Surrey, B.C.’s Claire Eccles — a member of Canada’s national women’s baseball team and an outfielder for UBC’s softball team — is about to become the first woman ever to play in the West Coast Baseball League. It’s a summer league for top collegiate players from North America, including MLB prospects, and graduates of the league who’ve gone on to play MLB include Chris Davis and Jacoby Ellsbury.
The 19-year-old left-handed pitcher signed with the Victoria HarbourCats earlier this month and is expected to make her debut with the team next week.
Sportsnet: Your pitches have made people cry before. What is that like?
Eccles: It’s cool. I don’t know, I’m just another pitcher. Guys sometimes get upset that a girl strikes them out or something. The last time that happened was probably Little League, 13 or 14 years old.
Did you tell them there’s no crying in baseball?
[Laughs.] I didn’t speak to them after. They probably wouldn’t want to talk to me.
That’s fair. What’s in your pitching arsenal?
I have a two-seam fastball, and then I have a curveball and a knuckleball. In the past I’ve used them all pretty equally, but I think in a league like this I’ll have to use my knuckleball more, so hopefully I have good fingernails. I have to keep my fingernails strong in order for it to work.
How do you keep them strong?
I’ll put nail hardener on them so they don’t break. The pitch doesn’t work with short nails. Maybe a little bit but it’s not as effective, not with the way I throw it.
When did you first throw the knuckleball?
I played around with it growing up. Guys on my team would be practising it before a game in warmup, and mine just seemed to work. It became something I could use in a game. When I took my year off of baseball and then came back, I started using it in the summer. I think I was 12 or 13.
How would you describe the movement on that pitch?
It sort of floats, it goes anywhere and it tends to drop. I sometimes don’t know where it’s going go. It surprises people. I’ve had a lot of umps relay to my catchers: “What the heck was that?” Or just be shocked that I can throw that pitch.
When did you start playing baseball?
When I was five. I told my parents, ‘I really want to play baseball’, so they put me in. I was nine when I started pitching. I played with boys all the way through, and then when I didn’t make the 12-year-old all-star team, my parents were like, “Oh, you probably reached your peak, you should switch over to softball.” I ended up making the ‘A’ team for softball, so I took the year off baseball. Then the only other girl in my baseball league told me about this team, BC Girls Baseball, and I thought, “Why am I not playing baseball?” I started again in Grade 9. I’ve been playing ever since.
You didn’t know girls’ baseball existed?
I had no idea. And I think a lot of people still don’t. It’s sad, because there’s actually a lot of girls who play baseball. I had no idea when I was that age that there was anything like that for girls.
Did you actually learn to play from a video game?
Yes, Backyard Baseball 2003. I got it for my fifth birthday and I just started playing and I was like, “Woah, this is the greatest game ever.” I told my mom after I played that game, I said, “I wanna make the MLB.” She was trying to be realistic with me and said, “Oh, girls don’t play in the MLB” — just because no one ever has. She just said that to be safe but I don’t think she realized how much it affected me.
Did you cry?
I can’t remember. I was definitely disappointed about it, because I didn’t understand why. As I got older I realized maybe it’s not a possible thing, and I was moving into softball. I didn’t think an opportunity like playing for the HarbourCats would come. It was something I got an email about from my national team coach, and I thought it was such a cool opportunity. It took my parents some convincing.
They wanted me to work this summer. I’ve always played sports all summer long. I work during the school year at the UBC facility, so I’m constantly around baseball. My friend’s family just opened up a Greek-Italian restaurant so I was going to work for him because it’s close to my house.
Your new plan sounds more fun. How did you convince your parents?
I think they were skeptical I’d be sitting on the bench all the time, so I could be working instead of just sitting at a game. But my mom met with [GM] Brad [Norris-Jones], she liked him. As soon as the ball started rolling, she realized this could happen.
Did you have any reservations about it?
I questioned the media part of it: “Is this just a publicity stunt?” Before I signed, that was something I discussed with Brad. He said no, I’d earn my position, earn my innings. It’s obviously good media for them and myself and girls’ baseball. Really, they’re just trying to give girls an opportunity to show their abilities.
When will you make your debut?
