Playing hardball in Florida with Lil Papi and the other stars of Red Sox Nation’s one-of-a-kind women’s fantasy camp
The sun is overhead, so bright it’s easy to lose a baseball popped high into the sky. It’s January, but Florida January, which means I’m comfortable in just a long-sleeved T-shirt. The smell of grass and dirt is inescapable.
There are approximately two dozen people scattered around the green outfield and orange-red infield. The air is filled with the unmistakable crack of a wooden bat making contact with a cowhide-covered ball, and then, a voice yelling, “I got it!”
Everyone but me is wearing red, white, or navy blue. Some have eye black smeared on their cheeks. Most wear the words “Red Sox” across their chests, their last name and a number on their backs. At JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Florida, where the team’s spring training is set to begin in a little over a month, it looks like some players have gotten an early jump on their season. A mini version of the famed Fenway Park Green Monster looms in left field at the ballpark known to players and fans as “Fenway South.”
But the people in the jerseys aren’t Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts, or David Price. They can’t possibly be Red Sox players, because they are all women.
I have come to Red Sox Women’s Fantasy Camp to watch women live out their dreams in a major league baseball park, but even after months of planning and anticipation, it takes a moment for my brain to comprehend what I am seeing. It’s something I never thought possible — a squad of women getting down and dirty and playing hardball in Red Sox unis. Fantasy or not, the double play turned on the field sure looks real to me.
Approximately 100,000 girls play youth baseball. That number dwindles to less than 1,000 by the time they reach high school.
Take Mo’ne Davis. After making headlines at 13, when she became the first girl to pitch a shutout in the Little League World Series, she played for her high school’s junior varsity baseball team as a freshman. By her sophomore year, she had joined the softball team despite not having played the game since sixth grade.
Many girls, however, choose not to make the transition at all, either because the rules and mechanics are different and they don’t want to adjust or because they see softball as a consolation prize.
Those who continue to play baseball are up against a lot. They are the only girl, the exception, perpetually proving themselves. Some of the women describe the experience as a “lonely” one — not being able to be in the locker room with the rest of the team, being left out of bonding experiences. Camper Toby Whitney tells me about having to wait to shower back at the hotel, which denies her access to the laundry services that the rest of the players receive in the clubhouse, or sitting alone while all the male campers shower and entering the locker room only after they’ve all left, which could take hours.
Most boys will never be major league baseball players. Up until now, though, no woman has ever been one. For men, it’s a long shot. For women, it’s a fantasy, something reinforced by the very name of the camp — a name that can seem both inspiring and insulting at once.
Women’s Fantasy Camp is a four-day, immersive experience at the Red Sox spring training facility. It can be overwhelming: There are 53 players, 13 coaches, four teams, and four days to take it all in. Campers have access to the team’s locker rooms and the clubhouse, the whirlpool, and the Red Sox trainers. They receive personalized home and away jerseys, and they train with an assortment of experienced coaches and former professional players, including Trot Nixon, the scrappy, beloved outfielder who helped break the curse with a World Series win in 2004.
Among the women who have come to play ball are several former collegiate softball players, a member of the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, and two members of the Connecticut Hall of Fame.
There are also women who have never worn a glove in their lives. I’m somewhat surprised to find out that the average camper age is 47.
“I didn’t know I could play,” Sue Presby says. A 59-year-old in her third year of camp, she has attended every year it has existed. She’s one of the most enthusiastic campers, along with Amy Modglin, her best friend. Modglin is known for dancing up on anyone passing by her and heckling the pros every chance she gets. The two met in 2008 at a Red Sox destination weekend at Fenway (trips hosted by the club where fans can meet each other and sometimes rub elbows with players) when they were randomly seated next to each other at the Red Sox-Orioles game. “Our husbands couldn’t have cared less, but in Amy I found a soulmate,” Presby says. She still has the ticket stub from the game. The two bonded quickly over their shared love of Boston baseball. This year, she and Modglin are the two “ambassadors” — camp veterans who are there to guide the rookies and make sure they feel welcomed. There is a maternal presence, particularly from Presby. She knows everyone’s name and is constantly checking in on the other women to make sure they’re OK — are they eating enough? Drinking enough water? Having fun? Feeling rested?
