty traditional and we didn’t make waves. I played street ball with my brother and other boys. We would climb the fence and play in the city parking lot after the maintenance trucks left for the day.”
Originally the league was just a body that organized pick-up games among women who were interested in playing during the summer months, but that seed blossomed into a schedule that at one point included six teams. Jen Hammond, the Flames’ catcher who attended West Potomac High School and works in Vienna, said the league doesn’t have tryouts and it’s always looking for players interested in rekindling their baseball careers. It costs about $2,000 to register a team for the season, split among players. The youngest players are in their late teens, while the oldest are generally in their late 30s and early 40s with some outliers even two decades older than that. Even though the league has enough solid players to create an All-Star team that travels to tournaments under the name “D.C. Thunder,” (next up, Rockford, Ill., Labor Day weekend) its teams sometimes have trouble with depth. Often the nine starters are the only players in uniform on a given day, which puts a huge premium on pitchers. (Check ewbc.wordpress.com from more information on getting involved or registering a team.) According to Ashley Bratcher, the director of USA Baseball’s national women’s team, the EWBC is the only all-women’s recreational league in the country — most women who want to play baseball after they surpass college age find themselves playing for men’s league teams.
The fundamental plays are made regularly: infield grounders are outs, and pop-ups are guaranteed to kill rallies, just like with men.
The Flames (10-1) head into next weekend’s playoffs as favorites thanks to the efforts of Dando and veterans Laura Campbell (.581 batting avg.), Codi Dudley (7-1, 1.70 ERA) and Hammond (24 runs scored) and will look to defend their title from 2013, but it won’t be easy. Standouts Snyder and Samantha Cobb, the league’s top players and members of the Flames, will be in California trying to make the final cut for USA Baseball’s entry into this year’s World Cup, which is scheduled for the first week of September in Japan.
Snyder, 27, who played four years as an infielder at Florida State, made the team in 2012, and is a good prospect to make it back this season, according to Bratcher. Cobb also played with the USA team in a tournament in Canada after graduating from the University of Tulsa in 2013, where she was a standout. She said she is hoping to make the team in a utility role as a pitcher, infielder and outfielder.
Just like any sport, even when you’re one of the best 40 players in the country, there are some who are better. Cobb threw hard for the Flames, but struggled with control and offspeed pitches. Snyder was befuddled by the Barncats’ starter, whose pitches had a discernible arch as they hovered to the plate at about 45 mph.
“I’m going to play third,” said Snyder, a government contractor. “There are some girls better than me who cover more ground.”
Cobb, who plans to become a licensed nurse by the end of the year, is less certain of her status on the national team.
“There’s a lot of athletic girls out there,” she said. “One week you can do really well, and another day, you have no idea where you’ll be.”
Each player said she plans to try out for the national team at least a couple more times. One standout player, Tamara Holmes from Oakland, Calif., just turned 40 and is a good candidate to make the team again, said Bratcher.
While Dando probably won’t get to that level, having just picked up a big-barrel bat for the first time in 25 years just a few weeks ago, she’s thrilled to get a chance to relive some childhood thrills as an adult. Her next goal? Get back on the mound.
“When I was in Little League, that was one of the best times of my life,” she said. “Being the only girl on a little boys team and guys coming up, talking smack. I remember striking out my cousin a couple of times.”
Gathering her gear for the walk back to the parking lot, it’s clear Dando, tall and sturdy with a smooth, right-handed swing, wished the next game were sooner than a week away. A mix of nostalgia and anticipation played out on her face. As the gravel patch crunched under her cleats, just as it did when she was 12, she said it again:
“I can’t believe there’s a women’s baseball league.”