I go to Victoria on [June 6]. I don’t know if I’ll be pitching that first game. I feel like a lot of people are expecting or wanting me to pitch, but there’s no guarantee I’ll be pitching in the first two home games I’m at.
You’ve been the only girl on your team most of your life. Is there a challenge that comes with that?
I think I stand out. When I was younger, eight years old, one of my teammates, who I’m friends with, he made this comment after I struck out, he said: “You strike out all the time.” But he strikes out too, all the guys strike out, but because I’m a girl it’s more noticeable. So, if I were to have a bad game, I’d have a spotlight on me because I’m a girl, and people will just say “Oh, she shouldn’t be playing.” I think that will be the biggest thing. But I’m not too worried about it.
You have to prove yourself at every game.
Exactly. And I’m willing to do that.
You also have to put up with a lot of really stupid comments. I heard you read one that said: “She’d be better off making a sandwich.”
Yeah, I saw a couple of those. It shouldn’t happen, but it does. I wouldn’t say it makes me angry, but I think people should be more aware of what they say. People think they can say what they want. I’ve fully prepared myself for that. I just don’t let it get to me.
What are your expectations for the season?
I hope I do well. One of my main goals is to get more awareness for girls’ baseball. Regardless of how well I do, I don’t want it to close any doors for girls in the future. There are girls out there that are most likely better than me, more skillful than me, and they aren’t getting the same opportunity.
I don’t think there’s enough publicity on the girls right now. I think it’s a great stepping stone for any girl. That’s one of my main goals. But I also want to go out and compete. I don’t want to stand out, I guess, I just want to be another player.
I assume your teammates have always treated you that way.
Yeah, for sure. This is the first time I’ll be playing with people I don’t know. In the past if I’m meeting new players they’ll often be like, “Oh I can’t say anything around this girl,” or they’ll act a little different. Then they’ll get to know me and they’ll say whatever they want.
What’s been the highlight of your baseball career so far?
Making the Pan Am [Games] team was pretty cool, when I was 17. One of my highlights was in the final against the USA, I came in out of the bullpen. I got the pick-off sign and I picked off a girl at first before even throwing a pitch. That was cool.
Do you think your highlight will change this summer?
I think it has the possibility to. I hope so. It would be cool to have some great outings with the team.
Will you hit?
I had the option to but I want to focus on pitching. I’ve never seen above-90 m.p.h. pitching before, so I said, “I’ll work on my pitching and then maybe later on, we’ll see.”
What do your fastball top out at?
A lot of the scouting reports are saying 76. I’ve never once said it’s 76. I’d say it’s 72.
You’re supposed to inflate it.
I know. I don’t like lying to the media. [Laughs.] My national team pitching coach is out in BC as well, and he has been helping a ton of people with their speed. If I spent a good amount of time with him I think for sure I could get up there, faster than 76. Eighty would be the ultimate goal. He said I could get there.
Will your debut with the HarbourCats be the most important game of your career?
Maybe. I feel like it will be very important because there will be a lot of people watching and seeing how I end up doing. If I do poorly, they’ll think this is a mistake.
You’re ready for that level of attention?
I am. I think so.
Do you have a sense of how many fans the team usually draws?
I hear the attendance is one of the best in all of the collegiate leagues, averaging 2,500 a game.
It might go up. I hear there’s a new player.
Yeah? Oh, me. [Laughs.]
Amazing. What was it like when you saw R.A. Dickey Tweet at you after it was announced you’d be playing for the HarbourCats?
I was in complete shock. I’m not sure how much I showed my excitement but that was the most excitement, there. And it sorta hit me there: This is actually quite big, it’s reaching people in MLB.
Who’s your favourite MLB player?
Isn’t that one of your nicknames, too?
Some people call me that, yeah. It’s an old nickname. I have an unusual amount of nicknames, I think. I’m a big fan of carbs. I love bread, it’s bad—I have an addiction to bread. I’ve cut down but my friends call me “Buns.” [Laughs.]
How do you think this season is going to go for you?
I want to say well, but I don’t want to say it’s going to go well in case anything’s not going to go well.
So, what are you saying?
I think it’s going to go well.
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