A retired lawyer from New Hampshire who now owns the Cog Railway with her husband, Presby had never played baseball before when she started her fantasy camp journey. “I’m angry about all the history I was never taught, all the opportunities I didn’t have growing up,” she says. This is a feeling I understand. As a baseball writer, I feel almost embarrassed to tell people that I’ve never actually played the game. I grew up watching it with my dad, who played minor league baseball, but I never saw myself on the field. It’s why I write about it, because I never thought I could play it. As Presby talks about wishing she had played baseball as a girl, I’m right there with her.
This women’s camp is a shorter version of the week-long camp the Red Sox have been running for over 30 years that attracts primarily men. Camp director Tom Kennedy estimates that at the week-long camp, five or six of the over 100 campers are women. The Sox retreat for women is inspired by one in Tampa hosted by the Yankees, the only other major league team that offers such a fantasy camp. The Boston version is different, though, as the club has expanded its camp to include as many women as possible, from the players they bring in, to the coaches, to the all-woman umpire staff.
“The Yankees may have started the first women’s fantasy camps,” says Kennedy, a tall man in hipster glasses who makes himself readily available to the campers. “But we believe our Red Sox camp experience is second to none.”
Everything is a potential bonding experience at fantasy camp, beginning with the optional practice on Wednesday afternoon. The women quickly bestow nicknames on each other — Alexa Hopkins is “Lil Papi” because she sports David Ortiz’s number, 34, on her back; Michelle Lagares is “Chica,” a nod to her Dominican heritage. It is these names, not the ones on their uniforms, that are yelled from the dugout when they are up at bat. When someone swings and misses, campers yell, “Nice cut!” When a ball is bobbled on a play, it’s a “great effort!”
“When I got my first hit, you would’ve thought it was a grand slam based on how my team reacted,” says Caroline Peters, a senior at Macalester College in St. Louis, Minnesota, halfway across the country from her family in Weston, Mass. “The same happened to my mom; she caught two pop flies during practice and everyone went crazy.”
Peters arrived at camp with no idea what to expect. The bubbly 22-year-old with big eyes and a brown bob hadn’t played softball since middle school. She decided to come for a bonding experience of her own.
“I read through the information that my mom sent me and couldn’t believe it because it sounded so amazing,” Peters tells me at an evening social event on the main field at JetBlue Park. She’s tired from a full day of playing, like everyone else. “My mom was really excited about it; if it weren’t for her I wouldn’t have signed up.”
A first baseman makes a great play to get the out, and the runner arrives at the bag and high-fives her, despite being called out herself. Modglin, who came into camp three years ago with zero baseball experience, cleanly fields a ground ball to third and throws home to successfully get the force out. She celebrates, as does the runner who was tagged out at the plate.
The last arrival to camp, getting to the hotel just before the welcome banquet on the first night, is Andrea Costa. The 51-year-old has a day job that involves working for a company in the midwest where she is responsible for designing corrugated boxes for companies like Papa John’s, Pampers, and Hershey’s.
Costa’s also no stranger to the ballfield, and in addition to holding an evening job as a hitting instructor, the hard-playing infielder played Division III softball at Eastern Connecticut State University, where her team won national championships in 1985 and 1986. “Not that I’m bragging,” she jokes. Costa is in the ECSU Hall of Fame, something she didn’t offer up herself. For all her affected bravado, she doesn’t brag nearly as much as she could — or perhaps should.
