When opposing coaches see Naomi Ryan playing baseball, they often ask her mother, Cornelia, why she's not playing softball.
Then the game starts, and they get their answer.
“Now our response is, ‘Why would she play softball? Is she not good enough to play baseball or is she striking too many boys out?’” Cornelia said.
For one weekend, though, Naomi was in good company.
In 2017, Major League Baseball and USA Baseball launched the Trailblazer Series, a baseball camp exclusively for young girls, held at MLB’s Compton Youth Academy in California and centered around Jackie Robinson Day.
Two Virginia girls, Richmond’s Naomi Ryan and Charlottesville’s Maggie Heaphy, attended the 2019 Trailblazer Series in April. Both described the weekend as a cherished experience, an opportunity to pursue their dreams and to connect with other girls who love the sport.
“Something that motivates me is that I can inspire other girls and go far in the sport, knowing that if I put the hard work in, maybe I can make it to the Major Leagues,” Naomi said.
Naomi’s mother said many girls at the camp, including her daughter, dream of wearing the number 43 in the Major Leagues. In Fox’s baseball drama "Pitch," Ginny Baker, the first woman to break MLB’s gender barrier, wore 43. Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier, wore 42.
Although the show was not based on a true story, the concept of a woman playing professional baseball has begun to proliferate the sport.
“Everyone wants to be 43. They want to be that one that will be able to say, baseball is a little different [from other sports],” Cornelia said.
Naomi, 11, currently plays travel ball at Tuckahoe Sports and Cal Ripken League in Glen Allen. She throws left-handed, is primarily a pitcher, and is a switch-hitter. Maggie, 12, plays with the D.C. Force, an all-girls travel team. She’s a middle infielder and pitcher.
“Maggie’s no mascot, this wouldn’t work if she was there as a token or if it was just a cute thing that a girl plays,” said Maggie’s father, Tim Heaphy. “She has to be better than the boys to earn her spot and she is because she works so hard at it.”
Naomi’s older brother, Gregory Ryan Jr., played at Benedictine. He is currently a freshman infielder at the University of Pittsburgh. The Ryan family said Naomi’s love for the game was born from her growing up watching her brother.
“When I saw my brother play, I was like, ‘Oooh, I can do that, too,’” Naomi said. “So I decided to devote a lot of time to it.”
Naomi is a Yankees fan and Maggie supports the Red Sox, but their fandom wasn’t a source of contention for the girls. Both said they were excited to meet another Virginian at an international camp including participants from all corners of the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico, among other nationalities.
Coincidentally, Naomi and Maggie were scheduled to be in the same tournament with their travel teams in Richmond that weekend. Instead, they crossed paths across the country.
“I didn’t know that she was going, that was really cool [to meet Naomi],” Maggie said.
Meeting one another, as well as female players from myriad backgrounds, gave both Naomi and Maggie confidence knowing that so many other girls share their dreams and love for the sport.
Members of the United States women’s national baseball team attended the camp to help coach the girls. Maggie said interacting with adult women who play the game at a national level was one of her favorite parts of the experience.
“It was cool, they were telling us how we can go to the Major Leagues and how girls can do what boys can do,” Naomi said.
Naomi’s father, Gregory, said even though Naomi gets upset with him when his batting practice is a little off, he has always encouraged his daughter to pursue her dreams. He said the Trailblazer Series and cultural shift surrounding female baseball players has been “a long time coming.”
“That’s always been her dream to play [Major League Baseball],” Gregory said. “I told her the time would come, and you can see the shift now about how more attention has been drawn to females to play baseball. So I just told her to keep working at it, and the time will come.”
Benedictine coach Sean Ryan, who is not related to the Ryan family, was Gregory Jr.’s coach for three years at the varsity level. He has seen Naomi excel at the game from a young age. She and her father would play catch or hit on the soccer field before Gregory Jr.’s games.
“The reality is that she is a really good baseball player and I’m thrilled that she’s getting recognized to take part in events like the one she just went to,” Sean Ryan said.
Additionally, Coach Ryan said inclusivity in youth athletics is key for the development of young men and women, so he loves to hear about programs like the Trailblazer Series.
“We all need to remember the benefits that playing sports can provide boys and girls growing up,” he said. “And it’s exciting when someone as talented as Naomi can play at the level that she can play at, whether it’s all boys or all girls on the field, it really doesn’t matter.”
Tim Heaphy, a lifelong fan of the game, echoed coach Ryan’s sentiment, saying his experience at the Trailblazer Series made him love baseball even more. The experience helped teach Maggie she can do anything she wants to in life, so long as she works hard at it.
“She is judged on merits as a baseball player, not on her gender,” Heaphy said. “She has learned that hard work pays off and you can compete in anything, academically, athletically, whatever it is, if you just work hard enough.”
One of Maggie’s takeaways from the weekend was at the center of the Ryan family’s experience as well. Both parties said, at the Trailblazer series, Naomi and Maggie weren’t any different from everyone else on the diamond. They were just ballplayers.
“This experience has really helped me so much. Every time I get on the field in Charlottesville I’m the girl who plays baseball,” Maggie said.
“There, I’m just the teammate. I’m the second baseman. That’s just who I am, and that’s special.”