Women's baseball enters bold new era
8 April 2016
With 2016 already shaping as a huge year – including the World Cup scheduled for South Korea in September – Australian women’s baseball has entered an exciting phase spearheaded by several initiatives designed to drive the sport at both elite and grassroots level.
Although attention this week was focused on the innovative Diamonds in the Rough programme to be delivered in Indonesia, the national Women’s Advisory Panel is working closely with the states in facilitating playing opportunities and tournaments that over time will strengthen both the depth and the quality of women’s baseball at all levels.
Entrusted among other tasks with overseeing training of the national squad that will be announced this week, Australian Women’s Head Coach and Hall-of-Famer Simone Wearne is enthused about recent developments.
Notwithstanding a welcome spate of recent creative initiatives sparking optimism for the future of women’s baseball, there remain a number of challenges facing the sport as it strives to grow its participation base and to consolidate its position as a leader at women’s international level.
“There are lots of things happening across Australia at the moment,” a typically upbeat Simone Wearne told Australian Alumni this week. “For example, a group of committed and enthusiastic women took on the challenge of running their first tournament in Melbourne over Easter, and it was a raging success that has not gone unnoticed by other states.”
“And it all came about through people wanting to provide more opportunities for women to get to play baseball.”
An initiative of Baseball Victoria, the inaugural Girls Charter Tournament at Jells Park recently was another outstanding success and a concept that Simone Wearne hopes will be built upon.
“It was great to see four all-girls teams battling it out in the first of what I’m sure will be many of such tournaments over the coming years,” she said.
“All in all, girls are getting more opportunities in state programmes around the country, but I think there are still a number of clubs out there who don’t see the point in women playing baseball, and won’t support it from a club perspective,” she said. “Until every club understands the importance of having girls and women playing at the grassroots level, I’m not sure where women’s baseball will go.”
“That lack of awareness is a shame, as I have seen first-hand how much good can come to your club (on and off the field) if you provide playing opportunities for everyone – no matter their gender.”
While there is still some entrenched negativity, even occasional dismissiveness of the worth of women’s baseball, unhelpful attitudes are being progressively broken down as clubs and governing bodies perceive the benefits to be derived for the sport - not to mention their intrinsic social obligation to be sincere about providing sporting opportunities for all.
The strengthened commitment to women’s baseball has been expressed in tangible and promising manner over recent times.
“It is important to note that Baseball Victoria have recently hired Bronwyn Gell, who is focusing on various things, but one of them is girls and women’s baseball,” Wearne said. “She was part of the organising committee for the first Little League Girls Charter event held recently, she helped organise the Victorian Women’s All Star game in December 2015, and she is working on girls and women’s Academy programs for winter 2016.”
“Baseball Victoria is one of the bodies that should be acknowledged for really moving things in the right direction at state level.”
“At national level there is a Women’s Advisory Panel working behind the scenes. This is a Baseball Australia initiative, with the panel aiming to provide support to states and the national team, while working on various issues in women’s baseball,” she said.
“Narelle Gosstray hosted a women’s baseball forum at the 2016 Women’s National Championships - where eighty people attended and discussed the current and future issues in the game. It was fantastic to see so many people involved – and now the Women’s Advisory Panel is working on making some of the items discussed a reality.”
Just this week, Baseball Australia announced a visionary international initiative that has enormous potential to spread the baseball gospel while creating learning and development opportunities within a context of cultural exchange and interaction.
“The programme is titled Diamonds in the Rough,” Simone Wearne explained. “It will allow sixteen women’s players and officials from across the country to travel to Jakarta to work with young girls and women – teaching them the game of baseball, but more importantly teaching them leadership skills and providing them with exciting mentoring opportunities.”
“It’s a fantastic program and, again, Narelle is spearheading this initiative. Not only will it be fantastic for the girls in Jakarta, it will also provide important learning and development opportunities for a number of our Australian women.”