I mingle with the campers during the open bar portion of that first evening, Presby taking me by my elbow and making sure I’ve met everyone. Some of the women know about me; we’ve spoken over email prior to camp. Others are sizing me up. “Do you like baseball?” Derreth Adams asks me. You can cut her Mass accent with a knife, and she is wearing rubber duckie earrings. I tell her I’m a baseball writer. “Yeah, but do you like baseball?” The postal worker from Westborough is looking at me over the top of her glasses frames, trying to see if I belong there or I’m just some journalist sent there to write a women’s interest piece. I assure her that I do and crack an infield fly rule joke; she doesn’t seem convinced.
The welcome banquet, held in a hotel ballroom with stackable chairs, is important because it’s where campers will find out which team they’re on. There are four teams, and the coaches have drafted their players prior to the event. I’m told that the drafting process takes into account a player’s age and experience so teams are relatively evenly matched. Family members and friends who came to camp together are also kept together so they can play on the same team.
The coaches walk to the podium, two by two, and read out their team rosters. When it’s Nixon’s turn, he saunters slowly up the stairs. He’s slightly pigeon-toed, and he carries a potbelly that was absent in his playing days. He mumbles off the players who will be the Comets, including Peters and Costa, looking like he’s more comfortable playing baseball in front of a crowd than speaking in front of one. This is Costa’s second year at camp, and her experience as a coach and player makes her something of a leader among the group.
The Comets say they feel like they have a lot to prove, as they’re almost all camp rookies. There are only four veterans anchoring the 10-rookie roster. As a coach, Costa describes Nixon as “upfront and honest.” His players refer to him as “Jimmy Dugan,” a reference to Tom Hanks’ character in A League of Their Own.
As camp gets into full swing on Thursday, the days become a blur of throws and catches, hits, and outs. This is a grueling schedule, particularly for people who don’t train regularly — over the next three days, campers will play six mostly coach-pitched games on top of training and running drills.
The coaching staff is accessible, encouraging. Despite the fact that they are players many of these women grew up watching on TV, there’s no barrier between coaches and campers. The pros make themselves available, sharing stories, asking questions, and forming relationships.
Dave “Smitty” Smith, who was formerly an instructor with the independent Worcester Tornadoes, is invested in helping the women improve not just during camp, but year-round as well. He holds practices at batting cages in Worcester in the months leading up to camp. The kind of genuine care and connection that many of the coaches build with the players means a lot to the women. “The Red Sox make all of us feel like we are part of their family and are important,” says Costa.
Smith says the improvement is evident in the women who have worked out with him. “They’re taking better swings, making better contact.”
One of those women is Annette Headley. I first spotted Headley at the welcome banquet. She stood out in her skinny black pants, heels, and black leather jacket covered in flower appliques — nearly identical to the jacket I was wearing. Headley is another camp veteran, attending with her daughter for the third year. While her daughter Katie is one of the better players on the field, Headley didn’t have any baseball experience before her first year at camp.
“I’m not athletic,” Headley tells me the morning after the banquet. We’re in the batting cages, and she has her navy blue helmet on. Her blowout’s been replaced by braided pigtails that make her look younger than her 56 years. She steps up and takes her stance. Headley swings the bat, reaching a bit for the ball, but manages to make solid contact nonetheless. When she finishes her turn, she ducks under the netting to stand next to me again.
“You should give yourself more credit,” I tell her.
Presby explains why Headley — and many of the other women — underestimate themselves. “I think that’s because women generally don’t play competitive baseball,” she says. “So when we get here, it’s in our head, ‘We’re not athletic.’ Or even, we have trouble taking compliments without brushing them off.”
Later, during a game, Headley successfully fields and hustles a ball back in from the outfield, holding the runner to a single.
As camp progresses, the players are finding the cadence of the game — running on contact with two outs, jogging back to the base in synchronized fashion on a foul ball. They’re beginning to look choreographed. It took some time, but the women find their groove, shake off the rust, and feel their teams begin to gel. With each game, the level of play goes up.
