After two seasons playing outfield for the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds’ women’s softball team, Claire Eccles is a few weeks away from making baseball history.
The 19-year-old left-hander from White Rock – a graduate of Elgin Park Secondary – will pitch for the Victoria HarbourCats in the upcoming West Coast League season. Eccles will become the first woman to play in the WCL, a league made up primarily of university players, some of whom have been drafted by Major League Baseball teams.
“I’ve been playing baseball for a long time and have been a pitcher for my entire career so when I switched to softball it just wasn’t the same,” said Eccles, who has been a member of Baseball Canada’s national women’s baseball team for the past four years.
“I’m very excited. Victoria is really behind this team and I’m lucky to play for such a great organization as the HarbourCats.”
Eccles has juggled both sports with great success, and this week’s announcement adds to her growing baseball resume. Last September, Eccles won a silver medal with Canada’s national team at the Women’s Baseball World Cup in South Korea – a tournament that saw the teenager come within two outs of pitching a no-hitter against Venezuela.
“I didn’t even realize I had (a no hitter) until right before I gave up the hit,” Eccles said at the time.
With the HarbourCats, Eccles, who is just five-foot-eight, won’t throw the ball with as much velocity as some of her male counterparts, but her other pitches – specifically a knuckleball and a curveball – are very effective, said HarbourCats general manager Brad Norris-Jones.
“If we strictly went on her velocity, I don’t think she could compete at this level,” he told Canadian Press. “But her knuckleball definitely competes at this level. That’s what we were very excited about.”
“I’m obviously not going to be the fastest pitcher in the league,” said Eccles. “But I have some good off-speed pitches that will keep hitters on their toes.”
Eccles said she developed her knuckleball during some downtime during practice in recent years.
“In warmup, we practiced throwing it just for fun. Mine just seemed to work,” she said. “I played around with it for awhile and as I got older, I realized I could actually through this in a game.”
Eccles will begin the WCL season as a relief pitcher, Norris-Jones said, though he didn’t rule out having her start games later in the season.
“Claire has competed at and been successful at many levels of the game, playing against both women and men. We think her poise on the mound and experience internationally will give her a chance to get the outs we need.”
In Victoria Tuesday, during the official announcement of her signing with the ‘Cats, Eccles shrugged off questions about the probability of her future success, or the history in pro sports of women playing within a mens’ league – a list that includes hockey players Hayley Wickenheiser and Shannon Szabados and golfers Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie.
“There are probably a lot of girls better than me out there somewhere, but just don’t get the same opportunity as I have. So I think it opens more people to the idea that girls can play baseball,” she said.
– with files from Ragnar Haagen