Funded by the Australian Government through the Asian Sports Partnerships small grants fund, Diamonds in the Rough will establish a women’s baseball base in Indonesia while promoting cultural understanding, mutual human respect, leadership and healthy living – elements that are fundamental in essence to team sport.
As National Women’s Head Coach, Simone Wearne will of course be significantly focused on the Women’s Baseball World Cup to be held in South Korea from 3-11 September.
“There will be four new teams at this year’s World Cup - Cuba, Puerto Rico, South Korea and India,” Wearne said. “We have played against all four of those countries over the years – but they have never all been involved in the same World Cup event. I think it’s great for the game to have more countries involved in the tournament.”
Although Japan has won the last four World Cups, Australia has a really solid record, with a second, a third (in 2014) and four times finishing in fourth. It is a record upon which Simone Wearne and her team would desperately like to improve – although their preparation will be guided and their confidence will be tempered somewhat by the knowledge that it will be a tough assignment.
“Obviously, if you’re not going to a World Cup with the mindset of trying to win a gold medal, then you shouldn’t be going at all,” Wearne said. “So, our focus is on competing with the bigger countries, and battling until the last pitch is thrown – giving ourselves the best chance to win as many games as we can.”
“But we also have to be realistic. We have lost half of our 2014 World Cup Team – a few retirements, four of our players are travelling the world and living overseas at the moment, a couple of injuries and a few who are pregnant.”
“On paper, the 2014 team is likely the best team Australia has put on the park,” she said, “so to lose half of that team for the following World Cup is always going to make things tough.”
In saying that, Wearne is excited about the younger talent coming through women’s ranks and she is very much looking forward to seeing how they respond as Emeralds at a world-class event against powerhouse baseball nations.
“How they react to being on that stage we’re yet to know,” she said. “Our players just don’t have the chance to play regular, challenging baseball. Our women’s leagues across the board just aren’t deep enough yet, and often girls don’t get the chance to play high-level men’s baseball at their local clubs. So, we’re going to be challenged heavily, I think.”
“We’re up against the Japanese - who have their own professional league, plus more than twenty university girls baseball programs and over thirty high school girls baseball programs. Their players train for a living, and they play every other day.”
“Without saying we’re rebuilding, I’d like to think the Emeralds program is moving into a new phase,” Wearne said. “We’ve had a number of veteran players – Christina Kreppold, Amy McCann, Katie Gaynor – leading our team for several years. The team needs to find their feet without those girls now, and learn who the new group of young leaders are going to be.”
“Those three retiring players – Kreppold, McCann and Gaynor – will leave holes in the team, no doubt about it. Kreppold was literally the best player in the world at the 2014 World Cup. Unfortunately, she was hurting and couldn’t be on the field a hundred per cent of the time, which I know she found tough - as did the team.”
“In saying that, Tahnee Lovering has become a fantastic leader of our team,” she continued. “Tahnee has been working very hard for a long time, and she will take the reins from Kreppold as far as on field leaders go this year. She leads from the front, and leads by example. She will be great for the young players.”
“There are a number of young players coming through, but none that I can really name prior to the final team being selected. I’m not sure where they fit in yet, and obviously not all of them will get a chance this year. But the future looks bright for the next two, three, or four World Cups and beyond.
“For all of us, it is an exciting time to be involved.”
An initial Australian Emeralds squad of forty is expected to be announced this weekend. The players will train in their own states until the end of August, when they will meet for a selection camp – likely to be on the Gold Coast – and the squad will be cut to a final squad of twenty for the World Cup.
Even though the national women’s team has performed very well internationally, it has been basically self-funded, with players and staff having to cover costs themselves - not the case for players and officials from some other countries.
Both the federal government and some state governments have indicated that ASC funding for any sport may be reduced or withdrawn if there is not parity between men’s and women’s sports (including for travel and accommodation). This in principle means that our Women’s World Cup team should now be funded in the same way as the men’s national team heading to a major international tournament - although reduced baseball funding during a hectic year for the sport surely means that nothing is certain.
