By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
It wasn’t long ago that Claire Eccles was told that it was about time she stopped playing baseball with the boys.
Six years have passed since the left-handed hurler was about to embark on her high school journey at Elgin Park Secondary School, and Eccles was supposed to come to the understanding that the boys she had played baseball with for years were suddenly gaining strength and size at a much different rate than she was, so softball should be the answer.
She couldn’t do it.
Though currently a softball player for the University of British Columbia, hitting and playing the outfield for the Thunderbirds, the 19-year-old native of Surrey, B.C. never wanted to give up on the sport she had loved her whole life.
In just the last three years Eccles has played in two Women’s Baseball World Cups – the first in Japan and the most recent in South Korea last summer – and at the Pan Am Games on home soil in Ajax, Ont., for Team Canada, the young southpaw winning silver medals in the latter two tournaments.
Her success with the national team has led Eccles to the next opportunity, and one she can’t wait to embrace, playing for the Victoria HarbourCats in the West Coast League, a summer collegiate wood-bat circuit based in the Pacific Northwest. She will be the first young woman to don a uniform for any of the loop’s 11 teams.
“I never thought I could get an opportunity like this,” Eccles said. “It’s really exciting. And hopefully people will tune in and be able to see that girls also play baseball, and there will be more coverage or awareness, and then the word can spread further about girls playing baseball. I’m excited for the experience of this, and growing the game. It’s about the future.”
HarbourCats General Manager Brad Norris-Jones first went to Women’s National Team manager Andre Lachance with his idea, looking for a competitor who would bring value to the squad in Victoria, and a player who maintained college eligibility.
Eccles fit the bill perfectly. With a common goal among them of finding success and growing the game, the thought then turned into a reality.
“The ultimate goal is to create awareness that girls can play,” Lachance said. “Girls can compete at that level and have success, and girls can make their way to the top levels that are available. If we can accomplish that by showing how good our athletes are, we’re going to achieve our goal…
“We’re not about softball, we’re about baseball, and we want more opportunity for girls to play baseball at the highest possible level, that’s all we care about. That’s what we want. And we want to create that awareness among the public.”
Norris-Jones is excited about the opportunity the HarbourCats have with Eccles and is looking forward to seeing her compete firsthand, while sharing the chance to spread the word about the country’s baseball talent.
“I want Claire to succeed, not only on the field but in the community,” Norris-Jones said. “Not just in Victoria, across Canada, where all these kids and young girls can look up to Claire and think, ‘Wow, I can compete at the same level as these NCAA athletes in baseball.’ And Claire threw with me, and I know she can compete at that level.
“Of course, we have guys who come in, have one appearance and get lit. I have guys who come in and pitch well and get lit after the third appearance. It’s not impossible that this will be a challenge, and it’s not impossible that she comes in and strikes out the side. So she is absolutely no different than the kid who’s coming in from University of Arizona or Colorado Mesa.”
Undeniably, Eccles is different from the other players across the league. Before she and her parents Melodie Tomiyama and Gord Eccles could come to an agreement on the decision – Eccles’ mother and father hoping she would work through the summer months – they had questions that needed answering.
“I wanted to do it right away,” the 5-foot-8 soft-tossing lefty said. “I was a little worried about what my parents thought, and they really wanted me to work this summer. Also, they were worried that this was just a publicity stunt, having a girl play in the guys’ league. But Brad [Norris-Jones] made it clear that he wouldn’t do that to me or have me ride the bench.
“He wants to give me fair opportunity, so that’s pretty cool. I told them that it would probably be best if I didn’t play if it was all just for the media and for show, and that kind of stuff, but that’s not their intention. If I perform well, I’ll play. I don’t know if this opportunity is ever going to happen again. So my parents said this summer that I could put off working for this.”
Lachance had the same original concern for his young player as she and her parents did, and he wanted to make sure that before Eccles came to her final decision, she knew that she would have support along the way no matter what.
