Baseball is arguably a fringe game in Australia, played on the edges of our sporting community, by a small, dedicated, group of women and men.
Despite this, the national women’s side has consistently placed in the world’s top four, since its inception in 2001.
However, coverage of the Emeralds has been scant.
On their recent tour of Indonesia, they turned a 6 run deficit into a 14-6 victory against top men’s club, Banten.
The match was one of four exhibition and training games against men’s teams in the country. The Emeralds notched up 2 wins, a draw and a loss.
But there was little reaction from the Australian media. Unlike the deluge of criticism aimed at women’s football team, the Matildas, when the tables were turned during a training match against Newcastle Jets under 15s.
These headlines are frustrating for female Aussie athletes, says Emeralds program coordinator, Narelle Gosstray.
“People are way too quick to jump on the Matilda's back. Brazil lost to Germany 7-1 in the last Men’s World cup semi final. No one’s saying Brazil shouldn’t play football any more.”
Playing against men is nothing new for elite women in sport.
"When our players are playing in Australia they don't get faced with adversity a lot. Our girls are the best in Australia, so who do they play and how do they play?” she says.
Pitcher Amy Collins plays with men week in week out for her club, Darwin’s Nightcliff Tigers. She says lining up against male squads is an important part of national team training, but the result is largely irrelevant.
“When we’re prepping for our national championship, we often play against a group of under 18 or under 16 boys because that’s who we match against speed and strength wise. You’re not playing to win, you’re playing to work together to get your team to be more cohesive and to work on set plays.”
As the Emeralds ramp up preparations for this year’s World Cup in South Korea, the trip was an opportunity to push the women out of their comfort zone.
“In Asia it’s not as much of a powerful game,” says the 28-year old.
“They just put ball in play and immediately put pressure on the defence in a much more consistent way than here and in America, where it’s about hitting the ball hard, hitting the ball as far as you can. It was really good to see that style of baseball before we head to the world cup.”
Throw in the heat, humidity, disruption in routine as well as dietary changes, and the tough conditions gave coaches a good look at some of those in contention for a spot on the plane to South Korea.
“We said: ‘Hey we're going to throw you into one of the most difficult situations you can possibly be in and see if you can come out on top and play the game we need you to play.’ And they all stood up,” according to Gosstray.
Touching all bases
But the games weren’t the only reason for the trip.
The visit was part of a new sports diplomacy programme: Diamonds in the Rough.
The initiative uses baseball to encourage women to take part in team sport, in a bid to tackle domestic violence and bridge the gap in gender equality.
“Two of the things we know is that statistics say women who play sport are more successful in their careers and less likely to be involved in family violence,” says Gosstray.
The team ran clinics with Indonesian girls and held career seminars with some top female executives.
The aim was to empower young Indonesian women to make the best choices for them, without being influenced by gender stereotypes.
”Just the fact that they've had that opportunity, the confidence it brings, the camaraderie with your teammates and the support networks - those things are really important in a community.”
The Emeralds also demonstrated that participating in sport doesn’t have to stop at high school.
“They were very surprised we were still playing. Basically once they hit university age or motherhood then that’s it. You’re either going to uni or you're becoming a mother or you're working there's very little other time.”
For Collins, the highlight of the trip was changing perceptions about the quality of the women’s game.
“I think it was fantastic for the general public to see women play baseball, and play it well.”
Playing well is something the Emeralds will be planning to do in September, when the squad heads to the World Cup, with Japan the team to beat.
“Japan has been the leader, for ever, in women's baseball. They have a professional league over there -thousands of girls playing in competitions every week and they are very, very good. We'd be disappointed with anything less than a top 4 finish, but we're pretty confident we can get to that gold medal game and once you're in that game anything can happen," says Gosstray.
Punching above their weight
Baseball Australia is also in negotiations to have the Emeralds’ matches broadcast at home.
She hopes the move gives a boost to women’s sports.
"People say they don't want to watch women's sport and it's boring but when you have one camera situated at the end of the court and you don't have 14 different angles of course it's going to be boring. If it's not produced properly and not on TV then people won't be able to watch it."
Gosstray believes the difference between men and women’s sport is comparable to boxers in different weight divisions.
“If you were to take Jeff Fenech and put him in a ring with Mike Tyson - a lightweight and a heavy weight then he’s going to knock him out in one blow…but he’s still Jeff Fenech.”
In three months we’ll find out if the Emeralds are the best in their division.
The women’s baseball world cup takes place in South Korea from September 3 -11.