With her team down by a run late on day three, camper Jacqui Reynolds steps up to the plate for coach Lenny DiNardo’s Blue Sox. He throws her a pitch and she takes it, waiting for just the right one. And then she gets the pitch she’s been waiting for. The 23-year-old shortstop squares up and swings, sending the ball over the heads of the Comets outfielders. Her teammate comes around to score as the ball rolls to the fence. Reynolds, who has good speed and baserunning instincts, sprints around the bases. “Go, go, go!” her teammates yell, and I find myself screaming and standing along with them. Reynolds slides safely into home, ending the game with a walk-off inside-the-park homerun.
These ball players layout and leap for catches, the full weight of their bodies hitting the ground. They slide into bases, risking twists, sprains, or breaks. They must go from standing still to a dead sprint in a split second out of the batter’s box. This reality takes a toll on the campers, who play as if they’re gunning for a World Series win. The clubhouse is filled with women with ice taped to their knees or to their shoulders; one broke her wrist backpedaling for a pop fly during a drill on day one of camp and never got to play a single out.
DiNardo’s coaching style shines through in the batting cages as he offers tips and adjustments to the hitters. The left-handed former relief pitcher and current NESN analyst demonstrates where a batter should be seeing a pitch if it’s thrown inside, down the middle, or outside by laying balls down on the practice plate. His advice to his team before their games is simple: “See ball, hit ball.” When a camper makes solid contact in the cage and rips what would be a line drive out on the field, he jumps out of the way in an exaggerated motion and yells, “I’m scared of you!” The ball pingpongs off the nets behind him.
It’s DiNardo’s first time coaching the women’s camp, having done the week-long camp for four years. He says it doesn’t feel much different. “There’s something about the uniform. Put it on a guy or put it on a girl and the grit comes out.”
Coach Alan Embree, however, says there’s a difference between the two camps, citing better attitude and smaller egos among the women. Embree, a former Red Sox relief pitcher, has a coaching style that differs from DiNardo’s, too. He doesn’t offer adjustments or tips that are as helpful as the other coaches do, instead preferring to joke around with the women — sometimes at their expense.
His style is what I’d describe as “overly familiar.” The former Red Sox reliever uses pet names for the women like “beautiful,” “dear,” and “hon.” (I introduce myself to him as Britni and he replies, “Hello, Britni, dear.”). He’s handsy with the players: an unnecessary brush of a waist, surprise shoulder massages. Embree tells me he’d take the women’s camp over the predominantly male week-long camp any day. “I came in the first year with a lot of preconceived notions, and those were blown out of the water,” he says, now in his third year of coaching the camp.
His dynamic with the women is a bit jarring to watch, but the Red Sox have an anonymous feedback system for campers to use if they have any concerns. “We take our camper feedback very seriously, and we use it to shape future coaching rosters,” says Kennedy.
What is most significant about this camp is not the fact the campers get to rub elbows with former Red Sox players. The Red Sox have gone further than that: There is an all-female umpire crew, and they’ve brought in some of the most famous women to ever play the game to join the coaching staff. They are the names that come up when you Google “women in baseball,” living proof that women can — and do — play the game. It is this detail that really makes the camp different from the Yankees version, the difference of a camp that feels like it’s for women versus by women.
Watching Ila Borders pitch is a revelation. The 43-year-old is slight in stature and her dark, wavy ponytail hangs down her back. Her hands, which have been shaped by a lifetime of holding and manipulating baseballs to her whim, are prominent. When Borders throws a ball, the effort she puts into each pitch becomes visible, the veins on her muscular forearms straining against her skin. It’s Borders’ first year coaching at fantasy camp. I first get to talk to her in the batting cages as she’s packing up after pitching to the women. “This is awesome,” she says, somewhat breathless.
Borders was the first woman to receive a collegiate baseball scholarship, pitching for Southern California College. But it wasn’t easy for her. When she shares her experience being the only girl on her college baseball team, she also tells the stories of being called names she doesn’t feel comfortable repeating, of not being allowed to bat after a while because she got intentionally drilled every time she stepped up to the plate, of five of her teammates jumping her in the outfield and trying to assault her.