“I wanted to make sure that at any time if she is not comfortable any more in that environment, she can always get out of it,” the national team manager said. “That’s really important, being a female in a male world, and it’s not always easy.
“So if at any point, she feels that she isn’t comfortable in any situation, on or off the field, then we will take her out. But in discussions with the management of the team, they’re really excited about it, everyone is on board, we talked about how she’s going to be used, and we’re quite confident that they’re going to treat her with respect and like a ballplayer, one of the group, a team member.”
Not having played a lot of baseball since last year’s World Cup, and battling ankle issues earlier this year, Eccles is working her way out of softball mode and hoping to be in mid-season form by the time the team gets going at the end of the month, but she acknowledges that the young men who are continuing their collegiate seasons might be ahead of her.
“Honestly I haven’t been pitching a whole lot,” she said. “I have a little bit obviously, and that feels good. Normally I feel rusty coming back in, but because I’ve been training way more, working out more this year than I ever have, I feel a big difference in that way. Obviously after last year and the World Cup, I feel more confident in myself, so that helps a lot too.”
Over the years Lachance has worked with Eccles on the national team, he has seen a complete evolution of her as a player. He looks forward to seeing how what she has learned will play out this season in Victoria, and how much the experience will continue to help her grow.
“She’s a totally different person,” Lachance said. “The first time she played for the national team was three years ago in Japan, and I saw her the year before in Cuba and at the national championships, so her stuff was already good. She was young. When we went to Japan, she was 16, and she didn’t have the same preparation as she has now as an athlete after competing at two world championships, in the Pan Am Games.
“She has developed, and her mental preparation is better, so that’s going to help her into this adventure with the HarbourCats this summer. So it’s pretty exciting and she’s going to face good competition, which is going to make her a better pitcher down the road as well.”
The idea for Eccles is that she will come out of the bullpen for the HarbourCats, using her below-league-average fastball velocity, and her movement, to disrupt the timing of the hitters, and working with her fastball-curveball-knuckleball combo, the knuckler doubling as a changeup when it isn’t working exactly the way she wants it to.
“Obviously because I’m not going to throw as hard as some of the guys, the plan for me is to come out of the bullpen and mess up their timing,” Eccles said. “We could have a fast starter and then they could put me in. And I’ve been working more on my knuckleball too, so that might be a pitch I use more often. Right now, there are good days and bad days with it but I’m comfortable with it.”
Only slightly nervous for the season to come, the young pitcher knows she can drown out any negative voices because of the support she has already felt through the decision-making process, and she is overwhelmed with excitement at the idea of getting started.
“I’m sort of preparing myself that there will be people who obviously don’t like it,” Eccles said. “Or maybe even my teammates won’t be completely on board with it, but I mean I’m totally comfortable with that. I think I can block [any negativity] out. If I have enough support from people who I care about then it doesn’t really matter what all these other people think…I wouldn’t say I’m super nervous, but I would say that I’m more excited than anything.”
Trying not to be overenthusiastic, Eccles is fully embracing the opportunity the HarbourCats are giving her, hoping the meaning extends beyond just this summer and her appearance in the summer collegiate league.
“This is such a cool opportunity,” she said. “I just really want it to go well, so I don’t want to get super crazy hyped up, and then if something goes wrong, get bummed out. But obviously this is an awesome opportunity and I’m pretty honoured to be able to be the first female in Canada to do so. There’s a little pressure, but I think that’s normal. I just want to be able to go out there and compete with all of them.”
Lachance believes that Eccles and the HarbourCats are making strides never taken before, and is excited for the potential of the impact they can make on baseball in Canada and beyond.
“We want to continue to grow the game,” Lachance said. “We want to make sure that we remain at the same level that we are right now. It’s not a perfect environment right now, where we still hear – not only in Canada but around the world also in other countries – that girls don’t have the same possibility of playing baseball, some of them are still directed to go and play fastball.
“So we want to send that message that they deserve the chance to play baseball also, because this is what they like and what they want. We’re still fighting that battle.”