Claire Eccles Can Strike Out Men with More Than a Knuckleball

Joon Lee@iamjoonleeStaff WriterMay 23, 2017

© Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Claire Eccles was going to work at a Greek-Italian restaurant near her home in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada.

After playing baseball for most of the summers of her life, it seemed like a good idea to make some money before heading into her third year of college. Eccles played the past two seasons for the University of British Columbia softball team, and the last four with Team Canada's women's national baseball team. This summer was going to be her break from all of that.

That was until the 19-year-old left-handed pitcher received a call in November from Brad Norris-Jones, the general manager of the Victoria HarbourCats of the West Coast League, a prestigious summer league for collegiate baseball players. The league features notable alumni such as Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles and Jacoby Ellsbury of the New York Yankees, and Norris-Jones wanted to recruit women for the HarbourCats this summer. After hearing high praise from Alexis Brudnicki, who works for the Toronto Blue Jays, about Eccles' potential to play in the West Coast League, Norris-Jones needed to speak to her.

"The minute I met Claire, I knew the personality could handle this and her demeanor was right for this type of endeavor," Norris-Jones says. "The boxes were checked for athletic ability and that she was a student athlete, but her personality double-checked the box because she is an outstanding young lady."

They talked about the uphill battle they faced, putting a woman on the mound in a highly competitive collegiate summer league, and the inevitable resistance that would come. One phone call and an in-person coffee meeting later, it was decided.

The Greek and Italian food would have to wait another summer.

"Obviously making money at work is good, but I'm young and I want to be able to play the game I love," Eccles says. "Growing up, I really wasn't aware of any girl playing baseball."

Norris-Jones set out to recruit a female baseball player to the HarbourCats in part because of his organization's "forward-thinking legacy." They were the first team in the league to have a female general manager, Holly Jones, and have hired other women for these types of roles, including current assistant general manager Brittany French.

"We forward think and that was the way I was looking at [recruiting Eccles]," Norris-Jones says. "That was one thing Claire was really strong about, giving females a chance to play baseball beyond their high school years."

Eccles says the week since the announcement has been a firestorm. Making time for friends has been a challenge, and on top of all of the media attention, she was miscategorized as a knuckleball pitcher, even though she uses her three pitches—a two-seam fastball, a curveball and a knuckler—evenly.

"My knuckleball is getting a whole lot of press when I feel honestly, when I first made Team Canada … I was picked because I could throw any of my pitches at any time," Eccles says. "That's what makes me a great pitcher is that I can throw all of my pitches. That keeps batters on their toes."

"I really like my knuckleball, but I feel like it's been blown out of proportion."

But that doesn't mean she can't love the attention she got from Atlanta Braves knuckler and former Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, who tweeted support for Eccles last week. Eccles, who was driving at the time, said she could not stop smiling when she heard about Dickey's message.

On top of tweets from major leaguers, Eccles also received a number of messages of support from young girls and parents who say her story has inspired girls around the world to follow their passion for baseball. And while she's aware there are going to be critics, Eccles just hopes her story can inspire other girls to throw around a baseball.

"When my parents [told] me that girls can't play in the major leagues, I was pretty upset about it. I thought for sure that I would be able to play baseball my whole life," Eccles remembers. "Softball is an awesome sport, don't get me wrong, but it's very different than baseball. Girls can now realize that they don't have to play softball just because it's the way it has been."

There have been women pitchers before Eccles. Mamie "Peanut" Johnson played for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro Leagues, becoming the first woman to play at a level higher than the minors. There was Jackie Mitchell, a 17-year-old who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game. There was Ila Borders, who became the first woman to start an NCAA or NAIA college baseball game while playing for Southern California College. And, most recently, there was Mo'ne Davis, who became the first girl to earn a win and pitch a shutout in Little League World Series history.

Eccles says while the performance of the then-12-year-old Davis was impressive and ultimately served as a positive for women in baseball, she hopes to see more widespread coverage of women in baseball rather than a strong focus on one player.

"It was difficult because while she was getting all of this press, there's thousands of other girls playing baseball who haven't gotten any media attention," Eccles says. "It's awesome for girls in baseball, but this also isn't anything new. We're overlooked. There are plenty of other talented girls who should be able to have the same opportunities as me. Hopefully that's something that can be achieved through the media that has been put on me."

Both Eccles and Norris-Jones admit that the entire situation has received much more widespread attention than they anticipated. When the HarbourCats set up a press conference to announce the move last week, they expected to receive some local media coverage, but one glance out into the crowd proved how wrong they were. The number of reporters and cameras overwhelmed Eccles and Norris-Jones, and none of it sank in until dinner that evening, when the general manager turned to his newest southpaw.

"This is now a really big deal," Norris-Jones said. "It's beyond just this. You ready?"

"I'm ready," Eccles said. "I'm ready for everything."

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