Two boys on my daughter Mirabelle’s Little League baseball team were sitting in the dugout during an early-season game, with Mirabelle nearby. One turned to the other, seemingly unprompted, and said: “Mirabelle’s better than you.”
I didn’t know if she’d heard it, and if she did, if she understood that the underlying idea — accepted implicitly by this group of eight-year-olds — that a girl could be better than a boy at baseball was surprising, noteworthy.
We didn’t set out to make Mirabelle the lone girl in her entire baseball league, nor, as far as I can tell from the games against teams from neighboring towns, the only girl playing at this age in the area. We’d recently moved from another town where girls playing tee-ball, as Mirabelle had, was the norm. I’d coached there, and even drafted several other girls to help Mirabelle feel more comfortable. But other teams had done the same, and without a softball program at that age, the heterogeneous mix went undiscussed and proceeded uneventfully.
By the time we arrived in our new town this past December, Mirabelle would periodically ask me, as the endless winter dumped more and more snow on our new home, when signups were for the coming baseball season.
Once that anticipated email arrived—with baseball labeled co-ed—we never discussed whether she should consider giving up baseball for softball, also an option for her age group. She’d have found it strange—she is a baseball player.
“I told my son, find out which one is Mirabelle,” a beaming mother said to me after watching me instruct her before her first at-bat. “If she’s playing baseball, she must be a bad ass.”
Still, once I filled out the requisite paperwork, the head of her age division reached out to be sure we’d meant to register for baseball, not softball. When the initial email that went out summarizing last year with the phrase “all the boys showing tremendous improvement,” I had an inkling she’d be relatively rare.
Her status as the lone girl was remarked upon directly by a few of her teammates at the first practice—but not in a negative way, just noted. Kids and adults alike are quite adept at accepting reality once it is understood to be the way things are. The coaches quickly found themselves adjusting, too—“Bring it in, boys!” with a hastily-added appendage, “And girls!”
Still, many of the boys already knew each other, and I saw them roughhousing —Mirabelle, meanwhile, mostly going through the drills alone.
Was this was simply a new student in a new town complex, or something more? Not for the first and certainly not for the last time, I considered the unknowable balance of emotional factors at play with my every parenting decision, suggestion, even omission, with her, my oldest and therefore the child most subject to my own rookie mistakes as a father.
I didn’t want my daughter to exist as some kind of point-proving vessel for equality, not at the expense of her own happiness and preferences. Nor did I want to deny her the opportunities she wanted, that she deserved and had the right to, simply because of the established norms of our town.
On our way home from that first practice, she noted she was the only girl there. I asked her how she felt about that.
“Oh, it was fine,” she replied, seemingly surprised that it would matter.
By the time her first game rolled around, Mirabelle had also been part of another baseball experience—Baseball For All, Justine Siegal’s groundbreaking group creating a pathway for girls to play baseball with other girls for as long as they cared to play. We’d taken a forty-minute drive to their East Coast practices, and Mirabelle had been surrounded by others like her. They were fluent in the artistry of receiving the throw at second base, turning and firing to first. The smooth swing of their bats produced screaming line drives. These weren’t girls playing baseball, they were simply ballplayers.
Yet, virtually everyone had a story about being told they should play softball, not baseball—for the sake of the future college scholarships, because they’d be more comfortable, or even just because that’s what was done. Maria Pepe, whose successful lawsuit led to Little League allowing girls to start playing back in the 1970s, even visited them, and told them why she’d done it—so that future generations, Mirabelle’s generation, could play baseball if they wanted to play.
The best way to convince my older daughter to do anything is to suggest to her that she can’t do it. By her first game back home, Mirabelle wasn’t just interested in playing baseball—she wanted to prove a point.
Those stories still fresh in her mind, when we passed a softball warmup on her way to that game, she made a dismissive comment. I quickly corrected her. No, these girls playing softball weren’t less than, just because there are people in the world who often try to shunt baseball-loving girls into that differently-shaped box, I explained. Softball is a choice. The idea is, you get to choose.
