Near the end of 2019, Brett Mauser, the former recruiting director for the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League, called the league’s president, Sandi Kruel, to recommend someone he thought would do well in the league.
The player, a catcher, had experienced a freshman season cut short by COVID at Rivier University, a Division III program in Nashua, New Hampshire, and was looking to get back into competitive action after a long layoff. They discussed the player’s stats and other pertinent information, more as a formality really, because Ms. Kruel said she will never turn away a player who wants to come.
At the end of their discussion, Mauser revealed the most significant detail of all — the player was a female.
On June 16, Marika Lyszczyk made her debut for the Sag Harbor Whalers. Under a blue sky at Mashashimuet Park, on a picture perfect day for baseball, she was behind the plate for eight innings of a 9-6 loss to the Southampton Breakers, sidelined only when a bloody nose forced her to sit out the final frame.
When Lyszczyk made the choice to play baseball instead of softball at the age of 11, it was mainly a matter of practicality. She was simply better at baseball, she said, and liked it more, and playing both had become untenable. But it was also a choice that meant she would have to trade the comfort that comes with anonymity and step into the ever-present spotlight glare of being, as Shonda Rhimes calls it, a FOD — first, only, different. When she made her debut for the Rivier Raiders in the early spring of last year, she became the first — and so far only — female to play collegiate baseball at the NCAA level.
Since joining the Whalers, Lyszczyk has gotten several other “firsts” out of the way early on. Aside from her first start behind the plate, the versatile player also got her first hit, an infield single in an 8-5 win at South Shore on June 17 when she was in the lineup as the designated hitter, and she pitched the seventh inning in relief in a 4-1 loss to Riverhead this past Saturday, June 19, retiring the side.
In doing all that early on in the season, she has answered the first of two obvious questions — can she compete? Then there is the other question, one that’s harder to quantify — can she fit in?
The answer to that second question isn’t as easy to measure, but so far, the signs are affirmative. In between innings on June 16, Lysczcyk moved comfortably around the dugout, engaging with her teammates, happily singing along with them to Miley Cyrus’s hit, “Party in the USA,” a song that, appropriately, is about dealing with the pressure of being somewhere new and worrying about fitting in.
In some ways, it wasn’t new for Lyszczyk. Being the only girl on a team full of boys is something she’s experienced for nearly a decade, when she first started playing baseball at the age of 5, growing up in her hometown of Tsawwassen, British Columbia, near Vancouver. She now has the benefit of perspective when it comes to navigating that situation.
“I feel like I’m just so used to it now,” she said in an interview last week. “I don’t even think of myself as a girl sometimes when I’m on the field with them.”
With a long, bright blond ponytail and a big and ever-present smile, Lyszczyk doesn’t exactly blend in seamlessly, but she has an easy going, approachable demeanor, and clearly feels at home on a baseball field and in a dugout.
That’s not to say it’s always been easy. Lyszczyk admitted that the middle school years were a tough time to be the only girl on a boys team, but said she’s glad she powered through what she recognized later was just a stage.
“It’s that weird in between time in seventh and eighth grade where if you talk to a girl it means you like her,” she said with a laugh. “That’s the only time I had some difficulty with it. You just need to get past that weird, awkward age everyone is going through. I know a lot of [female baseball players] who struggled in that time, and a lot of girls quit when that happens, but you just need to get through it.”
An ability to embrace and sit with discomfort has served Lyszczyk well so far. The fact that she was drawn to catching suggests she may even relish the challenge of it, although she admits that she’s her own worst critic. Lyszczyk pitched and played several infield positions up until she was in eighth grade, when she decided she wanted to try catching. She steadily improved, and by the time she was a senior in high school, earned an invitation to the inaugural MLB Grit tournament, an invitation-only showcase for female baseball players who want to compete at the next level.
It was there that she met Jeremy Booth, a Major League Baseball scout and president of baseball operations for New Balance Baseball Future Stars. He connected her with Rivier head baseball coach Anthony Perry, who, to her surprise and delight, wanted to take her on as catcher, rather than trying to relegate her strictly to pitching, a path that is often considered the most logical for female baseball players because it means they’ll be involved in a limited number of defensive plays and also won’t often be called on to hit or run the bases.
Lyszczyk explained why she was drawn to the catching position even though she was aware it was an uncommon path for a female baseball player.
