• Pasi Salmela

Call Me Coach

Justine Siegal helped Team Israel to victory in 2016 World Baseball Classic Qualifier in Brooklyn. Her journey from Cleveland, Ohio to coaching the Israeli men’s national team has shown that, without being insanely persistent, breaking barriers is not possible.

Siegal describes herself as stubborn. She has proven that to be true many times over by ignoring naysayers and becoming the ‘first ever’ time and again. “It’s hard to be the first; hard to get the opportunities to learn and show what you know,” Siegal told baseballEBM. “Things are getting easier. People are more open to having a female coach. I'm earning my keep.”

We asked Siegal if she ever remembered being told ‘girls can’t play baseball’? “I was 13 years old the first time I was told to quit. My coach told me he didn’t want me on his team, that I should play softball. I knew it was wrong for him to tell me I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. Plus I loved baseball and I was good at it. So I decided then that I would play forever.” At the time Justine played for a local youth league in Cleveland. Despite his words, that same coach continued to play Justine at shortstop.

When she was 16-years old, Justine was playing on the boy’s high school baseball team. She confided in her coach that she wanted to become a college baseball coach. “The coach laughed at me and said ‘A man would never listen to a woman on a baseball field’. So I decided to prove him wrong. I just love the game of baseball and helping players reach their goals.” In that moment Justine realized that she didn’t have the same opportunities as men within baseball, so she made a plan to out-educate most of them. By getting her Ph.D. she hoped to become a better coach.

After playing at the high school level, and in various men's leagues after graduation, she began coaching in youth leagues. In 2005 Siegal returned to school to pursue her Ph.D. in Sport and Exercise Psychology. At the same time she started working as an assistant coach with Springfield College in northeast Massachusetts. It goes without saying that she was their ‘first ever’ female in that position. In fact, she was the first in the history of collegiate athletes in the USA. She proved her former coach wrong again. In her 2013 TED-speech Siegal said: ’I learned that men will listen to a woman on the baseball field when you know what you are doing. You can show them that you care and you can help them to be a better baseball player’.

By 2009 Siegal had become first base coach for the Brockton Rox. In accepting the position she hit another first. This time, she was the first female coach of a professional men's baseball team. Siegal was throwing batting practices to the Indians at spring training in 2011, making her the first female to practice with an MLB team. Over the next few years she threw BP for several more teams before the Oakland Athletics hired her, for two weeks in 2015, as a quest instructor for their Instructional league club. Siegal worked with infielders, hit fungos, threw batting practice and lead classroom presentations about the mental side of the game. Her experience as a coach, combined with her education, was a perfect fit for the instructional league where players split their time between the field and learning about the game in a classroom.

“I’m not sure I can explain why I thought the fourth time would be the charm, but I just had this feeling. One thing I am sure of, though, is that you don’t break barriers without being incredibly, insanely, persistent. You put in the work, make yourself qualified and then just keep banging on the door or pressing that send button.”

Siegal was a member of the coaching staff for team Israel in the 2016 WBCQ. Team manager Jerry Weinstein has said that he wants to have her on the team at the final tournament.

“I would be honored to continue coaching with Team Israel. Jerry Weinstein is an incredible manager and I love working with him. In the WBCQ I was a safe resource for players and coaches to confide in. My role with Team Israel included coaching aspects, such as: throwing batting practice, taking throws from Infielders at first and keeping a chart for the hitters during the game."

In 2016 Justine was the first-base coach for the independent Frontier League's Normal CornBelters. What is her next step in coaching in terms of career goals? “My goal is to be coaching in the minor leagues for an affiliated team. That would be my next step.” At the moment Siegal earns her living in public speaking. “I speak at corporations, universities and conferences. I also work many hours as a volunteer for Baseball For All. I am a mother so that keeps me busy too.”

On coaching in the MLB Siegal recently said, “Its hard to do the impossible. But I think that I've proven that I can help a team and get along with the guys.” We wanted to know what makes what appears impossible to everyone else, possible for coach?

“I believe in the impossible. Trying to get a job coaching with an affiliated team has been difficult but I love baseball and I know I can help players achieve their goals. I also want kids to know that there is no gender box they have to fit, that they can just follow their passions, on or off the field. There have been many sacrifices but I believe barriers are meant to be broken.”

In previous media accounts, coach is often referred to as ‘female coach’. We wanted to know how she felt about the classification.

“Right now I don’t mind being called a female coach. The idea, the role, is so new that being a female is an important distinguisher. I don’t want my players and fellow coaches thinking of me as the “female coach” but from a media perspective it doesn’t bother me. Eventually as more women enter the field, I’d like to see that prefix dropped.”

In late 1990s Justine Siegal founded the non-profit Baseball For All to provide opportunities for girls to play, coach and lead in baseball. She says that it’s an honor to make history but its much more important to build a better future.

“Girls are often told they can’t play baseball. We empower girls to believe in themselves by saying yes they can play baseball and anything else they want to do. Baseball For All teaches communities, and volunteers, how to start girls baseball programs. Our biggest accomplishments have been the smiles on the faces of the girls.”

#baseball #Israel