- Previously a Staff Writer at Bleacher Report
Cornell University graduate
FOR MONTHS, BROWN University head baseball coach Grant Achilles was asked when Olivia Pichardo might take the field and become the first woman to play in Division I. National media attended every game hoping to catch a glimpse of history — an unusual amount of attention for a baseball team typically covered by the student newspaper.
Pichardo, an outfielder and a pitcher who has played baseball since she was 5, had shined on stages from Little League to PONY baseball to MLB’s Trailblazer Series and all the way to a stint with the USA Baseball Women’s National Team in 2022. But when it was announced that she had made the Brown Bears as a walk-on, interest had perhaps never been higher.
On March 18, Pichardo pinch hit in the bottom of the ninth inning of a 10-1 Brown loss to the Bryant University Bulldogs in Providence, Rhode Island. On a first-pitch fastball from Bryant righty M.T. Morrissey, Pichardo grounded out sharply to first base. The at-bat would be her only appearance of her freshman season. The moment was indeed historic, but the lone at-bat also fueled Pichardo’s critics, who questioned whether her addition to the team amounted to a publicity stunt.
“The challenge was being able to stay focused and stay true with some of the outside noise and distractions and stay supportive of each other throughout,” Achilles said he told Pichardo and her teammates before Pichardo’s appearance. “Just because somebody has access to a keyboard or a social media account doesn’t mean that they’re somebody you should listen to.”
Pichardo has been drowning out critics just like those for her entire life: “Random chirps from parents or players in the stands or things that I’ve been told that people have said about me,” she said in an interview before the season. “It just bounces off of me — which is not an invitation for anyone to test.”
For most 18-year-olds, an Ivy League course load would be overwhelming enough. Add to that the growing pains that come with adjusting to Division I baseball. And to top it all off, Pichardo faces increased scrutiny due to her unprecedented success as a woman breaking barriers. All of this while trying to improve on the baseball field and earn more playing time next season.
“I feel like I’ve already had my midlife crisis through baseball,” Pichardo said. “It’s not a game like basketball where you can make up for a mistake by scoring another basket. You need to wait your turn for a chance to redeem yourself, keep a short-term memory, move past things and try not to let it be in the back of your mind.”
FOR AS LONG as the Pichardos can remember, the most frequent question about Olivia on the diamond was never about her love for the sport, her ambitions on the field or her favorite players.
When are you going to switch to softball?
When Max Pichardo started Olivia out on the Elmjack baseball fields by LaGuardia Airport in Astoria, Queens, softball wasn’t a thought in his mind. Max grew up in the Dominican Republic, and for him, baseball was everything. With his wife, Monita, who is Chinese American, working as a recruiter for the finance and insurance corporation AIG, Max focused his time as a full-time stay-at-home dad, raising Olivia and her sister, Nirvana. They gravitated toward playing with Batman and Superman action figures over Barbie dolls.
As a kid, Olivia often picked up the family’s Spider-Man baseball bat over other toys. That’s part of what led Max to sign up Olivia for Little League. During the summers, they often skipped lunch to keep playing, practicing everything from hitting to fielding to pitching. He signed on as a coach in the nearby Forest Hills youth baseball league, but by the end of Olivia’s first season, questions had already started popping up about her future. When one woman helping run the league pushed Max to switch Olivia to softball, he resisted.
“I took a lot of issues with another adult trying to tell my kid what to do,” Max said. “For somebody who doesn’t know my kid to presume they know what’s best to do or based on some gender roles society has tried to shape — get out of my face with that.”
The questions kept popping up from level to level. As the jump from Little League to PONY Baseball loomed, people doubted Olivia’s ability, noting that the boys would begin going through puberty. The sentiment from others often carried a tone of It’s been a good ride; I hope you enjoyed it. When she continued playing PONY Baseball and succeeding, others voiced concerns about whether Olivia could keep up in high school baseball.
“People kept moving the goalposts about what they were saying about a girl playing baseball,” Max said.
As Olivia got older, the infrastructure around women’s baseball grew. She participated in the Trailblazer Series, a tournament launched by MLB and USA Baseball in 2017 for girls, and the MLB GRIT program, designed for girls 18 and younger to showcase their abilities and receive pro evaluation from scouts. Justine Siegal — who became the first woman coach employed by an MLB team in 2015 for the Oakland Athletics — met a 14-year-old Pichardo through these programs. Pichardo’s focus on the field and where her family envisioned her baseball career taking her became clear very quickly.
“The combination of Olivia’s composure, her presence, the confidence she has and how hard she worked in actively engaging within school, it was clearly a winning combination,” Siegal said.
By seventh grade, Pichardo made the high school boys’ varsity team, and in 2018, 2019 and 2021, MLB invited her to participate in the Breakthrough Series, a program established for developing young players, both male and female. In July 2022, Pichardo played with the USA Baseball Women’s National Team as a pitcher and an outfielder alongside Kelsie Whitmore, the first woman to play in the Atlantic League.
As her college search began in the summer of 2021, Pichardo was looking for a school that met the standards of a 5.2 high school GPA where she might also be able to play ball.
