SOUTH KINGSTOWN - Ask any South Kingstown baseball player under the age of 13 to name their favorite baseball player, and you’ll likely get answers such as “David Ortiz,” “Dustin Pedroia,” and, should they venture outside the hallowed city limits of Boston and the friendly confines of Fenway, “Derek Jeter.” Each of those names, however, will not be the answer given by South Kingstown Little League’s only girl player in the Majors division. Her answer would seem out of time.
Ask Ella Denny Prescott what her first love is, and she’ll point to her family. Ask her again, only this time ask her to specify a sport, and she’ll say she has a tough time deciding between basketball and baseball. Little wonder. She excels at both. Having just wrapped up the traveling basketball season, her full attention has now turned to baseball. And with good results.
The blue-eyed, 5-foot, two-inch 11-year-old regularly plays shortstop and has also tried her hand at pitching. While her fastball tops out at 58 mph, she has also been working on a curve and knuckleball. But through the years, it’s been her batting that she has seen most improve.
In a Majors baseball game played between Hughes Fence and Golden Gormly, on Thursday, May 15, Ella hit a line drive toward left center of the upper field at Tuckertown Park. The ball went over the fence for a one-run home run. By all accounts, the home run may have marked the first time in South Kingstown Little League (SKLL) history that a girl has actually parked one. Although SKLL has not kept individual player statistics through the years, according to SKLL President Frank Gallucci, as far back as he can recall, “This is the first home run by a female majors player.”
She hit her second one the following Friday.
A female playing baseball in Little League is a somewhat rare occurrence. The first female player to have played on a Little League baseball team is believed to have been Kathryn Johnston, who in 1950 tucked her hair under her cap and pretended to be a boy. She made a Corning, N.Y. team. The following year Little League changed the rule book to read that girls were explicitly not allowed to participate on baseball teams. A New Jersey court’s ruling in 1974, however, opened the way for girls to participate on Little League baseball teams and also led to the formation of a Little League softball division.
This year, about 460,000 females from 20-plus countries will play on Little League teams, with the great majority of them playing softball. In the history of the Little League World Series, only 16 girls have participated, the latest being Eliska Stejskalova representing the Europe-Africa region in 2013. That same year about 1,200 females participated on U.S. high school baseball teams compared to 470,000 boys.
In a sport dominated so overwhelmingly by the boys of summer, the question has to be asked: Has Ella ever encountered any difficulty playing in a male sport? With a simple “Not really,” she replies.
“I don’t think about that too much,” she said.
“Not at all,” says her mother, Sue. “The coaches have been supportive and the players have been very accepting. She’s been treated well. Can’t complain at all.”
“The boys on the team don’t think of her as being the only girl on the team,” says Golden-Gormly Coach Pete Podedworny. “They just think of her as another team member, who can pitch, and catch, and hit home runs. They are genuinely excited for her when she does well. She has been a pleasure to coach and she will be a good leader for the team next year.”
How do Ella’s teammates feel about a girl player on the team?
Justin Bader, who regularly plays catcher, says that “Its fine. Its just like playing with any other player. And we talk about the game after and just have fun.”
Says TJ Murphy, first baseman: “Sometimes its funny watching the guys’ faces on the other team, when she pitches. When they strike out they look surprised that she can blow the ball by them . . . baseball’s a game and she plays it well.”
Justin agrees, having been the recipient of several of Ella’s pitches. If they were in a position to give advice?
“Keep at it,” says TJ. “Even though some people might say ‘This is a boys’ game’ or ‘You should go for softball,’ keep going at it because if you like to do this, just do it.”
“Go with your heart,” says Justin.
Asked what it is that drives her, Ella replies: “I want to get better.”
And like her smile, which has the power to light up a room, the answer belies the fire and passion underneath. She will eagerly go the extra mile to improve. From taking extra batting practice to throwing on a daily basis, and, yes, even pushups and running. Her athletic ability and team-oriented attitude are not in doubt. She was a member of the town tournament basketball team that this spring won the state championship. Ella was also selected to SKLL Baseball 2013 and 2014 District All Star teams. Coach Podedworny says that her willingness to hone her abilities at home has translated into success on the baseball diamond. In addition, he says, she is “tough as nails,” having been hit by a few pitches and line drives over the course of the season, yet “not once did she ever ask to be taken out or let it affect her play.”
Says another coach: “She’s a leader, albeit a quiet one. Upon being given instruction in practices, she always looks introspective, silent. Often, nuanced little details endure, linger. Essentially, that’s how athletes navigate. Ella’s manner mesmerizes you. Having a passion, practice is never excessively strenuous. She’s always leading with a yielding style. Leading by example.”
Her attitude and approach to team play have made for an exemplary pupil. Those who have coached her before agree: “How can you not make a commitment to someone who gives you her all, her full attention, and takes your instruction to heart? To someone who ‘buys into’ what you are teaching? You buy into her because she’s bought into you. Sure she has things yet to learn about the game. But she’s only 11, and that’s why we coach. She displays a maturity beyond her years, is intelligent, quickly grasps instruction, and is self-motivated. What else can a coach ask for? How can a coach, and more generally a teacher, not be impressed by that, quite apart from her natural athletic ability? And here’s where the metaphor of baseball imitating life kicks in: Everything she displays on that field, the attitude she brings with her, will make her a success on the diamond as well as off of it.”
As most parents know, however, individual player success in a childhood sport is not all individual effort. Baseball is, perhaps like any childhood sport, a family affair. The commitment of Ella’s mother, Sue, there for each and every game, enduring the rain and cold of Ella’s extra batting, fielding and pitching practices, driving her to and from both (along with the help of Ella’s sister Haylee), has been unshakeable. And it has been a key ingredient to Ella’s development, both in baseball and basketball.
To those who have seen her play Ella Prescott is an inspiration. She is emblematic to those who want to see a girl play in Little League and, more than that, see her succeed. The cheers gather round her. “Ella, yes!” comes the yell from a complete (male) stranger in the crowd watching Golden-Gormly’s first playoff game. She’s just hit a double. Her personal wish? To inspire other girls who want to play baseball, but for one reason or another don’t.
Ella has one more year of little league eligibility left, and fully intends to play out that last year. So what does the future hold beyond Little League?
“I don’t really know,” says Ella. After little league the future becomes cloudy, and she’s not thinking that far ahead. But whatever the future may bring, says her mom,
“My hope is that she ends up doing what makes her happy,” she said. That she lands “wherever her heart takes her.”
On whatever path her heart does place her in the future, to those who have seen her play Ella’s past will not be soon forgotten.
Move over boys. There’s a new girl in town.
And, her favorite baseball player?
Why, Jackie Robinson, of course.
Abran Salazar resides in South Kingstown. He has coached Little League teams for 15 years and is employed by the University of Rhode Island.