We Make Good Pitchers Great!

The baserunner steps off of first base. He just roped a leadoff single, and he’s threatening to steal. The pitcher comes to the set position, checks the runner, and fires one home. The batter pops it up to third base. He’s frustrated, not being able to move the runner along. The guys in his dugout give him some words of encouragement as he gives way to the third and fourth men up in the inning. After five pitches, they too are retired. A fly out for the first guy, a pop out for the second guy. Inning over. The pitcher trots off the mound, adjusts her ponytail from one side to the other, and calmly heads to the dugout.

The ponytail is the giveaway.

If it wasn’t for that ponytail, you might not know that a bit of history is being made in the desert right now on the baseball diamonds of the California Winter League.

For 31-year-old Katie Griffith, being the only woman to ever play in the CWL — an instructional baseball league for players hoping to catch the eye of a coach or scout so they can land an affiliated or independent pro contract — is something she’s proud of and something she’s quickly getting comfortable with.

“I think I’m having more fun than anybody out here,” she said. “And everyone, all the other guys, the coaches have been amazing to me. Better than I could have imagined. Like the other day, I had a (bad) inning, and was sort of bummed out in the locker room, but a guy from another team, came up to me and said to keep my head up and basically said, ‘Hey, you had a bad inning. It happens, but I respect what you’re doing out there.’ That kind of stuff really helps.”

The former standout softball player at the University of Georgia and current head softball coach at Harvard-Westlake High School in Los Angeles is a middle-relief pitcher on the Hit King team at the CWL.

She stands 6-foot-1, weighs 145 pounds.  She relies on her off-speed stuff with her fastball topping out at only around 80 mph. Her goal is to get it consistently around 85, but she’s not there yet. Just give her time.

Here’s the amazing part: She only picked up a baseball for the first time in October. This is not the culmination of a five-year quest, she just started her baseball journey four months ago.

The First Step

The origin story began at the National Pitching Association in Santa Ana. According to their mantra, that is the place "where good pitchers go to be great" under the tutelage of esteemed pitching coach Tom House. House was a major league pitcher and then pitching coach who famously worked with Nolan Ryan. He even more famously caught Hank Aaron’s record-breaking home run ball in the Atlanta Braves dugout, but back to Katie.

Griffith was working out at the NPA and sort of picking House’s brain, trying to see if any of his methods would be useful for her high school softball team. The more she learned about the art of pitching, and realized she could do it pretty well, she got this funny idea.

“I had been hanging around there for a long time and I knew all the material and knew the routine and I finally said, ‘You know what Tom? Somebody is going to do this, and I am showing up to the best pitching coach that probably has ever lived. I would be stupid not to try it. I’m going to do this.’”

House, who takes the craft of pitching very seriously, put her through her paces. He wasn’t going to waste his time if she wasn’t going to be able to legitimately compete.

“He’s a very caring man, but he tells it like it is,” Griffith said. “He said, ‘Well either you’ve got it or you don’t.’ He said ‘Here’s the reality. You have to throw an 85 mile-per-hour fastball. You have to have a great breaking ball and you have to be able to throw an off-speed pitch on any count. We’ll start tomorrow.’ And I was like, ‘OK!’”

After a few months of working out, and doing threshold testing to see if her body even had the ability to withstand the rigors of pitching, House became a believer. He felt comfortable making the call.

The First Contact

House has sent players from his academy to the CWL before, so he called Andrew Starke, the president and owner of the league.

Starke recalls the conversation going like this:

House: “Hey, I’ve got a player for you.”

Starke: “Great. Tell me about him.”

House: “Played at Georgia. Was an All-SEC pitcher. Velocity in the low 80s, but can get people out. But there is one thing you should know, they’ve never played in a real baseball game their entire lives.”

Starke: “You lost me. How can they be All-SEC, play at Georgia, but they’ve never played baseball before?”

House: “Well. The player’s name is Katie Griffith. She’s a female, and she was an All-SEC softball player.”

Starke said, of course, he was caught off-guard at first, but quickly became interested in the idea. His criteria for players in this league are that they have already played pro or college baseball, or have a recommendation from a credible source.

House is a credible source, so Starke sent CWL field coordinator Barry Moss over to House’s academy to see Katie and a few other guys pitch. This was Moss’ report back, according to Starke.

“She doesn’t throw the hardest. She will get outs. She will compete. She might not be the most dominant pitcher in the league, but she won’t disrespect the game. And she won’t embarrass herself or the league,” Starke said.

The final step was for Starke to call Griffith. He simply asked what her goal was and she said what he wanted to hear.

