'They just don’t see limits': Women and girls who play baseball find hope in Kim Ng

·MLB columnist
·12-min read

Two or three days a week, when she’s not fighting fires or raising her own two children or in the backyard putting innings on her own arm, Tamara Holmes spends a few hours volunteering answers to the question, “What more can I do?”

Earnest girls and young women hit for average, frame fastballs and chase fly balls. They run their laps, do their pushups and pour their allowances into metal boxes at batting cages. They come back to Tamara and ask, “What more can I do?”

They are ballplayers. Strong-willed and strong-armed, they play often as the curiosity, their caps pulled low to their brows. They lean into the same tired and dusty smirks, but lean just the same. Some are good at it and some are not, some are natural and others not so much, some couldn’t imagine playing any other game and others show up because it’s the thing to do in springtime, which makes them about perfect for how we like to think of ourselves and the game.

So from little animated boxes on her computer they ask Tamara Holmes how to hit home runs like she did, how to get good enough to play for the national team like she did, even how to love a game forever that sometimes doesn’t seem so sure about them, and Holmes tells them again about weight shift, about commitment, about heart, about knocking down doors. Also, she’ll assure them, to be patient — their woman’s strength is coming.

The regular sessions are part of Major League Baseball’s Elite Development Invitational program, forced to Zoom because of the pandemic. More, much more, they are how Holmes, a 46-year-old ballplayer and firefighter from Oakland, reaches Beth Greenwood, a 21-year-old hoping to make her college baseball team in Rochester, New York, and how Veronica Alvarez, manager of the U.S. women’s national baseball team, reaches Maggie Foxx, 14-year-old All-Star catcher from Bedford, New Hampshire, and how the last generation of women ballplayers reaches for this generation, which reaches for the next generation and the one after that.

The struggle is for a decent shake and a little more funding and a place on the field, same as it always was. The struggle is against bad hops and disappearing sliders and balls in the dirt and first-pitch strikes, too, same as it always will be.

It’s the same game.

About 100,000 girls play youth baseball in America, or did before there was a pandemic. As many as 2,000 girls play for their high schools. A handful or two play college ball.

Holmes sees a few of them. She offers them drills and encouragement, reminds them who they can be, smile and tells them she believes in them.

“Just because we don’t have the opportunities,” Holmes said, “doesn’t mean we can’t find other means to think baseball and get better at baseball.”

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The girls see her too, a woman who hit bombs for the national team and won a Pan Am Games gold medal and played for the Silver Bullets and … hit bombs. In her, they see a path, a way from here to there that isn’t always clean, that isn’t always about who’s good at baseball, but still gets them from here to there. Holmes asks if they’re ready to work, and they don’t ever wonder why they trust her.

“It’s her love of the game,” Maggie Foxx said. “You can see it in her eyes.”

They ask then, from a game that isn’t always entirely straight with them, “What more can I do?”

Kim Ng, then an MLB executive, met Maggie Foxx at a Trailblazer Series event. (Photo courtesy Maggie Foxx)
Kim Ng, then an MLB executive, met Maggie Foxx at a Trailblazer Series event. (Photo courtesy Maggie Foxx)

Kim Ng represents hope for girls playing baseball

On Friday morning, an exhausted Beth Greenwood was leaving the weight room on the University of Rochester campus. She glanced at her phone. It was alive with text messages, voicemails and emails.

Had she heard? Did she see? Could she believe it?

Maggie Foxx, wearing her baseball cap, was doing her science homework on her couch in New Hampshire. The MLB app on her phone said there was news. She tapped the icon. The headline brought her to her feet. She tossed her cap to the ceiling. Her notebook landed on the floor.

Kim Ng, in nearly a decade as senior vice president of baseball operations at MLB, had overseen the programs that encouraged girls to play baseball and then provided the tournaments, the teammates, the fields, the equipment and the relevance, including the Elite Development Invitational program.

She’d met Beth Greenwood at a training facility outside Dallas during Team USA tryouts and at other venues since. She’d met Maggie Foxx during the Trailblazer Series and other events. She hadn’t drawn up the plans and then watched them succeed or fail from behind a desk in New York City, but walked up during batting practice and put her hand on a 13-year-old catcher’s shoulder and asked where she was from and how she was doing and whether she was having fun.

“She was so invested in our stories,” Beth said.

She’d said my name is Kim, what’s yours, and on Friday morning she became general manager of the Miami Marlins, the first woman in major North American sports in that job. On Friday morning Maggie’s dad, Loren, walked into the house and was met by his wife, Jennifer, who said, “Maggie has some news for you.”

Maggie, the only girl in her Colt League, where she was 6-1 on the mound and batted .380 and was one for one with two walks in the All-Star Game, and the only girl on her travel team, the Granite State Thunder, later sat at her phone and typed out, “The hiring of Kim Ng will inspire young girls all over, and it won’t matter if they are a baseball fan or not. They now know that they can do anything, and will have a future in front of them that is so bright. She inspires me to know that there are jobs available for me in the industry, and if I work hard enough I can have a position like hers and inspire young girls to do the same.”

Before going to Rochester, Beth played three years of varsity baseball in Amherst, New Hampshire. She was a top 40 Team USA player. A few years back she drove to the next town over just to see Maggie play and say hello and say, yes, keep going. To say, yes, there are girls like you who dream like you.

“I think about all those little girls — and little boys — and the impact this will have on them,” she said. “For those little kids, they’re not going to know a world where this wasn’t possible.”