“While I don’t know enough about the government funding and how it all works, what I do know is that myself, and my staff and amazing volunteers, will continue to do everything we can to ensure the girls are not out of pocket when they go to the World Cup,” Simone Wearne said.
“That is one of our main focus points into the future.”
“Those of us who are involved in the game, at any level, understand where things are at,” she said. “I played my whole career on the national team and state team paying my own way. But it was my choice to do that, and I don’t regret it for a second. We have a heap of great women involved in our sport who dip into their pockets regularly in order to play the game they love. It really is a credit to them, and a credit to their continued commitment to baseball.”
Notwithstanding the financial stake that our elite representatives have at times admirably contributed – in women’s and in men’s baseball – when it comes down to players having to pay their own way to travel to camps and to tournaments then it will be difficult to get the very best players on the park all of the time.
“We are up against softball - who are likely to be back in the Olympics and who have much more funding than our women’s baseball program has,” Wearne said.
“We understand that, and we know we’re not an Olympic sport on the women’s side, but it just makes our job very difficult. We have no money, and often struggle to find resources due to lack of funds – but when we turn up to the World Cup, we’re expected to win.”
“We are always a chance, we have some really good players on the park, but when other countries have some money to throw around - and a lot of sponsorship off the field - it does make it harder for us to compete.”
“Baseball Australia were really supportive throughout the 2014 World Cup campaign,” she said. “They put forward more money to our program than they ever had before, and on top of that Narelle Gosstray and Dean White were able to fundraise most of the other money required to get the girls to Japan for no cost.”
“It was the first time the Emeralds players didn’t have to pay a cent to represent their country. We’re really proud that we were able to make that happen.”
“Now we start again in 2016 and try and make that happen for the team going to Korea. We really need an ongoing sponsor who will support us into the future, and that is something that Baseball Australia and I are working on right now. How that all ends up, I’m not sure yet. But we’re all working hard to make it a reality.”
“If we have more funds, then we get a better team on the field. It is as simple as that.”
While funding of our elite baseball teams remains an ongoing challenge, the Australian Sports Commission and respective governments have expressed their clear requirement for inclusiveness and funding parity between male and female participants at all levels. How that translates into reality over time, and how baseball funding is adjusted under potentially changed circumstances over the next several years remains to be seen.
For her part, Simone Wearne has clear ideas on what could, and should be done to improve both the participation level and the playing quality of Australian women’s baseball.
“What I can say is that I would love to see a designated female Operations Manager working with Baseball Australia,” Wearne said. “Someone who could focus their attention on getting each state programme in order - from grassroots club stuff, through to state team stuff - and starting to provide a clear pathway for girls across the board. All levels, all ages.”
“Although we do have some good players, there is a clear lack of depth in women’s baseball at the top level. And it is simply because we don’t have the numbers in our sport at grassroots level. We don’t have the mass of numbers that other countries do, and we need to do something about that.”
“Aside from the Emeralds, the only way we can improve women’s baseball and the way people see it in this country is by growing it at a grassroots level,” she said. “I am not sure of the statistics, but I know that there is a heap of young girls playing tee-ball and little league across this country. However, we lose most of them to other sports after they turn twelve or thirteen because there is really nowhere for them to go.”
“If we can develop our resources and our pathways throughout the country, women’s baseball could be huge. Not only huge for girls and women, but also for baseball. We’re talking massive numbers in participation that Baseball Australia miss out on every year because there is just nothing really happening.”
“I would love to see junior girls leagues, and much larger women’s baseball competitions in all states in the future,” Simone Wearne said “I think that would be great for the players, great for clubs and great for the sport.”
“I have no doubt it would improve the chances of the Emeralds winning their first gold medal in World Cup play.”
Australian Baseball Alumni expresses its appreciation to Simone Wearne for her invaluable assistance in the preparation of this story. We extend our very best wishes to the Women’s Advisory Panel and for the success of the Diamonds in the Rough programme.
Over coming weeks we will be posting updates on preparations for the Women’s World Cup, on which we will seek to provide daily reporting.