PARIS (AP) — Simply by playing ball, Melissa Mayeux is busting through barriers.
Becoming the first ever woman on Major League Baseball’s international registration list, making her eligible to be signed by pro teams, is just the latest trail blazed by the 16-year-old shortstop from France. Previously, she successfully got a “no-girls-allowed” rule abolished so she could keep playing baseball with French boys.
Even on a scratchy Skype call from the pitching and hitting clinic in Germany where she’s working on her swing this week with two-time All-Star Steve Finley, Mayeux’s drive shines through.
A baseball pioneer from the land of Tour de France cycling and the 1998 World Cup champions: Who’d have thought it? France saw its first baseball game played in the shadow of the-then unfinished Eiffel Tower in 1889 but never grew into a hotbed for the sport.
Mayeux’s baseball ambitions started out simple enough: Her older brother, Dylan, played and “I just wanted to do everything the same.”
“I followed him everywhere. We’re very close, so we did everything together. He started baseball at age 5. I was 3. When he went to training, I always wanted to go with him, to play, to run. So I started training at age 3 and played my first championship at 5,” she said in the Associated Press interview.
Mayeux plays for the French junior national team in baseball and the national softball team — with other women — at a senior level.
In all her youth teams, Mayeux was always the only girl who stuck with baseball. But a French federation rule barred girls from continuing to play with boys beyond age 15.
She says people would remind her and her parents that she’d have to switch to softball. Their reasoning, she said with an audible snort, was that girls have slower reflexes than boys and so she would be at greater risk of injury as pitchers threw increasingly fast with age.
“It’s blah-blah,” she said. “Just excuses to keep girls out of baseball.”
“I wouldn’t listen. It just made me more determined to continue, to change things,” she recalled. “I always wanted to keep on playing because I knew it was the sport for me and because being a girl was no justification for me to stop. I couldn’t understand that.”
Neither could Didier Seminet, who took over as president of the French federation in 2010. Mayeux credits him for strongly backing her efforts — “I wrote letters. My parents helped me a lot,” she said — to rescind the rule. That finally — only — happened last year and would have taken longer if not for Mayeux, Seminet acknowledged.
“It takes generations to change generations,” he said. “What I really like about this story is how she is thumbing her nose at the boys. You ask: ‘Why this didn’t happen 10 years ago?’ Because ours is a chauvinist society.”
Every day brings fresh examples of that in sports: At the Women’s World Cup in Canada, played on artificial turf that would never be inflicted on the men’s tournament, or in lack of discussion about why there is zero chance of Sepp Blatter’s successor at FIFA being a woman. Inequality in sports remains so normalized that it is often overlooked until athletes like Mayeux remind people of the obstacles women still face.
Where will Mayeux’s spirit of adventure carry her? Not even she knows for sure. She hopes to catch team scouts’ eyes at an elite MLB European camp in August where she’ll work with Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin. She dreams, of course, of becoming MLB’s first female player but also knows there are more barriers to overcome.
“I think there are people who oppose the idea of a girl being signed as a pro one day,” she said. “But they’ve never seen me play, they don’t know me. I hope I can change their mind.”
“All I want is to play at the highest level I can, have fun, and just keep going forward.”
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester