Chicago

‘Bigger Than Baseball:’ Trailblazing Humboldt Park Gators Pave Way for Girls Baseball in Chicago

NBCUniversal, Inc.

The start of the Major League Baseball season typically signals the arrival of spring in Chicago, and while we’re starting to feel the familiar warmth and see a few signs of the largely homebound city awakening from dormancy, we’re also robbed of the livelihood America’s pastime brings to the North and South Sides with the season delayed over coronavirus concerns.

As Cubs and White Sox fans wait patiently to once again hear the pop of leather and the crack of a bat, there’s another Chicago team that also hopes to make its season debut this spring.

This team looks a little different than your average baseball squad, however.

The Humboldt Park Gators range in age from 9 to 12 years old, and they’re the first all-girls baseball team designed to compete against mostly all-boys teams in Chicago.

“Having a team of all girls and showing other people in the world that women are as strong as boys and we can do everything that they can,” said Miriam Cárdenas-Mitchell, a multi-position player and 11-year old daughter of Gators head coach Chip Mitchell.

“In four years, she only had one year where there were other girls on the team. And I had been an assistant coach… and I just thought you know, I have a daughter, I want to have a greater impact,” Mitchell said about Miriam.

That’s when Mitchell, his wife, Alba Cárdenas, and daughter took action, starting in their own neighborhood.

“We decided to start walking in the area, driving the car in Humboldt Park,” Cárdenas said. “Just to see if there were kids playing. And we decided just to start talking to them and say ‘Hi, do you like to play baseball?’”

The team took off, as other girls who knew the feelings of isolation and loneliness of being the only girls on their respective teams began signing up.

It's fun because I can actually show my true self.

Zoey Nance, 12-year-old Humboldt Park Gator

“It’s fun because I can actually show my true self,” 12-year-old Zoe Nance said of her experience. “I’m shy around the boys, because they’re just not the same as girls.”

The season is on hold until at least May 11 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Because of the state’s stay-at-home order, the Gators will continue practicing individually to get ready to compete against the male dominated teams in their league.

By doing so, they’ll embark on a fierce and one-of-a-kind undertaking similar to their neighborhood’s own unofficial mascot, the inspiration behind their team’s name.

“When we were holding our first practices last summer a five-foot reptile was swimming loose in Humboldt Park Lagoon and of course it was Chance the Snapper,’ Mitchell said of the iconic gator, who created a media sensation in the Humboldt Park Lagoon before being caught after a week-long search.

For many of the Gators, it was always baseball. Miriam, who admittedly began playing later than the boys who competed on her team had a coach who attempted to nudge her in a different direction.

“One of the coaches suggested to me to switch her to softball. He just mentioned that in front of her,” Cardenas said. “They were very competitive, and they were giving a lot of attention to the boys who were more advanced.”

Like Miriam, many of girls that make up the Gators 17-woman roster are newer to the sport, while others have been playing since they were toddlers.

“I've been playing baseball since I was four. I saw my brother doing it so I kind of got into it. But I've never played softball before,” said 9-year-old Mia Ramirez, who describes her game as a combination of Cleveland Indians’ shortstop Francisco Lindor and Chicago Cubs’ shortstop Javier Baez. “I guess the ball goes slower and like you don’t get to hit it as far.”

Going far and pushing boundaries, like many of those celebrated during Women’s History Month, are what the Gators continue to strive for.

To Miriam, that means laying the foundation to expand from one team to many.

“I feel like we’re getting more girls to play baseball and we want to have an all-girls baseball league and I think we can do it,” she said.

 “It’s something much bigger than baseball. You know baseball itself, it's America's pastime. These girls deserve to play it,” Mitchell said of the momentum and support they’ve received since building the team. “But it's something much bigger I want these girls to know what it's like to exercise their rights to when they sense an injustice. That's what I want them to get out of this.”

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