Mirabelle nodded, and we watched the softball warmups, the unfamiliar underhanded whip of that day’s starting pitcher, the different sound of the ball hitting the bat. Another sport girls play.
“I told my son, find out which one is Mirabelle,” a beaming mother said to me after watching me instruct her before her first at-bat. “If she’s playing baseball, she must be a badass.”
I laughed, but I also understood that this meant Mirabelle’s participation in the league must be a topic of conversation throughout the town. What those conversations sounded like, how approving they were, mattered less to me than wondering whether it meant Mirabelle would get a chance to play baseball free of any insults or condescension—and if not, how she’d react to it.
This is an accurate scouting report for Mirabelle Megdal as league play began: a solid, line-drive swing we’d worked a loop out of, capable of making contact from the right or left side. An arm more suited to second base than the positions on the left side of the diamond. An ability to, at times, get into ready position without prompting prior to every pitch.
In other words, better than some of her teammates, not as good as others. Holding her own.
Still, the relief I felt at that first hit—going the other way with an outside pitch while batting lefty, running down the line “as if a monster is chasing you”, a motivator that I was glad proved vivid enough to work without any nightmare side effects —was overwhelming. My wife teared up. I simply replayed it on my phone endlessly, for all who cared to see, mirrored it to the television, and rewound it countless times in my own head over the days that followed.
Other hits came for Mirabelle, too, and so did the camaraderie I’d initially feared was a casualty of gender differences. My daughter is many things, but shy is not one of them, and I delighted in seeing her at the center of the conversational action on the bench, dishing out and taking, giving and receiving hearty greetings each time she arrived at the field.
I also heard a classmate of hers, still in her softball uniform, watching Mirabelle as she prepared to hit during a game. She’d last batted lefty, and was swinging right-handed in the on-deck cage right next to the dugout.
“You can switch-hit?” she asked Mirabelle, clearly impressed. Mirabelle just smiled and nodded.
That day, Mirabelle’s team won its first game of the season, and the players celebrated accordingly, Mirabelle joining the boys in a series of screams and tossing of hats in the air, a graduation from the world of the winless. On the drive home, however, the words I’d long feared came out of Mirabelle’s mouth, about a boy on her team we’ll keep anonymous.
“He keeps on saying mean things about me being a girl on the team, that girls don’t play baseball,” she told me. I couldn’t read her tone, so I asked her how she felt about that.
“I kind of love it,” she answered, with a small giggle, surprising me. “I think it’s really funny that he’s so upset by it.”
I asked her if she wanted me to do anything—mentally taking note of but not verbalizing my preferred response anytime someone wrongs my children —and she said, “No, I don’t think so. I’ll tell you if that changes, but I just laugh at him, and that works.”
Her team lost in the playoffs on Tuesday night, but all that hard work Mirabelle had put in was evident in her first at-bat: better pitch recognition helped her run the count to 3-1, and then she whipped her bat through the zone and lashed a single into center field. I may have watched the video of that hit a few times since.
After the game, she and her teammates headed to a pizza party, where the mood reflected pizza far more than the results of a single game. Again, Mirabelle was at the center of the loud conversation, the group watching the Yankees and Mets games on television, Mirabelle arguing on behalf of Brandon Nimmo over Aaron Judge, as it is the right of every eight-year-old to overvalue our own heroes.
On the way home, she told me how excited she was to play next year. And if she wants to, I’ll sign her up. If she prefers to play softball, I’ll sign her up for that. And if she wants to give up sports altogether and pursue ballet, or drama, or ornithology, I’ll find out where the birds are and buy her a telescope.
Because near as I can tell, that’s my job as a father: to ask my children what their passions are, expose them to many different experiences, and give them the freedom and the strength to choose.
That day in the dugout, Mirabelle heard her teammates mention her. She heard the boy tell another boy that a girl was better than he was. But to her, it was a compliment from a teammate, and nothing more. And to the players, coaches and parents alike on her team, the next time a girl is better than a boy at baseball, it won’t be a surprise.