Yesterday, the best women baseball players from 12 countries descended on Viera, Florida to participate in the Women’s Baseball World Cup—the first time that the biennial tournament, which began in 2004, has come to the United States.) The U.S. Women’s National Baseball Team is far from a household name—many of its players were unaware of its existence prior to trying out, and had never played baseball with other women. In her 2015 book, A Game of Their Own: Voices of Contemporary Women in Baseball, Jennifer Ring calls the USWNT “the best kept secret in sports.” These women can really play ball, but nobody knows it.
According to the nonprofit organization Baseball For All, more than 100,000 girls play youth baseball in the United States, but only 1,000 girls continue to play at the high-school level. The gradual decrease of girls’ participation in baseball speaks to systemic exclusion, which includes rerouting girls into softball. The lack of visibility for women baseball players is only exacerbated by the little-known nature of the U.S. Women’s National Baseball Team and the WBWC, both of which receive almost no media attention in the United States. (During the 2010 tournament in Venezuela, a stray bullet struck a member of China’s team while she was on the field, and American media still didn’t cover it.) The WBWC is so marginalized, in fact, that Jared Diamond, a national baseball writer for the Wall Street Journal, didn’t know about the tournament until he received a press release in May.
The tournament comprises 50 games played between August 22 and August 31, with the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Chinese Taipei, Korea, Puerto Rico, the Netherlands, and Hong Kong participating. Though the tournament won’t be broadcast on a major U.S. network, it will be livestreamed on the WBWC’s website. Watching it is important, and not just because the baseball will be phenomenal: Viewership numbers can send a message that there’s a demand for women’s baseball, which in turn can help grow the sport, give the players the recognition they deserve, and make space for the next generation of female ballplayers.
Here are three reasons why the WBWC is worth your attention:
It’s long past time to invest in women’s baseball in the United States
“Given the better organization of [other countries’] programs, it is admirable, if surprising, that the American team has stayed as competitive as it has,” writes Ring. Though the U.S. Women’s National Team placed first in the 2004 and 2006 Women’s Baseball World Cup tournaments, they’ve been unable to dominate in recent years simply because other countries are investing more in women’s baseball.
In America, girls play baseball with boys until they’re about 12 years old; once they age out of Little League, however, their opportunities to play significantly decrease. That’s the time when many players switch to softball or drop out of the sport altogether. As Ring notes in A Game of Their Own, there’s no feeder system from Little League to the USWNT. Many of the players on the national team come from a softball background. The similarities between the two sports mean that softballers can quickly learn the ins and outs of baseball, but that’s not the same as having a program dedicated to developing women ball players.
The U.S. team will be going for gold on their home turf
The 2018 U.S. team is anchored by several veterans, including 11 players who won gold medals in the 2015 Pan American Games. Infielder Malaika Underwood, the eldest member of Team USA, will be playing in her ninth international baseball event (the most for any player of any gender in USA Baseball.) This will be Underwood’s sixth appearance at the WBWC. Other veterans include pitchers Marti Sementelli—who joined the team in 2008, when she was 15—and former Sonoma Stompers players Stacey Piagno and Kelsie Whitmore. This team will have a chemistry and familiarity that comes from playing together in the past, and are also adding several younger players who can inject some fresh energy into the team, including infielder Ashton Landsdell and pitcher Emily Tsujikawa.
You’ll see a battle between the best players in the world
The biggest question going into the tournament is: Can any team beat Japan? Since 2009, the country has maintained a Women’s Baseball League, and that plays a big role in their dominance on the international stage; the team is chasing its sixth consecutive title at this year’s WBWC, led by pitcher Ayami Satio, the 2014 and 2016 WBWC MVP. “It’s not a coincidence that Japan has dominated the Women’s World Cup when the top Japanese players get to play many more games because of the JWBL,” J.J. Cooper, executive editor of Baseball America magazine, told the Japan Times. “There is no equivalent in the United States or elsewhere.”
That said, Australia has been expanding its women’s baseball program over the last several years, with each Australian state having its own women’s baseball program, so they could pose a threat. And keep an eye on Canada, the 2017 WBWC runner-up. Currently, the United States is ranked third behind Japan and Canada, respectively. And “following the success and bronze medal of our Women’s National Team in 2016, a new women’s baseball league was formed, and this has increased the number and quality of female players in Venezuela,” Venezuelan Baseball Federation (FEVEBE) President Mrs. Aracelis Leon said in a statement.
This tournament is shaping up to be a battle for the ages. You won’t want to miss it.