Nine Innings: Canada’s Stephenson a vocal leader

Ashley Stephenson (Baseball Canada)

Nine Innings is a series of questions with players & personnel from around baseball. In this edition, Shi Davidi talks to national women’s baseball team veteran Ashley Stephenson.

Ashley Stephenson was there at the beginning when the national women’s baseball team was launched in 2004, and she’ll be there again playing for Canada this summer when the sport makes its debut at the Pan Am Games in Toronto.

The milestone moment will be a reward for years of determination and dedication for the physical education teacher at Frank Hayden Secondary School in Burlington, Ont. She’s in Toronto this week for a selection camp to determine which 18 players will wear the Maple Leaf, and marvels at how much things have changed.

“Our team now is extremely talented – we had some talented players in 2004 – but the depth in the country now is so much greater, and it’s nice that the talent pool is spread out so we have girls from B.C., all the way out to Newfoundland,” she says. “When we first started it was mainly Alberta, Quebec and Ontario, so it’s gaining in popularity all over the country, not just in certain spots. We have 16-year-old girls who’ll be at this camp and I’m 32 years old, so it’s such a wide range of age and talent. That’s a huge benefit for Andre (Lachance, women’s national team manager), he knows there will be girls who are leaders on this team, if not now then in a few years, and then we have veterans who have been around for eight to 10 years who can still contribute and love to play.”

Stephenson is one of those veterans, and here are her Nine Innings with us:

1st inning – Some people describe you as the Brett Lawrie of the women’s national team. Why?

“The Brett Lawrie of the women’s national team, eh? Well, we play the same position, so that would be an easy connection. I’m assuming our personalities would be somewhat similar. He is a fiery guy and when you watch him play you can really tell that he loves to play, he’s into it. I think when you watch me play, you can always tell I’m into every game, and that I love to play, challenging myself, challenging teammates. I just think our attitudes and our personalities are probably very similar – passionate and fiery and always wanting to win and compete. Other than playing the same position and being Canadian, I’m assuming that’s what they’re talking about. I’ll gladly accept that comparison.”

2nd inning – Do you think you can sometimes get under opponents’ skin the way he does?

“I don’t try to do that, to be honest. I really focus on what I can do, but it certainly doesn’t bother me if the other team is not a big fan of mine, or how I play. In fact, if I am under their skin, then I’ve taken them away from their game to some extent, but I don’t try to do that. I just play 110 percent every single play, really encouraging my teammates – for me it’s all or nothing, so I try to make every play all-in – and not everybody likes that too much on the other side. That doesn’t concern me very much.”

3rd inning – You’ve already talked about the passion with which you play. Can you describe yourself as a defender and a hitter?

“Defence is probably the best part of my game, I have a strong arm which is really helpful playing third base. I’m not afraid to lay out for balls, I try to play defence really aggressive so I’m not afraid to play in on a lot of players to take away their chance at a bunt, I’m not afraid to get in front of or block a ball. Some people say I play hard defence. At the plate, I’m an aggressive player. Andre is always encouraging me to see more pitches, but I go up there with the intent to hit the ball, not necessarily to draw walks or see a lot of pitches. Typically I’m swinging at one of the first three pitches, which isn’t always the best thing, but I’m super-aggressive, go up there with one pitch in mind, and if I get it, then I’m going to swing out of my shoes.”

4th inning – Having also been captain of the women’s hockey team during your days at Wilfrid Laurier University, do you see any differences in leadership style between hockey and baseball?

“I’m not sure there’s a real difference. The one thing in hockey is you’re in the change-room together, in baseball you arrive and there’s no change-room or anything where you are. You have your dugout, that’s your sacred place, but the coaches are also in there, whereas in hockey you have the change-room and the coaches don’t have access to that, necessarily, until the end when they come to give you your pre-game speech. So they’re different in that you have your own space as a hockey player and people speak a little bit more freely and there might be some more vocal leadership in a hockey change-room. In terms of my leadership style, I’m a vocal leader, I like to chat, make sure everyone is into the game, fiery personality, so I really want to make sure everybody’s up and ready to play. Whether it’s the change-room or dugout, I kind of have a similar mentality, so my leadership style is similar for both.”

Ashley Stephenson (Baseball Canada)

5th inning – You’ve suffered several concussions in your athletic career. Is that what forced you to give up hockey?

