CHICAGO — Months ago, the Humboldt Park Gators were looking to the first week of May as their first big opportunity to prove themselves.
That’s when the all girls-baseball team would get to play their first game of their first-ever season.
But with the coronavirus pandemic gripping Chicago, that game and every other game and practice has been canceled and now there’s no telling when the girls will get to play together again.
“It sucks a lot,” said Ava Voeun, 12. “They’re not just my teammates. They’re my friends. Not being able to see them for I don’t know how long is going to be. … it’s really not fun.”
Coach Chip Mitchell, whose 11-year-old daughter Miriam plays on the team, said Little League officials suspended games until May 11 and haven’t provided an update in weeks. Mitchell said there’s almost no chance the Gators will play this summer. He said they’re holding out hope for fall ball.
“Most people understand that the summer, in terms of team play and practice, is kinda shot,” he said.
Last week, the team had its first Zoom practice, which allowed the girls to exercise together. The team also recently had a “Bad News Bears” movie night over Zoom to keep bonds strong.
Mostly, though, the girls have been stuck at home, practicing with their parents and siblings, not knowing when—or if—they’ll get to play with their teammates again.
Ava Voeun has been practicing with her dad and her brother every other day. But squeezing practices into hectic everyday life isn’t always easy.
Ava’s dad, Van Voeun, is juggling working from home and taking care of four children: Ava and her three siblings, ages 9, 3 and 1. Ava’s mom works on the front lines of the pandemic for the Center Home for Hispanic Elderly, a senior center in Humboldt Park.
“If I’m in the middle of a conference call, maybe she’ll play catch with her brother here and there. … there’s not too much space to work with,” Van Voeun said.
Ava played baseball recreationally on boys teams for a couple years before her friend, Sadie, introduced her to the Gators. She said it’s been refreshing to play on an all-girls team.
“I feel you can express yourself, you can have a relationship [with your teammates], not saying you can’t have a relationship with boys, but the bond is stronger,” she said. “You’re able to talk about things. And as we’re getting older, the boys might like a girl on the team and it’s kinda weird or something. We all feel safe together.”
The Humboldt Park Gators is the only all-girls youth baseball team gearing up to face boys in a Chicago-area league. Coach Mitchell and his wife, Alba Cárdenas, started recruiting girls for the team last spring.
The Gators captured the hearts of Chicagoans when Block Club first reported on the team in February. The team not only challenges gender norms, but is also named after Chicago’s favorite wayward alligator.
But hope and excitement has been replaced with uncertainty and disappointment in the time of coronavirus.
Ava’s teammate, 12-year-old Zadie Jackson, might never get to play with the Gators. If Zadie turns 13 before the season starts, she’ll get bumped up to the older team. Only girls who are 10-, 11- and 12-years-old are eligible to play on the Gators.
“It’s gonna be sad because then we won’t be able to see each other again. We were on a baseball team together for a couple of months,” Zadie said.
Zadie has played various sports over the years, but is new to baseball. She found out about the Gators through news coverage and joined the team within 48 hours of reading about it online.
“As soon as I saw [the news stories], I was really excited because it was literally two blocks from our house and a girls baseball team, which is everything she wanted,” Zadie’s mom, Dayna Schmidt-Johnson said.
Zadie said the Gators is a special team, partly because “no boys are judging you and thinking you can’t throw or hit a ball.”
With the pandemic, Zadie has been practicing with her mom and stepdad once a week. Zadie and her family don’t have a backyard, so they have to play catch on a patch of grass next to Humboldt Boulevard.
Like Ava, Zadie said practicing with family doesn’t compare to practicing with her teammates.
“It’s more fun to throw with people who can throw better,” she said.
Schmidt-Johnson said her daughter is “totally missing out on team bonding and having other people around who enjoy what you do.”
“I’m not a baseball player. My husband is not a baseball player. It’s harder for us to know what we’re doing, really. … We can only encourage so much because we don’t know the sport,” she said.
Things aren’t much easier for girls with “baseball families.”
Naomi Gutierrez, 11, has been playing baseball since she was five years old and she even has special weights at home that allow her to practice throwing.
“I just love it. I grew up playing baseball, watching baseball, my whole family loves baseball,” Naomi said.
But Naomi said nothing beats playing with her teammates, who have also become friends.
“I was really sad cause that was the thing I was going to be doing this summer, that was going to be my highlight of the summer,” she said.
There are also concerns the time apart will hurt the team’s chances at being competitive down the road.
“We are a newer girls team and we aren’t getting practice together. It might hard to come back and play,” Ava said. “Some of the girls, including myself, are pretty new to baseball. … it might be tricky to get us back on track to where we were in February.”
Mitchell, the coach, said he’s optimistic the team will get to take on the boys — it’s just a matter of when.
“I’m not worried about the team not happening,” he said. “No matter what, we’re going to have a first season.”
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