But that didn’t stop her. She went on to pitch for the independent St. Paul Saints and the Duluth-Superior Dukes, becoming the first woman signed to a men’s professional baseball team since the Negro League. While there, she became the first woman to ever get a win in a men’s professional game. She retired from the game and became a firefighter. She wrote a memoir called Making My Pitch. And now, she’s at women’s fantasy camp, looking every bit as awed and excited as the campers themselves.
Joining Borders is Marti Sementelli, a Newton, Mass, native who plays regularly for Team USA in international baseball tournaments. At 15, she was the youngest member of the US Women’s World Cup Baseball Team. She’s a fantasy camp veteran, returning for her third year as a coach. The 25-year-old pitcher connects with the younger campers, feeling more like a friend than a coach.
Rounding out the coaching staff are camp VIPs. Three members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League — Maybelle Blair, Shirley Burkovich, and Mary Moore — have traveled across the country to join the campers. The women’s professional baseball league existed from 1943–1954. It was created during World War II, when most of the male ball players went off to war. The league was made famous by the movie A League of Their Own.
Blair, the former pitcher, is perhaps the best-known of the bunch thanks to Madonna’s portrayal of “All the Way Mae” in the film. She is short and slightly hunched, and she walks with a cane fashioned to look like a baseball bat and signed by the cast members of A League of Their Own. The nonagenarian is having the time of her life, telling stories from her playing days. She plays catch with Borders, challenging her to throw the ball “harder! I said harder!”
By contrast, Burkovich only talks when she feels she has something worth saying. “The first year of camp, I got so overwhelmed,” she says. “There were times I didn’t think I would live to see an all-girls baseball team again.” We’re sitting in the clubhouse dining room as we talk, and she looks around at the room filled with women in dirt-stained uniforms. We fall quiet as the room buzzes around us; she doesn’t have to say anything else. We both know all the history she’s made, the years she’s waited to see other women have the chance she was given, the playing days she’s described as the happiest of her life. And now, she’s here.
The AAGPBL players are the true stars of camp. The campers cherish the conversations they get to have with these women, some of the few who are still living. Camper Betsey Alverson, a middle-aged woman with freckles that look like the result of a lifetime spent in the sun, hands me a baseball card with a black-and-white image of a smiling woman in a baseball cap. “That’s my mom,” Alverson tells me proudly. Her name was Noella Leduc, a pitcher and outfielder who played on four different AAGPBL teams. “A durable ball player who once pitched 14 innings of a game in 1952 and won! ‘Pinky’ was also the winning pitcher of the 1954 All-Star game,” the back of the card reads.
Alverson hands a card to each one of the coaches.
It’s in the semifinal game on the last day of camp that college student Peters, affectionately nicknamed “Peanut” by her Comets teammates, “becomes a ballplayer,” says Costa. On day one, Peters couldn’t hit the ball past the pitcher’s mound and struggled to catch fly balls. By the semifinals on day four, “I watched her play defense and swing the bat with confidence. She made contact and hit a ball over the third baseman’s head for her first true hit,” says Costa. “Just watching her face, seeing how happy she was, brought tears to my eyes. I jumped up, screamed, and yelled for her.”
The batter’s box isn’t the only place where Peters found her groove. Nixon suggested she play catcher, a position she didn’t have much experience with. She gamely put on the gear and took her place behind home plate. The girl with the permanent smile maintained her enthusiasm while she took balls off her toes, off her face mask, as she chased down passed balls. By the end of the week, Peters is an anchor for her team behind the plate.
Peters’ two hits and Costa’s two hits help lead the team to victory in the semifinals — and the championship game. Nixon describes his team as “being in a coma” for the first innings of their games, and they’re dubbed the “Comeback Comets” as their bats come alive late in the games — like when they played the Belles and rallied to score four runs in the top of the seventh inning for a come-from-behind win. Nixon’s affect is generally flat but, as the team continues to perform well, his competitive edge begins to come out. Whereas he was yelling at the women to “take it easy” on pop-ups in foul territory early in camp, he’s telling them to “go hard!” by day four.
