4 Lessons I Learned From Being The Only Girl On The Team

by Melissa Tamberg-Heffron
Originally Published: 
A baseball team of thirteen kids with one girl on the team
Melissa Tamberg-Heffron

Back in 1981—long before Mo’ne Davis became a household name, before Little League inaugurated its own softball division, before the ink had really dried on all the promises of Title IX—I was an 11-year-old girl who yearned to play baseball. Not softball, which was widely available to young females throughout my community, but baseball.

That’s why, when the flyer came home from elementary school promoting our local Little League’s upcoming tryout day, I immediately convinced my best friend to join me in the quest to make the lineup. In preparation, we spent every afternoon over the next few weeks honing our skills—scooping up ground balls, batting off tees and playing catch—with visions of turning double plays and crushing line drives filling our ponytailed heads. As the big day approached, we were ready.

Until somehow, on the eve of tryouts, my friend’s mom found out that she and I would be the only two girls in the entire league and subsequently benched her daughter from even trying out. I never understood why she made that decision, but I was crushed.

My mom, on the other hand, encouraged me to lace my cleats and step up to the plate, which upon learning I would be the only female out there was more than a little bit intimidating.

But looking back, I’m so grateful that I did. While I didn’t recognize it at the time, the season would teach me far more significant skills than pitching and base running, instilling valuable lessons that would comprise my lifelong playbook and ultimately provide inspiration for my own children. Here’s a few of the most meaningful lessons:

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks

From the moment I showed up in the registration line at tryouts, my double-X chromosomes came under the microscope. Dozens of players—elementary-aged versions of an old boys’ network—spread across the fence to watch me vie for a spot on a team (or more accurately, secure a front-row seat for what they anticipated would be my impending failure). My presence elicited a split of emotions among the boys, with half seemingly irritated that I had encroached on their turf and the rest clearly bemused by my lofty aspirations.

Had I allowed the palpable fear or pervasive doubt to sway me from trying out, I would have missed the opportunity to build immeasurable confidence. The self-assurance I gained from subsequently being chosen for a team bolstered me through many seasons of my life, empowering me in high school (where I ran for several student government offices), then into college (where I successfully vied for a reporting post on the university newspaper), and eventually into my professional career. As the old adage goes, progress always involves risk; you can’t steal second with your foot on first.

2. If You Really Want Something, Go Balls Out

I honestly can’t recall the specific reasons my 11-year-old self was so adamant about playing hardball over softball (other than the implication that I couldn’t be part of a team, which only made me want it more). Regardless, once I had identified my objective, I couldn’t just drop the ball; I focused all of my effort on achieving it.

I embraced that same paradigm when I became a mother, quitting a job I loved after my desire to stay home with my newborn son eclipsed my passion for being a reporter. Yet I still needed to devise an endgame. After all, the bills weren’t going to pay themselves. With relentless determination, I forged a new career in marketing, working for a firm that permitted me to complete my job duties at home. Then several years later, I mustered up the courage to leave that stable organization—and relinquish my regular paycheck—in order to start my own company.

While each of those monumental decisions was carefully weighed, planned and executed, all were fueled by a profound inner aspiration that fervently pushed me to find a way—any way—to pull off my ambitions.

3. Be Prepared to Work Hard

This concept, seemingly lost on much of today’s youth, was instilled in me between the base pads. While school had always come easy for me, baseball was a different matter entirely. Not only was I thrust onto a team with boys who had played the sport in an organized fashion for years, but, well, I was thrust onto a team with boys, and I wasn’t about to let myself be limited by my gender.

I didn’t just give it my all at practice—soaking up every tip and piece of instruction from my coach—but also continued working on my own to further develop my skills. By the end of the season, I no longer threw “like a girl” and had even managed to earn the respect and camaraderie of my teammates.

It’s really no different beyond the ball field, as I’ve witnessed not only in my own continued pursuits but in teaching my kids as well. They’ve made the clear connection between studying hard and earning high marks on a test and putting in the extra hours of practice in order to make the starting lineup. Hard work deters entitlement.

4. Pay It Forward

I still fondly remember Coach Tim, the man who welcomed me with open glove into his testosterone-teeming lineup my rookie season. While I never thanked him personally for having taken a chance on me, the recollection was at the forefront of my mind years later while volunteering in my sons’ Little League.

It was my first draft as a team manager, and among the 50-plus players up for selection was an 11-year-old girl who had stood out to me at tryouts. There was something special about her that compelled me to choose her fairly high in the draft, raising the collective (and smug) eyebrows of my fellow (all male) managers.

The primary factor in my pick wasn’t her natural athleticism (though that turned out to be a contributing factor to our team capturing the division title that season, much to the chagrin of my coaching counterparts). Rather, I had an instinctive desire to go to bat for the lone girl, just as Coach Tim had for me some 25 years earlier. No matter how much success we may achieve, it’s important not to forget where we came from. And for me, in so many ways, that gratitude leads right back to the dirt and the dugout and that group of boys who taught me so much.

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