It’s easy for 17-year-old Chelsea Baker—a double rarity in high school baseball for being 1) a girl and 2) a knuckleballer—to get attention. All she has to do was confound a few professional ball players. (See video. The photo below shows her at about age 14.)
The Knuckleball Princess got a chance to join the Tampa Bay Rays during batting practice last week, “trying to get her flutterball past Jose Molina, David Price and Evan Longoria prior to a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates.” Although a little nervous about going up against the Rays, she didn’t let that stop her.
“I never expected anything like this to happen,” Baker told the Tampa Bay Times. “This is beyond belief.”
Baker didn’t exactly blow the Rays away, but she did get a couple of swings and misses from Price and Molina. She also plunked Longoria—TampaBay’s All-Star third baseman—in the shoulder with one errant pitch.
Baker said she was taught the knuckleball by her Little League coach, the late former major league pitcher Joe Niekro. Rays manager Joe Maddon saw her story and invited her to work with the team on Monday.
“She knows what she’s doing out there,” Maddon told the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s not a gimmick.”
Baker was the first female player to make a varsity baseball roster in HillsboroughCounty, according to the Tampa Bay Times. But she wasn’t just a token, posting a 3-0 record and 0.74 ERA in 19 innings as a junior this past spring for a DurantHigh School team that went 18-7.
Looking at some of the video of the day, IKA program director Chris Nowlin suggests that Chelsea’s knuckleball shows a little too much spin but that “it is evident that she knows what she’s doing. She’s deliberate with the process, knowing what needs to happen. Her touch just needs to be developed.”
Andrew Astleford of St. Petersburg’s FOX Sports reports that Chelsea precociously switched from softball to baseball at age five, and has been defying expectations ever since.
Baker’s reputation has grown in recent years. Universal Studios has shown interest in producing a movie about her life story. She’ll be a finalist in August to try out for the USA Baseball women’s national team. She has an offer to join a women’s professional league in Japan.
The spotlight has become part of life.
“I can say it’s a helluva ride,” said Rod Mason, Baker’s stepfather. “I don’t hope to get off any time soon. Just to be around her and see how she handles stuff like this, it’s amazing.”
“We never thought it would come up being like it is,” said Missy Mason, Baker’s mother. “But I knew from the time she was 3 years old she could throw a ball. She used to throw it in the house.”
Baker’s signature pitch is proof of how much she values her background in the game. She learned the knuckleball from former major-league right-hander Joe Niekro, a one-time All-Star and a World Series champion in 1987 as part of the Minnesota Twins. She was on a Little League team with Niekro’s son, and Niekro sometimes slipped in the knuckleball during batting practice.
“When I was playing baseball, I didn’t realize how important the knuckleball would be for me,” said Baker, who also threw out the first pitch Monday. “And so whenever he passed away when I was 10 years old [in 2006], that’s when I decided I wanted to keep playing baseball. I wanted to be a knuckleball pitcher just so I could live through his name.”
In April, the young pitcher told My Fox Tampa Bay:
“Whenever I was little, there was people saying, ‘Oh she’s never going to make it to the big fields.’… Once I made it there, it was, ‘She’s never going to make it to the high school field.’ So now that I keep achieving those things, it really makes me feel great inside.”