Knuck­ling down with the guys

Claire Ec­cles joins men’s base­ball team for 2017 sea­son

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - JOSHUA CLIPPERTON VAN­COU­VER —

Claire Ec­cles steps in front of the mound for a cou­ple easy tosses be­fore sig­nalling she’s ready to pitch.

The catcher pre­pares for the de­liv­ery, nei­ther re­ally know­ing where her knuck­le­ball is headed. And that’s the point. “It’s danc­ing!” the catcher blurts out af­ter snag­ging the ball that dipped sharply be­fore re­turn­ing it to Ec­cles. She flashes a quick smile and heads back to the rub­ber.

A mem­ber of both the UBC Thun­der­birds soft­ball team and the Cana­dian women’s base­ball team, that knuck­le­ball is why Ec­cles will be wear­ing an­other hat this sum­mer af­ter the Vic­to­ria Har­bourCats an­nounced that the 19-year-old from Sur­rey, B.C., has joined the club for the 2017 West Coast League sea­son.

Ec­cles will be the first fe­male to com­pete in the 11-team cir­cuit that’s home to mostly men’s univer­sity play­ers from the United States and Canada, in­clud­ing some who have been drafted by ma­jor league clubs.

She will also be the first Cana­dian woman to suit up at this level.

“We’re just go­ing to get every­one in­volved and show that in 2017 this isn’t dif­fer­ent, this isn’t weird. It’s nor­mal,” said Har­bourCats gen­eral man­ager Brad Nor­ris-Jones.

Ec­cles, who has a base­ball sub­tly tat­tooed be­hind her right ear, was in­trigued when Nor­ris-Jones first reached out. But the left-han­der, who also throws a two-seam fast­ball and a curve, wanted to make sure she would be get­ting a real shot.

Her mind im­me­di­ately went to Mo’ne Davis, the first girl to win a Lit­tle League World Se­ries game in 2014, as well as “Pitch,” the re­cently can­celled tele­vi­sion drama where a woman makes the big leagues.

“I was ob­vi­ously a lit­tle skep­ti­cal,” Ec­cles said in an in­ter­view at UBC. “You have to won­der: ‘Is this just for their own pub­lic­ity?’

“Brad said I’d get fair op­por­tu­ni­ties and it’s not just for show.”

Nor­ris-Jones got the idea of adding a fe­male player in Jan­uary, first reach­ing out to some con­tacts in the Cana­dian base­ball com­mu­nity to see if there were any vi­able op­tions. Ec­cles’ name kept pop­ping up. They ini­tially spoke on the phone be­fore meet­ing for cof­fee.

“She was game on,” said Nor­risJones. “I could tell in her voice she wasn’t in­tim­i­dated.”

Like many knuck­le­ballers, Ec­cles fell into the pitch al­most by ac­ci­dent.

“All the kids would try and throw a knuck­le­ball,” she said. “I played around with it and it even­tu­ally turned into some­thing I could use.”

Nor­ris-Jones saw four scout­ing re­ports on the five-foot-eight Ec­cles, with her un­pre­dictable pitch that moves in and out of the strike zone the main rea­son he be­lieves she can suc­ceed.

Ec­cles’ fast­ball tops out at around 76 m.p.h. — for com­par­i­son, ma­jor­lea­guers reg­u­larly throw in the 90s — but the knuck­le­ball is more about min­i­miz­ing spin than max­i­miz­ing speed. The pitch is tricky for bat­ters to read be­cause of the ball’s er­ratic move­ment.

Ec­cles’ jour­ney from the Lit­tle League di­a­monds of Metro Van­cou­ver to the West Coast League, which has clubs in B.C., Ore­gon and Wash­ing­ton, started when she was five. She first fell in love with the sport not on the field or in the back­yard play­ing catch, but in­stead af­ter re­ceiv­ing a base­ball video game as a gift.

“(My par­ents) put me in T-ball,” re­called Ec­cles, who pa­trols the out­field, not the mound, for UBC. “It just started from there.”

Ec­cles played on boys’ teams un­til Grade 8 when her par­ents made her switch to soft­ball.

But she then learned about the women’s pro­vin­cial base­ball pro­gram, which set her on a course to even­tu­ally earn a spot with the na­tional squad at 16. She’s pitched at the last two Women’s Base­ball World Cups for Canada, as well as the 2015 Pan Am Games.

Play­ing for the Har­bourCats wasn’t what she ended up set­ting her sights on, but now that the op­por­tu­nity is here she plans on mak­ing the most of it on the field and as a role model.

“I want to get it out there that girls can play base­ball,” said Ec­cles.

DARRYL DYCK, THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

The Vic­to­ria Har­bourCats an­nounced that Claire Ec­cles will join the club for the 2017 West Coast League sea­son.

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