Four years ago today, the 18 women on Canada’s national baseball team were in a quest for gold at the XVII Pan American Games, having just beaten Puerto Rico by one run to earn a berth to the finals.
This year’s edition of the team won’t get a chance to relive that experience — their sport has been dropped from the program for the 18th edition of the games, which officially start Friday in Lima, Peru.
While Peru has teams competing in men’s baseball, men’s softball and women’s softball, they don’t have a women’s baseball team.
That’s being cited as the reason women’s baseball has been omitted from the games, which feature 424 events in 39 sports.
“It’s hard to take,” said Amanda Asay of Prince George, B.C. She has been a member of the women’s national team since 2005, and she played on Canada’s silver medal-winning team that lost to the U.S. in the final in Ajax, Ont., at the 2015 games — the first time that women’s baseball was included in the program.
“It’s definitely a hit to [have been] there in Toronto and, at least from our perspective, think it went excellently,” she said. “People came to watch. The games were exciting: it seemed like it was a really positive experience.”
“To sort of feel like [the sport] took a step back is hard, for sure.”
The Canadian Olympic Committee expressed its disappointment about the exclusion of women’s baseball from the games to the Pan American Sports Organization, said spokesperson Photi Sotiropoulos.
“We believe that in a time where we are striving toward gender equity and keeping young women in sport, removing it could negatively impact long-term participation rates,” he said.
Daphnée Gelinas, 23, who lives in Quebec City, has played on the national team for five seasons, including last year, when she was named MVP.
Though she took this year off, she wanted her teammates to have the chance to compete at the games.
“I was hoping that we could be part of these games, because it’s the highest level of baseball we can have right now,” she said.
“The opportunity is incredible…. It would have been a great success for our team to go there and show the world how baseball can be [played].”
The Pan Am experience
Asay, now the team’s veteran player at the age of 31, said she remembers walking down the streets of Toronto with some teammates after the closing ceremonies in 2015 and being stopped by people who recognized them not only as athletes, but as members of the women’s baseball team.
“To not be able to experience that again, probably at least for me, is a bit heartbreaking.”
Ashley Stephenson spent 15 years on the team before moving into a coaching role this year. She said playing in the 2015 Pan Am Games was the highlight of her career.
Her favourite memory came after the win against Puerto Rico, surrounded by her family, friends and fellow athletes at Canada House, watching Andre de Grasse win gold in the 100-metre dash.
“What made it special was you were there with all these other athletes who have trained so hard, and you’re all trying to win a medal for Canada. You don’t get to experience that in a World Cup.”
Women’s baseball is still developing, said Asay — in the same position as women’s hockey was about 20 years ago.
Since 2004, players from around the world gather to play in the biennial Women’s Baseball World Cup. Five teams participated in the inaugural event in Edmonton. Last year in Florida, there were 12. The games were streamed live online for the first time.
“You get a lot more exposure to young girls who maybe didn’t know what they could do with baseball,” Asay said. “They can watch it at home, which is pretty cool, and then they have something to strive for.”
A return in 2023?
The team isn’t idle this year, despite their absence in Lima — in August, they head to the Dominican Republic to play in a qualifier for next year’s World Cup.
The next Pan Am Games will be held in Argentina in 2023, and the hope is that women’s baseball will return to the program. There is a fledgling women’s baseball program in that country, Stephenson said, but the question is whether they will be able to compete.
Stephenson said in the past, the Canadian team has travelled to Cuba to hold development camps. While those camps help Canadian players improve, they help bolster the Cuban program, too.
That’s a wrap on the 10th annual Girls ⚾️ Baseball Development Camp!!!<br><br>What a week in Cuba 🇨🇺! 😎 <a href=”https://t.co/sLx2MeaCu5″>pic.twitter.com/sLx2MeaCu5</a>
The coaching staff is weighing the possibility of travelling to other countries to do the same.
“It’s tough, because in other countries, they might not necessarily promote women’s sport as much as we do. But then we are shafted, and we don’t get opportunities that our male counterparts get,” Stephenson said.
“So whose lap does that fall in? Does that fall in our laps, to do more work, to push other countries?”
At home, Gélinas says she’s seen growth in the sport in Quebec — there are more girls playing now than when she was young.
She participates in clinics with younger players so they know the national team is something they can aspire to.
“I feel a kind of responsibility to make sure that there is development for them and that they can see a role model,” she said.
“I feel that we can make a difference, and every sport and everything in life starts somewhere. We’re lucky to be the ones who have the [opportunity] to start it in order to make it better for the next generation of baseball players.”