Volume 22, Number 05 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | June 19 - 25, 2009
Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert
Elan Halpern, top, tags out a runner at second in a recent Downtown Little League game. She, Ava Villalba, center in middle photo, and Alex Townes-West, right, are three of the best players on the Pirates and the only girls on the team. Bottom, Ava fields a ball warming up at shortstop that was just out of the reach of Alex, who plays third base.
The girls of summer
By Julie Shapiro
It only took one softball game to convince Alex Townes-West to stick to baseball.
“First of all, they pitched underhand, which I don’t really like,” said Alex, 9, her brown ponytail bobbing beneath her Pirates baseball cap. “The ball doesn’t come very fast, and sometimes it drops.” Ducking her head sheepishly, she said of the other softball players: “I just didn’t think they were very good.”
Alex is one of three girls this year on the Downtown Little League Pirates, a Minors baseball team in a division dominated by boys. Of about 130 players in the division, only six are girls. Coaches say this is the first time in recent memory that three girls have been drafted by a single Minors team.
“All three are excellent athletes,” said Paul Kussie, manager of the Pirates. “They know the game, and they seem very passionate about the game…. They’re probably the top players on the team.”
Alex, a third-grader at NEST, is one of the youngest on the team, but she has a strong throw that serves her well when she plays third base, parents said. Ava Villalba, 9, is the team’s best hitter and she plays shortstop because she thinks quickly and makes good catches. And the Pirates’ first draft pick this year was Elan Halpern, 10, one of the most accurate fastball pitchers in the league and the biggest player on the team.
Michael Halpern, Elan’s father, said he was thrilled to see all three girls playing together on one team.
“It’s not just one girl, but three of the best girls,” Halpern said.
Elan, Ava and Alex all started playing Little League at 5 or 6 and had no desire to switch to softball when they turned 9, like most girls do.
“I don’t like softball,” Elan said as she sprawled on the bleachers at Pier 40 before a recent game. “It’s too slow-mo.”
“I felt like it wasn’t that challenging,” added Ava, a fourth-grader at P.S. 234. “I like challenges.”
Asked what the best part of baseball is, Ava and Elan answered immediately and in unison: “Winning.”
All three girls said they have gained the respect of their teammates, but opposing teams can sometimes pose a problem.
Alex was the only girl on her Junior Minors Lower team last year, and during games, players from other teams made fun of her, she said.
“If I walked past the dugout they’d say bad things, like ‘You’re bad, I can beat you,’” Alex said. “I didn’t really care. I didn’t pay attention to them.”
Ava said this year one boy on the Pirates sometimes tackles her.
Elan looked angry at the idea and said, “He knows I’d beat him up if he touched me.”
But, Ava concluded, “Mostly they’re nice.”
Tom Merrill, president of Downtown Little League, said boys may be hesitant about accepting girls at first, but they quickly rally around them. He recalled a Majors game last year, where a catcher made a derogatory comment to Shai, one of the few girls in the Majors division, when she was up at bat. The rest of the game, her male teammates played furiously.
“Our team started to punish the kid, stealing on him, to get back at him for talking trash at Shai,” Merrill said.
Kussie, the Pirates manager, said he expected to see a difference in the way the boys treated the girls on the team, but he never found one.
“Maybe it’s a different generation,” he said. “The boys don’t take it one way or another — they say [the girls] are good and I’m glad they’re on our team.”
Kussie has noticed some developmental differences that make the girls strong players. They are more focused than the boys, honed in on competing and winning the game. The boys have more nervous energy and sometimes can’t sit still, Kussie said.
During a Pirates game on June 9, the girls often sat on the bench or took practice swings while waiting to bat, while some of the boys roughhoused, swinging their baseball caps at each other.
Elan’s voice was one of the loudest from the bench as she cheered her teammates on.
“Stay alive!” she frequently called out to players who had two strikes against them.
And when Alex was up at bat the boys on her team did nothing but encourage her.
“C’mon Alex, shake it off,” they called out after Alex’s first strike. “It’s okay Alex,” they said after the second strike. And when she struck out, they looked as surprised as she did.
All three girls said they prefer playing with boys, since they tend to be more competitive.
“It doesn’t occur to us that it would be an issue,” said Malcolm West, Alex’s father. “All her friends are boys — she’s a real tomboy.”
Susan Townes, Alex’s mother, said she recently ran into another NEST parent, who said the girls in Alex’s class were getting very cliquey. Townes asked her daughter if that was a problem, and Alex replied, “How would I know? I’m not friends with any of them,” Townes said.
Eliseo Villalba, Ava’s father and a Pirates coach, sounded awed as he described practicing with his daughter.
“When I throw to her, I don’t hold back,” Villalba said. “I throw like I’m throwing to an adult. I don’t take into account that she’s a 9-year-old girl.”
Villalba said Ava also has good fielding instincts and makes decisions quickly, putting into practice the lessons she has learned from watching countless hours of Yankees games on TV.
Alex and Ava will continue in the Minors next year, then they hope to move on to the Majors. Elan isn’t sure about next year — she’s starting sixth grade at the Manhattan Academy of Technology in the fall and hopes to play as many sports as she can, particularly basketball.
This week Ava and Elan tried out for the Little League’s summer tournament team. Elan made the team last year.
Michael Halpern, Elan’s father, said the boys Elan plays with treat her entirely as an equal, and don’t appear to resent her, even when she strikes them out.
“It’s probably very beneficial for the boys that are around her to see that girls can do it,” Halpern said.