“Olivia wasn’t going to sacrifice her academics to find a fit to play baseball,” said Elizabeth Benn, who met Pichardo while she completed a 2022 internship with the New York Mets. Benn is the Mets’ director of major league operations, the highest ranking woman baseball operations employee in franchise history. “She was going to end up at a D-I school or an Ivy League school, but we needed to see if a coach would be receptive to having her on the team.”
In 2021, Pichardo enrolled in baseball camps for Harvard, Columbia and Princeton, hoping to get in front of coaches. Again, she and her father heard questions about whether she would be able to compete with men hoping to play Division I baseball. The continued pushback led her father to stream college baseball regularly, hoping to scope out the potential competition for a roster spot.
“I saw people dropping fly balls and missing cutoff throws,” Max Pichardo said. “People make it seem like it’s a sport made for the gods, but I see kids playing baseball.”
During her senior year in high school, Olivia Pichardo made contact with Brown’s coaching staff about trying to walk on to the team; and when she was accepted last spring, Coach Achilles and Pichardo started a longer conversation about what that might look like. After a tryout Achilles called “the most complete” he has seen as a head coach, Pichardo became the first woman to make a Division I baseball roster.
“I wasn’t telling myself the odds,” Pichardo said. “I was just telling myself that I was going to make the team. I wasn’t going to let doubt creep into my mind.”
She quickly proved to teammates she could keep up with them, swinging on time to 90 mph fastballs during the team’s first intrasquad game and showing off the zip of her throws while playing catch.
“She’s not looking for someone to think it’s OK to not throw as hard or run as fast,” her father said. “She just wants someone to treat her like a person.”
THOSE RELATIONSHIPS WITH teammates on the Bears were crucial to Pichardo in her first season. During an intrasquad game early in the spring, Pichardo made an error in the outfield, the type of physical mistake that happens at times. But then it snowballed. Senior outfielder Derian Morphew — a regular throwing partner of Pichardo — noticed the physical mistake started turning into mental errors, one bleeding into another.
“You could see how much pressure she puts on herself,” Morphew said. “I told her a couple of times, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. There’s a lot of attention on you and a lot of negative feedback, but the biggest thing is to try to block it out and keep improving.”
That negativity can reach uncontrollable levels. When the Boston Red Sox invited Pichardo to throw the first pitch at Fenway Park on Asian American Pacific Islander Night on May 3, her teammates encouraged her to throw as hard as she could and not think about getting the ball over the plate. When she did just that, the ball nearly skipped past utility infielder Rob Refsnyder, and it ended up in the right-handed batter’s box. Video of the pitch went viral on Twitter, with criticism getting so hostile that NESN television turned off replies for the tweet.
“The people that are skeptical are usually people that don’t even play baseball or never made it to this level,” Morphew said. “I just laugh it off because the people that I play with in summer ball from other Division I programs think it’s awesome for her, how she must be the real deal.”
Last week, in between study sessions for her final exams, Pichardo and Achilles met to recap her freshman campaign. Brown’s season did not go as anticipated, finishing 9-12 within the conference and failing to qualify for this past weekend’s Ivy League tournament. Pichardo’s single in-game appearance fell short of her own expectations too, according to Achilles.
“She expects perfection with what she can control,” Achilles said. “It’s probably to a fault at that point where she can probably take a step away and revisit things the next day.”
Her teammates saw her growth firsthand. Morphew noticed the strides she made in her confidence both at the plate and in the field.
“She became more relaxed, you could just see it,” Morphew said. “Her throwing, her stance at the plate. She looked like a more confident baseball player by the end of it.”
Achilles did not commit to giving Pichardo more playing time in 2024, but he points out that her freshman season aligned with the typical experience of a walk-on. He said the things Pichardo needs to improve — increased awareness on the offensive and defensive side of the game, more consistency through her swing and continuing to add strength in the weight room — are mostly the same as the team’s other freshmen. And when it comes to the critics who point to her roster spot as a stunt, he dismisses them.
“If they want to speak about it one way or the other, they can show up to more of our practices and games to watch what actually goes on,” Achilles said. “It’s really beyond ludicrous some of the things people who have no business commenting on, stuff they have no idea about.”
Her teammates remind Pichardo that backlash she faces often has nothing to do with baseball.
“You see the comments, and we remind her that she’s the first female to ever play the game in Division I baseball,” Morphew said. “Brush off all of the negativity, it does not matter, because you are the first one to do it. And that says something.”
At the end of the season, Achilles reminded Pichardo of the progress she made during her first campaign, reminding her she is more than just a headline or a figurehead or an on-field trailblazer.
“You’re not a video game,” Achilles said. “The transition is hard, and you’re a person too. You’re not valued by just your performance. That’s such a transactional way to look at life. We want to win, we want our players to perform at their highest, but they’re more than who they are between the white lines.”
Pichardo took a deep breath and smiled.
“You’re right,” Pichardo said. “It’s not going to be perfect.”
It’s in these moments she reminds herself why she loves the sport that helped put her in a position for ever-increasing scrutiny.
“Your attitude really does matter,” Pichardo said. “You can’t throw a fit after you strike out. Sometimes you feel like you’re the best baseball player to ever exist. Everyone hits a point where you hit a wall, and it seems like you’re swinging at strikes but not making much contact. You just need to fix your attitude and keep going.”
Source: Read Full Article