A crafty, lefthanded pitcher will take the mound for Team USA at this week’s Pan American Games in Ajax, Ontario. A high leg kick will propel a sturdy 5'10" frame toward home plate. The pop of the southpaw’s 82 mph fastball will meet leather some 60 feet, six inches away from its origin and stymie opposing hitters.
The pitcher's stuff speaks for itself, but there's one big difference: this pitcher is Sarah Hudek, an 18-year-old girl.
“She’s doing something different, like how Jackie Robinson came in and did what he did, she’s doing something similar for women in baseball,” says Hudek’s father John, a former Major League relief pitcher and 1994 National League All-Star with the Houston Astros. “It’s something that she is rewriting history with.”
Hudek, a Texas native, made history in February when she became the first woman to accept a baseball scholarship at Bossier Parish Community College in Louisiana. With the recent graduation of Ghazaleh Sailors, a Division III pitcher at the University of Maine-Presque, Hudek is expected to be the only female playing college baseball during the 2015-16 calendar school year. For now, however, she is the ace of USA Baseball’s Women’s National Team.
Last summer, in her first stint with Team USA, Hudek helped the American squad to the silver medal at the Women’s Baseball World Cup and was subsequently named the 2014 USA Baseball Sportswoman of the Year for her performance in the tournament. Hudek went 1-1 on the mound with a 0.53 ERA while also hitting .444 for a team that fell to Japan in the title game.
“There’s nothing like being able to represent your country with other women who share the same love for playing baseball that you have,” says Hudek, who relies on a mix of her fastball, split-finger change-up and curve.
For Hudek, who had never competed on a baseball diamond with other women before joining Team USA, the national team offers her a break from the pressures of being a female in a sport dominated by males. “Being the only girl on every other team I’ve been on, if I messed up on the field, everyone immediately went to the excuses that it was because I’m a girl,” she says. “But to be back with the women’s national team is more relaxing because there’s no elephant in the room here.”
Hudek’s father believes that the pressure his daughter experiences on the amateur level is far greater than anything he ever experienced as a professional. “The battles she goes through as a female playing with the boys are just so much more involved than what I ever went through,” says John, who retired from baseball in 1999 due to a nagging arm injury. “She has to stay mentally tough for all nine batters because opponents want to beat her even more than they would if she was a boy.”
Hudek’s mental toughness was never more apparent than last spring during a regional quarterfinal playoff matchup—a state tournament elimination game—between her George Ranch High squad and Goose Creek Memorial. Hudek was called upon to pitch in the bottom of the seventh inning with runners on second and third. With one out and the score tied at 10, Hudek recorded two quick outs against the heart of Goose Creek’s lineup to get her team out of the jam. In the eighth inning, George Ranch rallied to score two runs—one via a bases loaded walk by Hudek—to regain the lead. In the bottom of the inning, Hudek recorded three consecutive outs to earn the save and send her team to the regional semifinals.
“It was so gratifying for me as a parent to watch Sarah keep her composure in that big situation,” her father says. “That’s just one of many examples of how her mental toughness has allowed her to go as far as she has in baseball.”
Since signing with Bossier Parish in the winter and gaining national media attention, Hudek’s mental toughness has been put to the test. After reading a series of disparaging comments from an article that was written about her following the signing, Hudek’s temerity was challenged both on the bump and in her personal life. “I saw tons of posts from people who had never even seen me pitch saying sickening things,” she says. “It was hard to deal with at first, but I have learned to appreciate that pressure because I know it’s making me mentally stronger than my competition. It’s the best feeling ever when I can face people who are anti-feminist and get them out. It’s like, all right, who’s next?”
Hudek hopes to draw on the resilience she has developed through her baseball career to establish herself as a dangerous pitcher at the college level. In September, she will enter a two-year Bossier Parish program that has traditionally been a hotbed for future Division I and II products, and has also produced 30 Major League signees.
“I know I have the respect of my coach and the support from him, so I just want to play hard and do well so I can earn the respect of my teammates,” says Hudek. “I haven’t met any of them in person yet, but a couple of the guys messaged me through social media saying that they are behind me. It was a relief and made me excited to get on campus.”
Hudek believes that Bossier Parish will not only provide her with the best opportunity possible to fulfill her dream of someday pitching at the Division I level, but also establish a gateway for other young women who desire to play college baseball. “Division I is my dream,” she says. “And I’m going to go as far as I can go playing baseball and just keep proving people wrong each step of the way for myself and for other girls who want the same things I do.”