Kelliann Jenkins is a two-sport athlete in basketball and baseball at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. Basketball might be her best sport, but baseball was her first love and this past season, it helped her become part of an exclusive and historic club of players.
With a two-inning appearance against Geneva College on April 9, Jenkins joined a group of six women who played college baseball this past year, the most in any single season in the sport’s history.
Driven by a simple love of baseball, She doesn’t want to be seen as anything more than a ballplayer. But Jenkins isn’t ignorant to what representation can do and hopes that her play in the present helps create a future where women playing baseball is not extraordinary.
Jenkins was introduced to baseball as a kid by her parents, Ronnie and Kathy, who ran a youth sports organization in their hometown called Kid Ball, and has loved it ever since. As she got older, Jenkins said she became aware that what she was doing was different.
Naturally, Jenkins encountered routine suggestions that she consider switching over to softball beginning when she was in second grade.
“Around second grade, third grade was when I was really being encouraged to make the switch by my parents and other people,” Jenkins told Pittsburgh Sports Now. “I think they just saw that more opportunities would be available to me, my life would be maybe just a little bit easier, but I didn’t see that point of view. All I knew was that I was good at [baseball], I loved it and I was friends with my teammates so I didn’t want to make the switch.”
She refused and stuck with baseball, pushing further up the ladder of competition and on to new heights.
Jenkins played her high school ball at a local and national powerhouse, St. John’s High School in Washington, D.C. under the tutelage of former professional players and brothers, Mark and Ed Gibbs.
The Cadets have won their conference six years running and routinely send players on to play for college programs. Jenkins was one of 13 in her graduating class that went onto play baseball at the next level.
But Jenkins was different from the rest of her class and for obvious reasons. She was the only female player on a vastly male team playing a nearly entirely male sport. The older a female baseball player gets, the rarer she is.
“The farther that you make it, the bigger of a deal that it is and the more there are people who have an issue with it,” Jenkins said. “I think around middle school was when it started to be a little weird and even weirder in high school. The farther along I made it, the more it felt like a bigger deal.”
According to data compiled by the National Federation of State High School Associations, only 1,203 girls played high school baseball during the 2015-16 season, 0.002% of all high school players at the time. At the college level, there are roughly 34,500 total players across 1,650 programs in the United States, according to the NCAA, and this year’s record-setting class of women in college baseball made up just 0.0002% of that population.
Jenkins playing baseball was unconventional and that fact sometimes made baseball an unwelcoming environment for her.
According to Jenkins, male teammates always take “a couple of weeks” to adjust to playing with her, but always come around after she gets a chance to display her work ethic and skill. D.J. Cannon, head baseball coach at Chatham University, concurred.
“It was probably something that took some getting used to for most of our team, but to all of their credit, they all did a phenomenal job of treating her just like every other player,” Cannon said. “That’s what I was hoping for, that’s what she was hoping for. She didn’t want to be looked at as anything different. She’s a baseball player.”
It’s her opponents, Jenkins said, who are more likely to be thrown at the sight of a girl in the opposing dugout.
In some ways it gave her an edge. While male players would tense up, whether from fear of suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of a girl or arrogance in their ability to beat her, Jenkins could remain loose. She had a mental advantage and tried to exploit it often.
“Weirdly enough, I think being a girl was one of my strengths,” Jenkins said. “[My coach] was telling me that it’s an advantage when guys see me on the mound because their approach that they have with any other pitcher just goes straight out the window because all they want to do is smash the ball and not strike out against me … because they don’t want to be embarrassed.”
But for as good as she was on the diamond, Jenkins’ basketball skills earned her more attention from college coaches. At first, Jenkins didn’t want to play basketball in college, but quickly figured out that she could leverage her basketball ability into looks from baseball coaches. She told any school that wanted to recruit her for basketball needed to get their baseball coach involved as well.
“I guess that’s how I got colleges to notice me in the first place,” Jenkins joked. “I was playing for a good basketball program, so basketball coaches would reach out to me and I would say ‘Well, you’ve got to get the baseball coach on board too.’ … I didn’t even want to play basketball in college, but that’s a tool I’ve been able to use to play baseball in college as well.”
Jenkins is still trying to find her fit on the role on the Chatham team. In her first full season with the program since transferring from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, she appeared in six games and allowed five runs, struck out three and walked three over eight innings pitched.
She’s focused on improving her game and becoming a more consistent contributor, but as a woman in baseball, she feels a larger sense of duty to help make the game more inclusive. Jenkins is trying to balance the humility that she thinks is synonymous with being a good teammate and the responsibility of being a role model for other young girls who want to break gender norms everywhere.
“First and foremost, my mind is focused on being a good teammate,” Jenkins said. “Being a good teammate means don’t be selfish, don’t try to stand out, don’t think about yourself in those kinds of ways. … In that way, I don’t like to stand out. I like to put my teammates’ needs before mine. But then I do realize that I am a role model for younger girls and I love that. I love being able to show them that [success] is a possibility in any male-dominated area.”