“She said her goal was to be a professional pitcher,” Starke said. “She said ‘This is not a marketing gimmick. Not a publicity stunt. This is me wanting to play baseball. I want to be just like every other player out there.’”

The First Day

Griffith arrived at Palm Springs Stadium just like the other 200-plus baseball players. She entered the gates, found the office where every player checks in, and walked through the door.

The people behind the check-in table knew she was coming. Her name was on the list, just like everyone else’s, but none of the other players or coaches did. She got the same envelope with all the same welcome-packet information, told the equipment manager her cap size, shirt size, pant size, cleat size and got in line to receive her uniform.

She kept it cool… On the exterior, at least.

“I’m not gonna lie, I was nervous that day,” Griffith said. “The first initial showing up, I was overwhelmed. Walking in to check in and get my uniform that first day. Whew. I kept thinking ‘I’m going to walk in here and none of these guys are going to be expecting a chick to walk in.’ That was a really hard moment.”

According to her, it was the last hard moment she’s experienced. Of course, that first couple days, there were stares and whispers, but she had a few friends from the NPA there, too, including main mentor Jarret Martin, who has actually played major league baseball, so that helped.

The next day, like everyone, she was assigned to a team. In her case, it was Hit King, named after Peter Rose and with caps that have the number 4256 on it, the number of hits in Rose’s career. Officially being part of a team gave her an even stronger sense of belonging.

“That helped a lot,” she said. “I felt like I had my people and it’s been great just to go to the ballpark with them every day. They’ve got my back. And that’s not to say that guys on the other teams haven’t been supportive, but the bond with your teammates is important.”

The situation was still pretty surreal. She was now officially on a baseball team, yet had never actually played in a live baseball game in her life. Before opening day, she threw what is called a simulated game and pitched to live batters, acting out the game situations that might arise.

That was huge for her. She was able to get comfortable on the mound, and feel like, if nothing else, she belonged on the same field with these guys.

“That’s when I felt better about things,” she said. “I threw my pitches, I learned a lot, like how this certain movement I was doing with my shoulders would be called a balk in a real game, and little things like that. I felt like, if nothing else I was learning and I was going to be ready.”

The First Pitch

It was Jan. 22. Hit King was playing the British Columbia Bombers. And Griffith got the call from manager Cam Roth that she was going to pitch the fifth inning.

She got prepared in the bullpen. She strode to the mound. She threw some warmup pitches. And then the time had come. The Bombers’ Thomas McGuckin stepped into the batter’s box. The catcher flashed the sign for a fastball, and Katie kicked up her leg and fired.

“It was a strike. I knew that first one had to be a strike,” Griffith said.

The inning didn’t go perfectly. McGuckin reached on an error. Remarkably, Griffith struck out the next two batters, but McGuckin stole second and third in the process. The fourth man up rapped a single to score McGuckin, though it was an unearned run and didn’t count against her ledger. She then walked the next two batters to load the bases, but wiggled out of the jam by inducing a fly ball to center field.

It was official. Katie Griffith was a baseball player. One inning pitched, one hit allowed, two walks, no earned runs and two strikeouts.

First Impressions

The season is now about two weeks old and Griffith has settled in nicely. She has definitely moved on from “Who’s that girl?” to being “Just one of the guys.”

The ease with which she was accepted in the league is a testament to two things, the maturity and professionalism of the players and coaches in the league, but also to Griffith herself.  She made a concerted effort to get out in front of any possible awkward feelings.

“I made a point of basically introducing myself to everyone I met no matter what team they were on, sort of mounted my own personal PR campaign,” she said. “Every single guy I’ve talked to has been fantastic and nice and like even now I just walked off the field and somebody from the other team pulled me aside and said, ‘I just want you to know I’m pulling for you.’ I feel really supported and I’m trying to support everyone else, too.”

Her coach said everything about the way Griffith handles herself has been impressive to him and admitted it is a situation that had the potential to go the other way if it wasn’t carried out with such grace.

“I remember we had that first day and everybody’s out there and you have one player with a ponytail. As a coach you kind of didn’t have to say much, everybody quickly got what was going on,” Roth said. “But she’s been awesome and very good with the players. She’s made a lot of friends. There’s stereotypes that can come up in these situations, but she’s killed all those and been flat out amazing. The guys have been very respectful and cordial to her as well, so I give them credit, too. And obviously it’s something you think about and even worried about. I mean, you’ve got a bunch of young men 22, 23 years old, you don’t know what’s going to happen as far as locker room talk, etc. But it’s been great.”

