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The Filipinas Baseball Team: Journey to the Women’s Baseball World Cup

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With only their phones, some allowance for mobile data, and a Zoom pro account, the Filipinas Baseball Team have made training thrice a week their lockdown habit. Photos from PABA. Collage by ANTON HOLMES

Freshly cut grass. Bases set, baselines chalked. Cleats on. Blue and white jerseys buttoned. The majestic red P cap worn, ponytails out. A new team is donning the colors of the flag, and they’re out to make their mark on the world stage. The Filipinas are ready to play ball.

Currently ranked 15th in the WBSC (World Baseball Softball Confederation) World Rankings, the Filipinas Baseball Team are set to join the Women’s Baseball World Cup later this year, but only if restrictions ease in the host city — Tijuana, Mexico. They will be up against top-ranked Japan, Canada, Chinese Taipei, Venezuela, USA, Australia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Netherlands, Mexico, and France.

Their journey has been filled with plenty of curveballs. In 2018, a year before the Philippines hosted the SEA Games, women’s baseball was one of the new events that was planned to be introduced. The country’s National Sports Association, the Philippine Amateur Baseball Association (PABA) conducted tryouts for this team. But the process of forming a team can take a year at the very least, especially with no active team or player for it, as was the case in the country.

At the time, the Philippines had a National Softball Team called “Blu Girls,” and up until then, had none for women’s baseball. Baseball has remained a traditionally male sport, with softball as the female counterpart, from Little League to the UAAP, even in the Olympics.

Mid-2019, PABA learned about the Women’s Baseball Asian Cup, a qualifying tournament for the World Cup. The games would start in November that year, and they had half a year to come up with a competitive lineup.

With no competition from within the country and the region, the team played tune-up games against high school and college men’s teams coached by the team’s assistant coaches, Jeffrey Santiago and Roel Empacis. They were constantly reminded of the main goal, which was to participate and gain experience in their first tournament.

Not long after, it was November 9, 2019, and they were in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, China. The ladies and their coaches are in the visitors dugout of the Panda Memorial Baseball Stadium.

The Filipinas Baseball Team still await the decision of the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) about when the 2020 Women’s World Cup will finally push through. Initially moved to March 2021, it was again postponed to the latter half of 2021. Photos from PABA. Collage by ANTON HOLMES

It is the second game of the young tournament, and Hong Kong has a 3-0 lead after three innings. Pitcher Clariz Palma is on the mound. Behind her in the busiest part of the infield, team captain Esmeralda Tayag at shortstop, Whell Ghene Camral at third base. “The girls were all excited to get into action but you can see some nervousness during the first day of competition,” says Coach Edgar Delos Reyes, the Filipinas Manager (or what they call the Head Coach in baseball).

In the first three innings, Palma did not have command, both of her pitches and the game. And then she hit another gear. “There were a lot of mixed emotions at first. But when they started hitting, that’s when my pitches started working,” she recalls.

The defense picked her up, turning a double play and having the answers when Hong Kong put balls into play. Their offense turned the game around and they never looked back. The Filipinas scored four runs each for the final three innings to turn the deficit in their favor.

12-3. A complete game by Palma, and while she gave up four runs on four hits and two walks, her 104-pitch effort struck out five and won the game.

It didn’t take long for their next test. Top of the seventh, with three outs remaining against regional powerhouse South Korea. Just months into their new sport, most of the players struggled with how pitches arrived at the plate.

In softball, pitches are done underhand. The movement of the ball is normally upwards. The ball itself is two to three inches larger in circumference. The distance between the pitcher and the batter is smaller.

In baseball, pitches are done overhand. This alone allows more balls to “break,” and not just go straight or downwards. Pitches like the curveball, change-up, and slider (as they are appropriately named) are deceiving to the eye — it would appear that it is coming toward you, until it changes direction and the bats miss it completely.

For six innings, it was the curveball that the Filipinas struggled with. They managed to get six hits and score four runs to keep the game close, which tired out the Korean starting pitcher after throwing 103 pitches. The ladies knew this was their shot. The South Korean team threw in a total of four relievers who would then combine to give up ten runs, turning the close game into a blowout. Palma, now pitching in relief, closed out the game and got credited for the win. Philippines 14, South Korea 7.

The team bowed to Japan and Chinese Taipei (who finished first and second, respectively), but beat hosts China twice.

“The biggest disadvantage was that our girls didn’t have experience playing baseball at that level — or any experience playing baseball at all,” says PABA Secretary General Jose Antonio Muñoz. “So we expected a long period of adjustment. But they won bronze!”