Three days later, Kim Ng sat on a stool at home plate at Marlins Park. A high, round table was to her right. The number 400, the distance in feet to the outfield fence, was over her right shoulder. Her voice echoed in the emptiness. This was her formal introduction, and so she went back to the beginning, to her grandparents and her parents, to the stickball games in the Fresh Meadows neighborhood in Queens, to the high school softball team in Glen Cove on Long Island, where she began to idolize Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, then across the internships and baseball ops gigs and empty and fruitless interviews for the job that came finally in her 50s.

The point is to build a great baseball team. That’s the job. It was always the job. The gift, though, maybe that’s not the job title, but the ally she became and the advocate she is and, now, the cap she wears. The Marlins wait on their first ever NL East title, nearly three decades in. That’s the job. They don’t draw, they don’t spend, for years they couldn’t be trusted and they’ve won two postseason games in a generation. That’s the job.

But, also, in a hundred living rooms in a hundred little towns, in programs that asked girls and young women to stay at it — in conversations that began, “What more can I do?” — that can still be the job too.

So a little girl in Fresh Meadows learned to hit an old tennis ball with a broomstick and then a grown woman in Chicago and New York and Los Angeles learned to pick out those who were best at hitting old tennis balls with broomsticks and decades later a heck of a catcher in Bedford, New Hampshire, has another way forward. That’s the job.

“They inspired me day to day because they just don’t see limits,” Kim Ng said Monday morning. “They don’t. They’re too young, they’re too naive, the world is their oyster. And I marvel at many of the girl athletes that I see today. They just le ,t it all hang out out on that field. I have marveled at them and wished that I could be as carefree as they are. It just doesn’t matter, they’re just going to go out there, 150 percent every day, and they’re just doing something that they love. That’s all that they’re doing. They are an inspiration to me.”

In return, she would remind them that it’s still out there, whatever that is today. She would remind them it’s OK to play the game and love the game, that it has the capacity on many days to love them back. And maybe they should just ignore the other days. Soon, perhaps, it won’t seem quite so lonely.

“People are looking for hope,” she said. “People are looking for inspiration. I’m happy that this can be a part of it.”

Tamara Holmes, of the United States, watches her hit during a women's baseball game against Venezuela at the Pan Am Games Monday, July 20, 2015, in Ajax, Ontario. Women's baseball made history on Monday at the Pan Am Games, the first time it has been played in a large, multi-sport event.(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Tamara Holmes played for Team USA when women's baseball made its Pan Am Games debut in 2015. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

‘Women and girls can play baseball’

Tamara Holmes was on the phone from a fire house in the East Bay. She yelled hellos. She responded to questions that seemed shouted from across a busy garage. Traffic on the street outside sounded heavy. Her days are busy, just like she likes them most of the time, and then the girls call about baseball and she’s facing her computer with a bat in her hand, backing up so they can see her better and telling them about their woman’s strength.

“I don’t know if it’s the nature of women’s sports and baseball, but you feel you should give back and want to,” she said.

She’d lived that life, playing ball as the only girl out there, but also the life of all-women’s national teams and touring teams. Baseball For All, the organization founded by Justine Siegal that promotes gender equity and girls baseball, named its East Bay tournament for Holmes. And so the Elite Development Invitational program could be about staying inside of a fastball and it could be about catchers’ pop times. It also could be about what more is out there for girls and maybe about ignoring the knucklehead whose son just struck out. Again.

“Women and girls can play baseball,” Holmes said. “We would love to get to a point where it’s not a novelty. And even the question isn’t a novelty.

“They truly just have to have the love for baseball. That’s what keeps you in the game and in the fight.”

When the virus wiped out their spring and summer baseball schedules, Beth Greenwood and Maggie Foxx went to the field almost every day anyway. Maggie’s father threw them batting practice, put them through pitch-blocking drills and hit them fungoes. He worked in minor-league baseball for eight years, in California, Kansas, Maryland and New Hampshire. The Kansas stop is the reason Maggie’s favorite player is Sal Perez and explains the afternoon at Fenway Park when the Royals manager found himself cornered by a 12-year-old girl. She wanted answers.

“I asked Ned Yost if he would take a girl on his team,” she said. “I asked him. And he said, ‘Well, if she was any good.’”

Maggie took that as a yes.

“That,” she said, “was so fun.”

Beth Greenwood attended one of Baseball For All’s first clinics a decade ago. She recalled there being about 30 girls there, all baseball players, and she was overjoyed. The most recent BFA tournament she played in had 400 girls.

“Change is happening,” Siegal said in the hours after Ng was hired in Miami. “More resources are needed. You can ask when a woman will play in the major leagues. But the more important question is why is a 9-year-old girl being told she can’t play baseball.”

By around that very age, Beth had joined the local rec league and found she was pretty good at baseball and that she loved it too. Then she heard about a girl who was playing for a high school team.

“I didn’t know it was a thing,” Beth said, “that you could play high school baseball. It was such a big moment for me.”

As Kim Ng said Monday, “There’s an adage, ‘You can’t be it if you can’t see it.’ I guess I would suggest to them now, now you can see it.”

“Now,” Beth said, “if I could have that impact on one girl.”

Of course she already has.

“Oh, there’s definitely a path,” Maggie said. “It’ll take a lot of work. But it’s completely possible.”

So, like Tamara, like Beth, like Justine, like Kim, like all the girls and women who play to play and play to win and play because it’s inside them, Maggie will keep swinging, keep showing up, and keep believing.

What more can she do?

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