By Leah Vann
Former pro player Bridget Venturi Veenema leads a group of girls aged 8 to 14 who are standing on one foot and holding baseballs.
They’re practicing proper pitching form at the mound inside the University of Illinois-Chicago’s physical education building on Sunday during one of the six Illinois Girls Baseball’s weekly clinics.
One by one, girls take turns practicing their wind up, cocking, acceleration and follow-throughs in slow motion, with Veenema adjusting the intricacies of their body positions before letting them fire fastballs at a catcher before them. No matter how fast the ball moves, her face lights up seeing the girls learn the game she knows so well.
“I see that there’s a spark in those kids’ eyes,” Veenema said. Veenema is one of the coaches at the Illinois Girls Baseball’s six-week series of clinics in February and March at UIC. As a professional baseball player, she wants to provide girls with the opportunities she’s had through the sport.
“I started playing baseball as a kid because that’s all there was, I was the only girl in the league, same story,” Veenema said. “USA Baseball started a women’s national team and I played on 2004, 2006, 2008 teams and won two world cups and got a couple of opportunities to coach in 2007 at national team trials and then 2011 and 2018.
Major league baseball started their girls program with the trailblazer series and I was invited to coach there too and got hooked up with Illinois Girls Baseball.”
The Trailblazer Series is a baseball tournament hosted every year in Los Angeles for girls ages 13 and under. The national tournament hosted 96 girls in 2019. Now, Veenema coaches approximately 90 girls every Sunday. To Veenema, growing women’s baseball is a matter of providing opportunity. It’s not a novel concept. Vassar organized the first official U.S. college women’s baseball team in 1866.
“When there’s an opportunity presented, people will step up and girls want that opportunity,” Veenema said. “I think it’s important for girls to have people that look like them and walk the path that they want to emulate just like the boys have men that do that.”
Some of that is seeing women like Alyssa Nakken become the first female coach in MLB history this offseason for the San Francisco Giants, but the other part is seeing a future for women to have their own space in the sport.
“Why not have a professional women’s baseball league,” Veenema said. “I mean, yeah, the women don’t go play in the PGA, and women play in their own tennis circuit. I think there should be opportunities for women in whatever sport.
“I’ve seen women play at a very, very high professional level. But the major leagues — those are elite, male athletes that physiologically have different gifts,” she said.
To reinforce the spirit of having women to look up to at baseball camp, Veenema invited former Niles West High School softball coach Nicole Reynolds to help coach the baseball clinic.
“I know the game well enough from coaching softball and I love baseball,” Reynolds said. “It’s my first experience being at anything with females in baseball, which is pretty cool.”
Aside from pitching and base running, Reynolds finds a lot of transferable skills she can teach from coaching softball, such as fielding balls.
Like Veenema, her career in softball began when she played little league baseball with the boys at 8 years old. She never saw baseball through because she fell more in love with softball. Whereas Veenema prefers the pace of a baseball game and the dimensions of the field better.
“I go out to the city and I heard about softball. That’s what the girls did, so I played softball,” Reynolds said. “I think if there were opportunities to play baseball, it’s possible I would’ve played. But I really enjoy the game of softball and I saw the opportunities and saw I could excel in that.”
For Reynolds, coaching the clinics is experiencing the world of girls baseball, rather than hearing about it from Veenema’s stories. Veenema feels she’s just being a coach, trying to help athletes achieve their goals.
“I want them to love the feeling of catching the ball and love it when they control a pitch for a strike,” Veenema said. “So, from that standpoint, baseball can transcend gender and age and religion and female language. Baseball is really for everybody.”