“I played in the women’s pro league, the NWHL, or the CWHL now, but I had my seventh concussion three years ago, and my family doctor asked me to see a neurologist just to make sure everything was OK before he signed a return to play form. I had my chance to play for Team Canada, unfortunately I never made it, and my neurologist thought there was a lot of potential risk to keep playing and not necessarily the reward. So the agreement was that he would sign the return to play for me to play baseball, but he wasn’t going to sign the return to play for hockey. I’ve now started coaching hockey instead of playing.”

6th inning – The Athletics, your team in the Toronto Baseball Association, is an all-girls entry in a minor-midget and midget boys division. When did you start playing against boys, and were you ever intimidated?

“It never crossed my mind. I grew up on a street with mainly boys and my mom just said, if you want to play, go out and play. She’s a very strong-willed lady, and she said, just go ask. One day I went and asked if I could play, and I was the youngest so they fired me in net. I wore all these balls, but I wanted to play so I stood in the net. Then someone else moved on the street who was younger than me so we put him in net. I don’t think I ever thought about being the only girl – I just liked to play, and I don’t think they ever saw me as this girl coming to play with us. We were all friends. It’s funny, the first time I made the women’s national team, one of them called me up and he said, ‘I deserve a little bit of credit, I played with you every single day.’ A few of us are still friends today. I don’t think kids play outside enough anymore in unorganized sports. We’d eat dinner, come outside and find something to do. It was fun.”

7th inning – How did your passions for hockey and baseball develop, and did you enjoy one more than the other?

“I don’t know which one I would have picked when I was younger. If I had to I would have picked hockey only because hockey in Canada is like a way of life and the season is eight months long, you got to play it so much longer. If I lived in Florida and could play ball all year long, maybe that would have been my choice, but our ball season is just so short, it’s only four months. When I was young my dad started me with T-ball, and then he played hockey as well so he signed me up for hockey with my brother and I fell in love with both of them. I would play road hockey with the boys on the street, I’d play running bases, I’d go to the local park and hit balls off the tee with my dad. I was just a very active kid. I played a number of other sports but I happened to, thankfully, be talented at those two and had an opportunity to play at university and now on the national team. You just stick with things you happen to be good at.”

8th inning – You were at the 2010 Women’s World Cup in Venezuela when a Hong Kong player was shot in the calf during a game, causing the tournament to be moved from a military base in Caracas to Maracay. What other harrowing experiences have you had with the women’s national team?

“In 2005 we went to Havana for a seven-day friendly against Cuba. We had a number of games set up and some practice time there. It was an off-World Cup year so we went to get some more international exposure and to help them develop their game. We were three days in to our trip when we were told after our game that we had 10 minutes to pack our bags and evacuate our hotel. I never unpack anything, so I just zipped up my bag and hopped on the bus, none of us had any idea what was going on. There was a Category 4 hurricane headed right for Havana and we were staying right near the ocean so it wasn’t safe. We went to another hotel and the hurricane hit at two in the morning, and it was like something I’d never experienced before and don’t want to experience again. Palm trees were uprooted, I was in the sixth floor, and the top of a palm tree came right through my balcony’s sliding doors and was just sitting in the room. Our rooms were totally flooded, our luggage was floating away, the toilets were all backed up, there was no power so we couldn’t call our parents to tell them we were OK. Everyone was safe, I had my passport and the $40 I needed to get out of there, so that was all I was worried about. Three days later we managed to dry everything out, went back to our original hotel and kept playing. We had a bunch of extra fans because they were housing people who were homeless there, and they were sitting and cheering us on. They seemed to go with the flow better than we did. We laugh about it now but we were all pretty afraid that night.”

9th inning – When did your teammates start calling you grandma, and how do you feel about that?

“There were a few girls older than me in 2009 and then they retired or decided not to come back, so for 2010 in Venezuela, that’s when I took over the title of oldest player on the team, and I’ve held that for the last five years, which is nice. In 2010 someone said it jokingly, and I didn’t even realize at that point I was the oldest on the team, I was 27 or 28.  So one girl says, ‘Hey grandma,’ and I thought, ‘My goodness, I am the oldest person on the team.’ But it doesn’t bother me, I know I can still play, and I relish that veteran leadership role. I try to talk to the young kids about what it takes to continue to play for that long, it’s an honour to have played as long as I have, and it’s a credit to some degree, to what I’ve been able to do to stay in shape and make the commitment to play the last 12 seasons. Not many players have been able to do that, myself and Kate Psota are the only ones left from 2004. To maintain that level of competition and success is something I’m actually really grateful for and proud of, so I don’t mind if they call me grandma at all.”

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