Liz Gilder’s baseball journey began as a bit of a fluke when her mother signed her up for the sport after failing to find a registration form for their local softball league.
Thirteen years later, that improvisation is paying off.
Gilder, now an 18-year-old left-hander with Canada’s women’s baseball team, is among eight Canadians participating this week at the first annual MLB Grit Invitational — a development tournament in Arlington, Texas, for high-school aged girl baseball players.
While the Port Moody, B.C., native is looking forward to seeing how she stacks up against other talent in Texas, she’s more excited about what the event could mean for women’s baseball in general.
“Knowing that MLB is backing us and promoting us, it means a lot,” Gilder said. ”A lot of people will find out about our sport because of this.”
Gilder got into baseball as a five-year-old when her mother, who had gone back to school to become a teacher, partnered on a class project with some Douglas College softball players in New Westminster, B.C. Gilder set her sights on softball after spending one day with those women, but they couldn’t find a registration sheet online.
“My mom was like ‘well baseball is similar, let’s try that,’” Gilder said with a laugh. “I ended up falling in love with it and I actually had no idea there were girls other than me that were playing baseball for years.”
Elizabeth Benn, MLB’s co-ordinator of Labour, Diversity and Youth Programs, says the Grit Invitational — a brainchild of MLB and USA Baseball — aims to tackle the common misconception that women don’t play baseball.
And it’s timing alongside International Women’s Day on March 8 is more than just a happy coincidence.
“We were trying to make it so it didn’t interfere too much with the girls’ baseball seasons, but we wanted to have it in the spring so they could get exposure while playing on their high school teams,” said Benn, a Toronto native who played softball at U of T and baseball in the Ontario Women’s Baseball League.
“Luckily it will fall on International Women’s Day on Friday and the girls will get to play at Globe Life Park (the home stadium of the Texas Rangers). That will be a really cool opportunity for them to play on a big league field and get recognized on that day.”
MLB has been working with USA Baseball over the last few years, setting up initiatives such as the Trailblazer Series for girls aged 11-13, and the Breakthrough Series for high-school aged players, which focuses primarily on development.
The Grit Invitational offers a development camp and tournament-style play for 64 high school students, including the eight from Canada and another eight from Puerto Rico. Most of them are the only girls on boys teams.
“I think any time you get girls together to play baseball it’s a success on its own, but we also want to get more exposure for these girls so that more people can see that they play baseball, they do it at a competitive level and really thrive at it,” Benn said.
Gilder will be joined in Texas by fellow national team pitcher Alli Schroder of Fruitvale, B.C. The other Canadians are Marika Lyszczyk, also of B.C., Sena Cattarell, Alexane Fournier and Sophy Gagne of Quebec, Caitlin Tomotaugu of Ontario and Nova Scotia’s Ellie MacAulay.
The 16-year-old Schroder met Gilder while playing on their provincial women’s team years ago and the pair won bronze medals together with Canada at the Women’s Baseball World Cup last August in their national team debuts.
“When I came home (from the World Cup) people would say, ‘you know that girl you pitched against was like 30 (years old),’” said Schroder, the youngest on Canada’s medal-winning team. ”But honestly when you’re on the field that doesn’t even play a factor. Of course you’ve got to respect the experience and knowledge that the older girls have but you can’t let that intimidate you.”
Schroder, a Grade 11 student, wants to study environmental science after high school while playing baseball at the college level.
With women’s university baseball programs sparse around the U.S. and Canada — Benn said Miami University of Ohio is the lone school with a women’s club team — Schroder might have to settle for pitching on a collegiate men’s team instead.
“Getting onto a junior college team or Division 3 school, that’s definitely not out of reach,” Schroder said.
Gilder graduates from high school this summer and is hoping to get a degree in business. She’s most looking forward to a panel portion of the Grit Invitational, where she’ll hear from women currently employed in baseball.
Benn said Gilder’s dream of parlaying a playing career into a baseball-related job is common, and the reason for including the panel at the event.
“We see a lot of girls wanting to get into careers in baseball, whether that’s scouting, umpiring, doing software development, whatever,” Benn said. “They have different interests but they want to tailor that to baseball, so (with the panel) we can expose girls to women who actually work in baseball.
“They get to share their experience, often as athletes who have transitioned to work in sports, and let girls know that there’s a spot for them in the baseball industry.”