Autumn Mills a pitcher for all seasons
* RHP Autumn Mills, who pitched 96 innings in Australia, is prepping for the Women’s Baseball World Cup in Edmonton./Photo: Baseball Canada ….
By Alexis Brudnicki
There are opportunities for women in baseball.
That may seem like an oversimplified statement, but it is far from obvious.
Autumn Mills has travelled the world for baseball. The 24-year-old has had the opportunity to play on almost every continent, most recently spending six months in Australia playing America’s favourite pastime down under.
Right now, Mills is in Alberta with Team Canada preparing for the Women’s Baseball World Cup in August. Last week, she and teammates Ashley Stephenson and Samantha Magalas were hosting a baseball clinic for young girls, with the hope that in the future more female players can take advantage of the resources available to them.
“We need to make people aware that [women’s baseball] exists and that there’s opportunity out there,” Mills said. “We ran a girls-only clinic on Friday night and we had 20 girls come out…it wasn’t the greatest time or location but we still had 20 girls. It was an amazing success. They were so happy to be there.
“The ages ranged from 5-to-15 and they were thrilled. We went four hours of instruction and they weren’t bored at all; they loved it. I got emails from parents saying that their daughters aspired to be like us. It was amazing.
“But when we did our parent talk at the beginning they were like, ‘Wait, what? There’s opportunity out there?’ And we were like, ‘We’ve travelled all over the world for free because of this. Yes, there’s opportunity.’ But nobody knows.”
When many people think of women in baseball, they think softball or fastball. There are a lot of people who don’t know that hardball is an option for young girls. Like many who continue to play, Mills got her start in the traditional game by playing with the boys.
“I started with t-ball and had a decent arm,” the native of London, Ont., said. “We had this hit-run-throw competition in t-ball and I ended up winning so my parents were like, ‘Okay, she’s alright.’ So I kept playing with the boys. My dad would always ask me if I wanted to switch to softball but I had no desire so that was just kind of the way it went. I played 10 years with the boys and never had any thoughts to go to softball at all.”
The only thing that made Mills pause in her decision for a moment was the idea of heading to post-secondary school on a scholarship, because there aren’t any available in women’s baseball. But the right-hander also played university hockey, so her five years at York University were paid for through her time on the ice.
Playing baseball has opened doors for Mills that she doesn’t think she could have ventured through otherwise.
“It gives me credentials to get involved in boys’ baseball and I think that’s one of the biggest things,” she said. “There are not a lot of female coaches as it is, let alone female coaches in boys’ baseball because obviously people would be skeptical about credentials and stuff. But saying that I’ve been a part of the national team for so many years and being able to prove that I know what I’m talking about and I know how to play, it’s cool.
“I coached Triple-A boys’ baseball for three years and actually last year on my team [was] Gareth Morgan. He played on the North York team that I coached. Our team ended up winning provincials, we became Team Ontario and we got to play at nationals. I coached at a national level for 15-year-old boys, one of them who is probably going to be in MLB in the next three years.”
Mills has earned her credentials in the game, as this will be her eighth year on the Canadian national team and her fourth World Cup competition.
“This year’s a big year for us,” the pitcher said. “We’re bouncing back from a fifth-place position in Venezuela. That’s disgusting that we finished fifth. It was our worst-ever [finish] but we had the best team we’ve ever had. There were a lot of things that went wrong there.”
After throwing a total of 96 innings in Australia over the winter and working out harder than ever before, Mills feels ready for the upcoming challenge.
“Everybody is fair game,” she said. “It’s going to be tough but I think we have a good group and there’s been a lot of emphasis this year on preparing and there’s a lot of accountability for what you’re doing … [The team started] this cool thing where we’re doing a run across Canada.
“We have a motivational off-season website where we do cross-fit workouts and we post our times, because a few of us are involved in cross-fit, so you compete for fun and it just holds people accountable for working out. Somebody came up with this idea that we start on the east coast and we run to where World Cup will be, hypothetically speaking.
“We have a map, we started in January and it’s 5,990 kilometres. Every day you do any type of cardio, bike or run or whatever, we post our kilometres there and collectively our goal is to reach that. Right now we’re at 5,000 and World Cup is in two weeks so people have to start running, but the point is there’s been a lot of onus on preparing and preparing well.”
The women’s national team will be hoping to beat their best-ever World Cup finish, when they brought home silver medals in 2008 from Japan. Mills is hoping and preparing for victory, but just the experience of another World Cup will be special as well.
Though Australia is at the top of the list of her favourite places, the competition in Venezuela in 2010 was one of her most memorable and life-changing experiences as a ballplayer.
“Australia’s definitely the best place I’ve ever been but my experience in Venezuela was unexplainable,” she said. “That was the year that girl got shot in Hong Kong during competition but the bonding that happened between the teams when that went down was insane. I went through serious situational depression after that tournament ended because it was so cool.
“For three weeks you’re playing baseball with a group of people that have the same interests and desire as you and you go through something like that; it brings everybody closer and it was a whole new perspective on life.”
Mills is hoping that the girls that she and her teammates hosted last week in Toronto will someday get the chance to do some of the things that she has done, and to see some of the things that she has seen. Her audience at Bond Park was incredibly responsive, and the right-handed hurler believes that it was her experience that made a considerable difference.
“When we were teaching those girls, you could see how excited and just there, they were,” Mills said. “Four hours is a long time for six-year-old girls to stay focused, but they were all about it. From the beginning to the end of that four hours, just seeing how much you taught them and how receptive they were, was awesome.
“I think being national team players it’s easier for us to have an impact. I feel really lucky obviously. I feel almost guilty in a way, that I’ve had these opportunities that other people don’t get. It’s obviously impacted who I am today, so I feel pretty lucky.”