The Filipinas Baseball Team after their bronze medal win at the 2019 Women's Baseball Asian Cup in Zhongshan, Guangdong, China. Photos from PABA. Collage by ANTON HOLMES

Members of the previously unranked team also won two individual awards from the competition: A “Best Win-Loss Record” award for Clariz Palma of Bacolod, and “Best Third Basewoman” for Whell Ghene Camral of Iloilo.

Two years and a pandemic later, the lady batters still await the decision of the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) about when the 2020 Women’s World Cup will finally push through. Initially moved to March 2021, it was again postponed to the latter half of 2021.

Until then, the athletes have remained committed and determined to make their mark in the international level, despite the many challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Online training

As a number of other sports have started to go back to their respective playing fields, PABA, the coaching staff, and the Philippine Sports Commission are working to establish a protocol for the Filipinas to be able return to the field.

Many members of the team are in their home provinces and training from their own houses. With only their phones, some allowance allotted for mobile data, and a Zoom pro account, they have made training thrice a week their lockdown habit. The plan is to make the most of the situation and keep preparing, so that if and when the World Cup pushes through, they are more than ready to fly back and bubble up.

Palma, a UAAP softball champion for all her five years with the Adamson Lady Falcons, has been playing the sport since grade school. “I only started playing baseball in 2018 when they held tryouts,” she says. “I play third base and catcher for softball, so it helped me pick up pitching in baseball quickly.”

She turned out to be a gem on the mound, which bookended their dream run. She was masterful in the bronze medal game against China, giving up just one run in a game they won 11-1. The workload of the seven-day competition took its toll on Palma when they got back. “After the tournament, I had trouble moving my shoulder,” she says. “So since we now have to train by ourselves, I asked our physical therapist for a program I can do, for recovery and conditioning of my arms.”

As for Camral, she has gotten into outdoor activities like hiking to complement the team’s usual home training routine. “We have drills for batting, throwing, and fielding. But it’s still different from being in the field together and having a partner in the diamond,” she says. “Baseball is all about teamwork and collaboration. It would be a lot different if we were getting to see each other and bond.”

Her fellow Ilongga and NU Softbelles teammate, Nicole Estante, feels the same: “A challenge in online training is not having physical interaction with my teammates. In order to have activities together, we need to be synchronized and have strong WiFi to keep up with training or meetings with our coaches.”

The softball catcher-turned-baseball pitcher also shares that she’s been training both for physical and mental health. “I strive to be productive everyday,” says Estante. “To eat proper food, drink vitamins, have enough rest and sleep.”

The team now does group practices through Zoom. Collage by ANTON HOLMES

For former Softbelles pitcher and Filipinas center fielder Mary Ann “Rham” Ramos, it’s been quite a struggle. “I have a hard time adjusting because my body was used to the full routine of training and workouts,” she says. “All I’m able to do at home now are body weight exercises. It feels lacking.” Ramos graduated just before the first lockdown began, and is working to stay in shape from her house in Zambales. “I’ve been used to eating the same, and it was having a different effect on my body. So I stay active through creative ways, sweeping our backyard and watering plants using pails, so that I can also have some lifting exercise. I also try to do 50 push-ups every night.”

Also from Central Luzon is Esmeralda Tayag, the team’s shortstop and leadoff batter. A former Blu Girl, Tayag is now an assistant coach for her alma mater, the UST Lady Tigresses. “When the lockdown hit, there were a lot of cancelled flights and the players’ dorm was closed. I adopted eight of my players for them to be safe. They stayed with me at our home in Pampanga for about three months,” she shares.

Also a coach for the De La Salle University Integrated School, her knack for discipline has remained ingrained in her being. “I don’t wait for my coach to tell us to train. I work out on my own. Once I stop, I feel lazy and heavy,” Tayag adds. “I still make programs and training videos for my teams. Sometimes, I join their online workouts too.”

For someone who’s won at the international level and has over two decades of experience, Tayag still finds ways to improve her game. “The good thing with the pandemic training is having time to evaluate myself on what else needs to improve. The biggest challenge is how we will use or transfer these into the game, especially if we can’t use the field,” she says. “I need to be creative, innovative, to find ways to improvise.”

Adjusting to changes

If there’s a sport that’s difficult to modify, scale down, and bring indoors, it would definitely be baseball, with the huge outdoor space and team rapport the game requires. It’s what many of them miss the most. “I was saddened,” says Corporal Jennifer Singh, former UE Lady Warriors outfielder and Filipinas left fielder/pitcher. Sarge, as her teammates call her, is not only used to training as an athlete, but also as a member of the 2nd Infantry Division of the Philippine Army. But even more than the physicality of the sport, she says, she longs to get back in the field with her teammates. “That’s how you develop teamwork, by doing things together,” she says. “We had our minds set on the World Cup. We know how high the level of competition is. There are a lot of good teams from other countries. For now, Singh says, she will have to make do with online practice.

