April 27, 2010

Girl shines as baseball team's catcher

SHE'S NOT ALONE: Marti Sementelli holds her own as baseball pitcher (with video)

CHOUTEAU, Okla. - Josh Gwartney said his job as Chouteau (Okla.) Choteau-Mazie's baseball coach is to put the nine best players on the field.

It makes no difference if one of them has a ponytail and manicured nails.

The Wildcats needed a starting catcher. Melissa Maxwell won the job.

Gwartney offered this compliment: "When she puts the gear on and gets behind the plate, you don't know she's a girl. When she puts her hair up underneath that helmet, you can't tell."

Maxwell, a 5-foot-6 senior who is a star softball player, is playing high school baseball for the first time. She said it started out as sort of a joke.

She was in an outdoor education class taught by Gwartney and floated the question of "what if I came out for the baseball team?"

Maxwell said she was just giving the coach a hard time.

Now the joke is on anyone who thinks a girl can't play baseball.

"I brag about her every day," Maxwell's father, Randy, said.

Maxwell was a conference defensive player of the year in softball last fall and she intends to play college softball at St. Gregory's. Her defensive skills translate to hardball. Gwartney said Maxwell does a great job of keeping the ball in front of her.

"She may give up one, but she is not going to give up two, letting the ball get to the screen," he said. "That goes a long way because a lot of the pitches we call are in the dirt and she does a good job of getting down there and blocking them."

Third baseman Danny Alton has heard "she's a really good catcher" comments from baserunners who stop at third long enough to chat. He said it took her only one game to earn teammates' respect.

Gwartney said he was nervous about putting Maxwell behind the plate that first game. He said there are a lot of eyes on you when you start a girl especially when you are a first-year head coach.

"He had some parents that were a little bit upset," Maxwell's father said. "Then they saw her ability."

News quickly spread that Chouteau-Mazie - a Class 3A school whose baseball alums include ex-Major Leaguer Johnny Ray - was employing a female catcher.

It's rare that girls play high school baseball and rarer still that one starts at catcher. Chelsea enlisted three girls to save its baseball season in 2006 when the school ran short of eligible players. Crystal Robinson played baseball in Atoka before she made bigger news as a WNBA athlete.

But Maxwell said she isn't playing to get attention.

"I'm the kind of person who, if you tell me I can't do something, I like to prove you wrong," she said.

She and Gwartney initially discussed the possibility of her becoming a manager.

"Then I guess some of the boys teased her about 'Well, you ought to try out for the team, you wouldn't make it if you did' or something like that," her father said. "She was like, 'Oh really?'"

Maxwell admits she can't resist a reasonable dare. Since taking this one, she has worked as hard as anybody, according to Gwartney.

"Our pitchers want her to catch them in the pen," he said. "I have to tell them sometimes she can't catch everybody every day. I think she would try. I think she would just stay back there until she died if I let her."

Maxwell's parents worried she might get hurt playing a boys' game. Gwartney said Maxwell has started every game except one she missed due to injury. A teammate slid into her at practice, wrenching a thumb and spawning a bruise that ran up her arm.

"A lot of people wouldn't play with the pain she had, and she has played through it," the coach said. "It's unbelievable how tough she is."

Gwartney also referred to Maxwell as "special." He was saying it even when she was a non-factor on offense. The Wildcats used to DH for her because she struggled to hit overhand pitching (softball pitchers throw underhand).

Then someone no-showed for a game and Gwartney sent Maxwell to the plate. He said she went 3-for-4 and knocked in six runs. She's been batting ever since. Gwartney said Maxwell's average is .336.

Gwartney said Maxwell doesn't have the strongest arm in the world and she had to make the adjustment from 60 feet between bases in softball to 90 feet between bases in baseball. Do base stealers test her? Sure. But underestimate her at your own risk.

"One of the ones she picked off was a pitcher and he hit her right between the shoulder blades her next at-bat," Gwartney said.

"She kind of looked at me and grinned and dropped her bat and went to first. That was the end of that."

Gone is talk that having a girl on the team would be a distraction. Teammates treat her like one of the guys, according to Alton. She wanted to fit in, so she let herself be persuaded ("never again," she said) into taking a tiny dip of smokeless tobacco. And she takes it in stride when teammates give her nicknames (always a man's name beginning with the letter "M'').

"All of our guys have been very, very accepting to her, which they really don't have a choice," Gwartney said. "She has earned the job."

Alton said there is nothing the guys can do that Maxwell can't. But one thing she can't do is get dressed in the same room as teammates. It's a minor inconvenience. She puts on game gear and perhaps her game face in a bathroom or vacant press box.

"She has to have her makeup on before she steps on the field," her mother, Anita, said. "And her hair has to be fixed, believe it or not, before she throws it up in a ponytail."

How often can you find the best "man" for a job in the ladies' room? A little girl trailed Maxwell into a restroom at a road game and said, "Hey, you really are a girl!"

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