It was an offer that Theo Fightmaster could not refuse. But, at first, he almost did.
Last offseason, Fightmaster, the general manager of the Sonoma Stompers (independent; Pacific Association) was in his office when the phone rang. “The guy next to me says, ‘Hey, there’s this guy who’s with Francis Ford Coppola and he wants to talk to you,’” Fightmaster said.
“I’m like, ‘Whatever, take a message,’” Fightmaster said. “There’s no way this is not complete malarkey.” Then Fightmaster heard the name of this mystery caller. Joe Castellano was no Hollywood icon, but he was certainly no stranger to the Bay Area baseball fan, either. A broadcaster by trade, Castellano also had an eye for baseball talent, and his relayed message from Coppola to the Stompers would change the baseball landscape forever.
Late last month, the Stompers won their first Pacific Association championship, defeating San Rafael for the title. “I’m really fortunate because every summer I get to say I had the best summer of my life. This summer it was especially true,” Fightmaster said. “To actually have won and to have beaten San Rafael in San Rafael, where we’ve watched them celebrate against us a couple of different times, and to do it where I started my front-office career — my wife was there, a number of guys from that 2014 team when we launched the franchise are still with us – it was really special. It felt better than it should have. The first thing I did was hug and kiss my wife and thank her for letting me do this for a living.”
But the great irony of this championship season is that winning on the field might not have been the Stompers’ greatest achievement. Some would point instead to late June, not late August, as the moment the Stompers became winners, not merely for playing the game, but for changing it.
Female players in professional baseball are not a new concept. Catch one of the many cable re-airings of A League of Their Own for reference. But women playing in the men’s game are an entirely different concept, and throughout baseball history, such appearances have been rare. For the most part, when a woman has taken the field in professional baseball, it’s been a one-night attendance grab with no real substance toward breaking the gender barrier.
Then the phone rang in Fightmaster’s office last offseason, and Castellano delivered his message from Coppola. The director had been making a name for himself in Northern California — not as a filmmaker, but as a winemaker. He had a new winery, called Virginia Dare, located not far from Sonoma in Geyserville.
An avid baseball fan, Coppola took note in 2015 when Sonoma celebrated Pride Night by having Sean Conroy become the first openly gay player in professional baseball history, throwing a complete-game shutout. The event was a cultural success in its understated but powerful presentation – Stompers players showed Conroy support by wearing rainbow-colored socks — and Coppola hoped the Stompers could become an agent for more change.
Coppola was interested in a three-year deal to have Virginia Dare Winery sponsor the Stompers, providing much-needed financial backing. In return, Coppola said, he would like to see the Stompers incorporate female players onto their roster — not just for one night, but as legitimate, regular members of the team.
“We went out to the winery and he talked about his vision,” Fightmaster said. “I think he saw the way we handled Sean Conroy’s outing in 2015 and he thought we might have the right approach for a situation like this. We told him how difficult it was going to be, that there wasn’t a big pool of female players to choose from.”
Fightmaster’s concerns were rooted in his desire to not turn this experiment into a shallow spectacle, something he had seen with women appearing in games over the years.
“I’ve worked in this league since 2012 and when we started there was a female pitcher with the team in Maui,” Fightmaster said. “She had a pretty decent career and made some noise being a very young female knuckleball pitcher in this league. And we saw obviously the publicity side of things. But I think what caused me to be more hesitant was it couldn’t just be a publicity stunt. That happens every year. It’s not really handled with a lot of integrity, in terms of quality of the performance or the expectation that this is going to be more than a one-game appearance.
“What Francis was able to do was give us the courage to do something the right way and have more of a longer-term focus on it, with more scouting and meeting these women and bringing them to Sonoma and having them work out with the team and acclimate themselves and work on their games,” Fightmaster said. “We needed to treat the women the way we treat the men, where you earn playing time and you perform well enough to stay in the game. I think having Francis and that relationship gave us a lot more comfort and the ability to do it the right way.”
With Castellano joining him as his scouting partner, Fightmaster accepted the challenge and was soon on the road to watch players try out and train for the U.S. Women’s National Team.
They identified Kelsie Whitmore, an outfielder and pitcher, as a strong candidate to make their team. Castellano pointed out a hard-throwing third baseman who also had a talent for the mound. Stacy Piagno had no-hit Puerto Rico at the 2015 Pan Am Games. Fightmaster signed the two players at the end of June and they debuted for the Stompers against San Rafael on July 1.
Before a home crowd of 751, one of the biggest attendance figures of the season at Arnold Field, Piagno started and did not allow a run in the first inning, with Whitmore, in left field, recording the third out. It was the first time since the Negro Leagues in the 1950s that two female players appeared in the same professional game.
“What Kelsie and Stacy were able to do, they had the ability to come out here and be on the field and compete against men and compete against a level of competition that frankly they had never competed against in their lives, and they had the mental fortitude to handle that challenge,” Fightmaster said. “Stacy had a couple of rough outings, but she had a couple of great outings, too. Against San Rafael, a veteran-laden lineup, she went six-up, six-down in relief. Her first start, I felt she was much better than the box score would indicate. Her defense didn’t really do much to support her and our offense was in a funk at that point. I think she pitched pretty well. She has a game plan out there.
“For Kelsie, this was an enormous challenge. She had never faced anything outside of high school baseball. There were a couple times she was facing hard throwers in this league. We chart all the pitches we face and San Rafael had a guy who threw the fastest pitch he threw against us all season, and it was against Kelsie, and that just showed that these guys, the men, didn’t want to get shown up by the women.”
Later in July, the Stompers added catcher Anna Kimbrell, who caught Whitmore on July 22, making the duo the first all-female battery in professional baseball history. Whitmore lost that game, but played in seven games overall, going 1-for-13 with a run and RBI. Piagno was 1-for-5 with a run, while pitching 12 innings with two strikeouts and a 9.00 ERA. Kimbrell played in just the one game, going 0-for-3, before all three players left to re-join Team USA.
The Stompers had averaged in the mid-300s in attendance over their first two seasons in 2014 and ’15, but the club routinely saw single-game figures in the 500s during Whitmore, Pigano, and Kimbrell’s time with the team, and even after they left. “We had a different demographic of fans who came out after July 1 and they came out more consistently,” Fightmaster said. “We’ve been able to build some momentum and sustain some momentum over the three years of trying really, really hard to make this team work. I think we certainly enjoyed an uptick once the girls got here, and we’ve garnered some fans we might not have had otherwise.
In their wake, the three players not only left behind a changed atmosphere in the stands but perhaps most important, in the clubhouse. “It added an element to the clubhouse that I thought was cool to be a part of,” Fightmaster said. “It changed the dynamic. It was a nicer place to be. The music was a little different. Video games were still being played, but the guys were acting a little bit more like gentlemen.”
The pomp and circumstance of an historic, groundbreaking championship season now behind him, Fightmaster is already working on the 2017 season and hopes that Whitmore, Pigano, and Kimbrell will continue the movement for women in baseball.
“What I hope comes out of this is that more young girls are encouraged to play baseball. Nothing against softball, but there is a reason we all love baseball. It’s the sport we grew up watching with our parents on TV. It’s a much bigger part of our culture than softball is. Why not let them play baseball more often?”
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