Other members of the team are former Blu Girls Elaine Bacarisas and Sheirylou Valenzuela. The rest of the team is composed of players mostly 23 years old and under to ensure the continuous development of baseball talent.

Players from nine-time defending champions Adamson Lady Falcons are Diana Jane Balderama, Ivy Capistrano, Neomay Mahinay, and Alaiza Talisik. Rounding up the Filipinas are UST’s Mharnie Dela Cruz, Lealyn Guevarra, and Charlotte Sales, UP’s Erika Olfato, DLSU’s Wenchi Bacarisas, Judie Ann Ramos, and Veronica Velasco.

Since the baseball field has bigger dimensions, the girls had a lot of difficulty adjusting to the longer basepaths, says the team’s chief architect, PABA Vice President Rodolfo “Boy” Tingzon.

“Imagine running 90 feet from the usual 60. They got tired quickly, and we had our work cut out for us,” he says. “Another adjustment was in how pitches broke, or changed movements. Being used to the underhand delivery, the baseball pitches moved in ways they couldn’t predict.”

“The size of the playing field also meant changing their hitting and fielding mechanics and principles,” Tingzon says.

The stance for swinging the bat in softball is to lunge forward and place contact towards the ball, while in baseball, it’s to lean back and wait for the pitch. “I think my body has adjusted, but there are some rules and mechanics that I have yet to learn, especially those that are not in softball,” says Ramos.

“The biggest disadvantage was that our girls didn’t have experience playing baseball at that level — or any experience playing baseball at all,” says PABA Secretary General Jose Antonio Muñoz. “So we expected a long period of adjustment. But they won bronze!”

The former national team athlete and manager of gold-medal winning national teams for over a decade, Coach Egay, worked on changing their hitting and fielding mechanics and principles.

Pushing for the formation of the Filipinas Baseball Team since 2018, Delos Reyes says, “I tell the team that we need to maintain the respect we earned through our achievements during the first international tournament we joined.”

Because tournament schedules are compressed into a few days, training more arms for pitching has become a priority. The full mechanics of the delivery, the complete motion of the windup, the leg stretch, and the simulated throw using a resistance band are all monitored throughout the course of the session.

During one of their online practices — which focuses on baseball fundamentals, and unlearning long-developed reflexes from softball — Coach Egay calls in his players to a Zoom room to warm up. One by one video screens are shared. Two players are in their living rooms. Some in their backyard and garage. And for others, the lobby of their residence, sports facilities, or even inside a dorm room.

The team miss outdoor trainings the most. If there’s a sport that’s difficult to modify, scale down, and bring indoors, it would definitely be baseball, with the huge outdoor space and team rapport the game requires. Photo from PABA. Collage by ANTON HOLMES

Without any partners to pitch and catch with, players on their individual screens wear a glove on one hand, a towel on the other, to simulate the movement of fielding and throwing at the same time, like if they were on the field.

Next up, they take the mat and do core exercises. These are alternated with sprints in place. As they take time to catch their breath, they take their bats and show their swings. “We focus on strength and conditioning programs so when we go back to face-to-face training, we can hone specific skills easier,” says Coach Egay.

The coaching staff also provides the players with video references to watch, from training methods to games from other international tournaments, to give the players a unique opportunity to gauge the competition while learning more about the game. Prior to the pandemic in 2020, PABA had plans of sending the Filipinas to Japan for training, as well as to pocket tournaments in Hong Kong. They also were about to join the “Calambubble” with the Olympics-bound athletes in January this year, before plans for the World Cup in March were halted.

“The players from provinces with light movement restrictions are able to take the field with some boys, Coach Egay adds. “Some of them who are located in Marikina and Makati have space to practice in the batting cages as well,” he says, referring to Sto. Niño Baseball Field and University of Makati Stadium, where baseball dreams have gotten fulfilled from the grassroots all the way to the national level.

And though they miss the field, practicing in one’s own hometown has brought about its own advantages, acknowledges Camral, who was able to help her family’s market business while balancing a training schedule, and Ramos, who has found herself in her own version of an athlete’s bubble. “While not all of my teammates have space to catch and throw and have fielding practice, I am thankful that I have friends here in Zambales who are baseball players. We get to train and practice,” she says. “The players I taught when they were young, they are now the ones I get to play with. For fielding practice, I have my four-year-old niece to roll the ball towards me. It’s nice because she’s starting to like baseball at her age, too.”