The other thing that helped is that she’s shown herself to be competitive on the mound. That is, once she figured out how to navigate the mound.

She said by far the trickiest part of the change from softball to baseball is not the overhand throwing motion, or the size of the ball, but the existence of the mound. Softball is played on a flat surface. It was hard for her to trust her footing.

“People usually assume the hardest thing would be throwing overhand vs. the underhand way a softball pitcher throws, but with the exception of a pitch, every other throw you make in a softball game is overhand, so that was easy to get used to,” she said. “The mound. That was tricky. I just had to keep reminding myself your foot is going to find the ground eventually when you step toward the plate. You don’t have to try to find the ground with your foot. And as you fall forward, you’re using the mound to your advantage. That was all hard to figure out.”

She said, of course, some of the nuances of baseball are different from softball, too. The balk rules. Not being obvious about tipping pitches. She said, her curveball is her favorite pitch, but it’s also the one that takes her the longest to grip. At first, unbeknownst to her, it was very obvious when she was throwing it. Now she starts out with a curveball grip and can adjust it in her glove if she needs to.

She has pitched a total of five times. Her second outing was her best, a 1-2-3 inning with a strikeout. She even earned the win that day. Through four games, she had pitched 3 2/3 innings and had yielded four hits, three walks, struck out three and given up no earned runs. Her most recent effort, her fifth outing, well, it was a disaster. She faced six batters. Gave up two hits, two walks, another reached on an error and she recorded just one out. She was pulled after 1/3 of an inning, having given up three earned runs. The first earned runs of her baseball career.

The First Ever

“I know I’m not going to throw it past anyone like I used to do in softball," she said, referring to her below-average fastball. "So I’m perfectly OK with guys getting hits, but I hate the walks. I’m pitching to get contact, not to avoid it. Just hit this and I’ll let these guys behind me do their job. I got eight professional fielders behind me. That’s great. An ideal inning for me is like 3 to 8 total pitches. I’m not trying to strike out the side or get in deep counts.” 

When people hear about Griffith, their minds can’t help but go to the new television series on Fox called “Pitch,” where a woman is pitching in the major leagues.

She said everyone always asks if the show is why she’s doing it, but it’s just coincidental. What does Griffith think about the show?

“I watched the first episode and I didn’t like it to be honest. I didn’t think her throwing motion was believable,” she said laughing. “What can I say? I didn’t. But the girls on my softball team and even some younger than that that I coach really love the show, so I started watching it, and now I have a new respect for it. And there are some things, mostly off-the-field things, that I can’t deny ring pretty true to some of the things that have happened to me.”

Griffith knows that making the major leagues is not a realistic goal, but she wants to be the first woman to make a team affiliated with a major league organization, low-A, single-A, double-A, something like that. Last summer, three women played on the same independent baseball team in Sonoma for two months. Griffith hopes to go beyond that.

Whether her ceiling is that high, remains to be seen, but she’s made believers out of many that have seen her play, like her teammate Ryan Garvey. Garvey, the Palm Desert grad and son of major leaguer Steve Garvey, has already reached the level Griffith aspires to, having been part of the Colorado Rockies organization for parts of three years.

He thinks she’s got a shot.

“She’s awesome. She’s just like one of the guys at this point,” he said. “We don’t really see her as like ‘Oh my God, there’s a woman on the team,’ you just see her as K.G. your teammate. And she goes up there pitching, it’s a beautiful thing to watch. It’s funny, you see that show ‘Pitch’ and you’re like ‘Wait a minute, I’m living something similar to that right here.’

“But if she gets it up to 80 or 85 (mph), I could see her making an affiliate or a low-A team and that would be awesome. It’s inspirational.”

Griffith said she does feel like a role model with the players on her softball team or the girls she coaches. They are rooting for her and are in a way inspired by her, but her primary focus is simply getting better at baseball.

And the California Winter League has been the perfect crash course in baseball for her. She learns from her coaches. Learns from other pitchers. Comes in early or stays late to watch the other games. She’s basically taking a month-long AP (advanced pitching) class here in the desert.

"It's crazy how much I've learned already in just two weeks with everyone helping me and giving me tips on how to throw it harder or pitch smarter. It's exactly what I was hoping it would be," Griffith said. "I'm hoping someone offers me a contract in the next couple weeks, but even if it all ends today, it's totally been worth it."

Shad Powers is a columnist for The Desert Sun. Reach him at (760) 778-4627 or shad.powers@desertsun.com. Follow him on Twitter (@shad_powers), on Instagram (@shadp40) and on Facebook.