Avery Pickering of St. Adolphe has a pioneering spirit when it comes to sports.
The lone girl in her Grade 7 class at the Starbuck Hockey Academy, the 12-year-old is also a dedicated baseball player.
She started playing the game informally with her brothers when she was very young before joining a boys’ team when she turned 10. Now, she practises monthly as an outfielder with her 14-and-under girls’ provincial team during the winter months and will also play on a boys’ team this summer.
"Other than the 14U Manitoba team, I’ve never played any girls’ baseball," Avery said this week. "It’s the same with hockey, I’ve always played with boys... I guess there aren’t very many other options."
Well, the options for girls are expanding.
In fact, Avery and Kennedy Toews, a 13-year-old from Blumenort, were among the three Canadians chosen by Major League Baseball to attend this weekend’s all-girls’ Trailblazer Series, an event that brings together abouty 100 girls from across North America, in a festival setting for skills development and games.
The event coincides with MLB’s Jackie Robinson Day Weekend celebrations.
Avery and Kennedy will travel to California to work out with members of the U.S. women’s national team and play tournament games at MLB’s Compton Youth Academy south of Los Angeles. On the Saturday night, the entire group also will attend and be recognized at a major-league game at Dodger Stadium.
While Avery is a baseball veteran, Kennedy is a newcomer to the game.
She decided to make the switch from elite-level softball pitcher last year and has been working out indoors this winter as a baseball pitcher.
Kennedy plans to try out for the provincial girls’ team while also suiting up for the local boys’ peewee squad. She also plays volleyball.
"I wanted to try something new," she said. "I was kind of tired of softball. I wanted to try baseball and the differences and see if I liked it better. I like the overhand (throwing). I like the smaller ball. It seems you can hit it farther."
Avery and Kennedy were thrilled to learn their applications to the Trailblazer Series had been approved.
"When I heard that three girls from Canada were chosen, I was not expecting to be able to go at all," said Avery, who played defence on the St. Vital AA boys’ minor peewee Victorias hockey team last winter.
"(I’m) super excited. I think it will be a really cool experience."
Expanding opportunities for girls in sports are a sign of the times and baseball has been part of the groundswell. Canada already stages national championships for females at the 15-and-under, 21-and-under and senior levels.
And, since 2016, the Toronto Girls Baseball League has also been a place to play, with 350 players and 32 teams participating last year. Organizers are now expanding into Manitoba and Nova Scotia.
"It’s growing pretty widely at this point," said Elizabeth Benn, a Toronto native who serves as the MLB’s Labor, Diversity and Youth Programs co-ordinator and plays a key role with the Trailblazer Series.
"There have been national teams from a bunch of different countries for over a decade now. There’s a world cup that happens every other year and this year there are 12 teams playing in it. They’re all national teams ranging from Japan to Canada, Australia, Netherlands and Dominican Republic.
"There are a lot of girls playing in boys leagues growing up and once they get to high school, ultimately they do switch (to softball), there are a lot of girls who want to play baseball after they reach the high school age as well."
Benn played softball in college but has been immersed in baseball since she was a child and currently pitches both in a New York City men’s baseball league and a women’s tournament team during the summer months.
"Major League Baseball recognizes there are a ton of girls out there who prefer to play baseball over softball or girls who want to play both," Benn said.
"And so, given all the youth program expansion MLB is doing at this point, of course they want to cater to that demographic as well. Girls want to play baseball."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
Updated on Friday, April 13, 2018 at 6:14 AM CDT: Final