“He breaks things down for those that don’t know the little things of the game,” says Costa, of Nixon’s coaching style. “He takes the time to listen to his players and give them good advice. He knows how to make it fun but yet keep the killer instinct in his tone. For those of us that were more advanced players, he spoke to us like ball players.” She pauses. “He didn’t hold back — I love that.”
At the main field at JetBlue Park, about 100 fans file in for the championship game, a mix of other campers, family members, and people who are arriving for the week-long camp that begins the next day. I’m in the stands between the home dugout and home plate on the third base line. Next to me is Ila Borders. From behind me, I hear someone shout, “Hey, Ila! You coming back next year?” Borders smiles and yells back, “You kidding? Heck yeah!”
On the field, everyone stands for the anthem. After it’s over, the Comets huddle together and sing “O Canada” for their Canadian teammate. They have the loudest cheering section thanks to several incredibly enthusiastic husbands in the stands who have been screaming, yelling, high-fiving each other, and generally making a scene from the bleachers all week. It’s a close game, a pitchers duel, if that’s what you’d call a low-scoring, coach-pitched game at a fantasy camp.
Costa is on first base when her teammate hits a ball up the middle. On her way to second, she sees the defense bobble the ball. At that moment, she tells me later, all she could think was, “Make something happen. Force them to throw you out at third.” Costa runs at the third baseman, who is just off the bag, and then cuts back toward the base, sliding in safe.
Nixon stands by third base cheering her on. The coach asks, “Did you try to get in the way of the throw?” Costa answers in the affirmative, and his response is what Costa calls “every player’s dream to hear”: “Hell, yeah! I love that shit!” Nixon then high-fives his player and turns to his next batter in the box.
The game is scoreless until the fifth inning, when the Comets score the only two runs of the game. As the team rushes onto the field to celebrate with a champagne shower at the mound, “We Are the Champions” blares over the stereo system. For the players, it’s a win that feels validating. “Since many of us were rookies, we wanted to prove that we were capable of winning,” says Peters. “We didn’t rely heavily on any particular individual but had a nice distribution of talent, which made winning feel like a true team achievement.”
I realize that I’m crying as I watch these women celebrate, living out a dream that many of them have held since they were just little girls. Nixon sprays them with champagne, just like he did to his Red Sox teammates during playoff and World Series wins. For a moment, the women get a small taste of what it feels like to celebrate a championship in the middle of a major league baseball diamond.
“I have been lucky to have been involved in many world championships playing ball,” says Costa, who finished camp with a .583 batting average. “But this one was special. Yes, winning the hardware [fantasy camp ring] is great, but to be able to watch women that never got the chance to win something like this was priceless. For all my teammates who never won a championship, this one was for them.”
At the closing banquet afterward, Joe Castiglione, the longtime radio voice of the Red Sox, gives out awards to the players. It’s strange to hear his voice coming out of an actual human being instead of floating out of my radio speakers. Headley wins the “Most Improved” award and tears up as she receives the statue. Her hard work, both at camp and during the year between, has paid off.
For Headley, like everyone else I’ve been lucky enough to get to know over the course of the week, her camp experience has been incredibly impactful. “I was very much out of my comfort zone, having never swung a bat or thrown a baseball in my life,” she says. “The experience was life-changing for me as I realized how capable I was, and if I can play baseball, I can do anything.”
I’m sporting the leather jacket I wore to the welcome banquet, but this time I’m not a stranger to the women. I’m a kindred spirit who has been along for the ride all week. Adams, who was skeptical of my credentials when we first met, asks me to explain my T-shirt, which says, “Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter on LSD,” a reference to a 1970 Pittsburgh Pirates game. I do, and she nods her head approvingly. “You know your shit.”
As we file out of the outdoor banquet space, signaling the official end of camp, Adams says, “So, I’ll see you next year, right? It’s your turn to play.”