“It sounds kind of weird, but since I was young, I’ve always been about looking cool, and when I saw my teammate’s catcher’s gear, I was into that,” she said, with a laugh. “Anything more I can have on my body, I want. And I love being involved in every play. I’m a very jittery person, always thinking about what’s next, what the next play is, what can I do next. But I never really thought I’d be able to catch [at the college level]. I was horrible at first, so to come from there to where I am now, playing in a [summer] league with mostly Division I players, I never thought I’d be here, but I worked so hard to get where I am.”
Extra time spent on improving her mechanics and positioning behind the plate have paid off, and Lyszczyk has had a chance to work with some talented coaches and pitchers, including LA Dodgers Cy Young Award winning pitcher Trevor Bauer. She has developed a friendship with the 30-year-old righty, catching bullpen sessions for him last year.
Like it did for many athletes, the coronavirus pandemic derailed some of Lyszczyk’s progress, and she admitted that working back to the skill level she’d achieved pre-pandemic has been an uphill battle at times. Joining the Whalers has helped, she said, and she’s starting to feel like herself again both behind the plate, at the plate, on the mound and in the field.
“This league is such a good league, and I feel like I’ll be such a better baseball player leaving here,” she said. “I’m really thankful to Sandi and all the people that led me to come out here. I have such amazing teammates, too. It’s a hard situation for me to come out and meet a bunch of new guys, but they’ve been nothing but supportive.”
The support of Kruel in particular has been key. As the only female president of a summer baseball league, Kruel knows a bit about earning respect in male dominated spaces, and it’s part of the reason why she was eager to have Lyszczyk come to the Hamptons. It makes her uniquely qualified to understand what Lyszczyk is going through, and because of that, she has been fiercely protective of her. Kruel has long had a reputation for advocating for kids, and she’s put her trademark mama bear energy on full display in trying to set Lyszczyk up for success, keeping reporters and photographers at bay to eliminate distraction and also ensure her presence doesn’t overshadow the rest of the teams and players.
Kruel kept the fact that the HCBL was welcoming a female player under wraps for a long time, and encouraged Whalers coach Tommy Walker to let her sit out the first game, feeling it was better to let her work out the first game jitters on a more lightly attended weekday morning game, rather than on Opening Day, with 200 spectators in attendance.
“I didn’t want to put her up so high and then have people think she couldn’t compete,” Kruel said. “But she can compete, and she is competing, and she’s doing a great job.”
Kruel added that the larger support system has adopted the same mentality, from the players and coaches to other HCBL staff and Lyszczyk’s host family, Heidi and Jay Wilson, who live down the road from Kruel’s own house in Sag Harbor.
“My coaches all understood what we wanted to accomplish, and the barriers we wanted to break, and they all bought into it,” she said.
Walker, in his first year as head coach with the Whalers, has taken a simple and practical approach to coaching Lyszczyk.
“We’re just treating her like the ballplayer she is,” he said. “She’s just one of our 27 players. She gets it and she knows what she’s doing.”
Walker, who has been coaching baseball at both the high school and collegiate level for 40 years, said that in addition to providing critique on her game like he does for all his players, he’s also tried to help her with the mental aspect of the game as well. So far, he has noticed that Lyszczyk’s tendency to be hard on herself has sometimes prevented her from being in the moment and basking in the fact that she’s making history. He’s also been impressed with her tenacity, and in particular her determination to play what is widely considered the most physically demanding position on the diamond.
“They call catching gear the tools of ignorance,” Walker said, in his Alabama drawl, with a laugh. “I was a catcher. It’s the most fun position to play, but it can be the hardest to deal with.”
Walker was impressed by one game where Lyszczyk took a foul ball off the shoulder, temporarily losing feeling in her hands, but shaking it off and continuing to play. He said the defining moment for him in realizing the kind of grit Lyszczyk possesses came in a game at South Shore, when she got her first hit of the season. In her first at-bat of the game, Lyszczyk struck out looking, without taking a single swing.
“Her second time up, she got behind in the count, but then I saw something click in her face and her body, and I just saw a resolve take over,” Walker said. “She fouled off a ball, took another pitch, fouled off a ball, took another pitch, fouled off another ball and then got her first hit. It was at that moment that I saw the resolve and toughness of a baseball player, not a girl playing baseball.”
Walker doesn’t care much at all what Lyszczyk’s stat box will say at the end of the season. For him, it’s about making sure her first year playing summer ball is a good one.
“I care more about the experience she’s going to have,” he said. “She’s going to have an experience here; the question is, is it going to be good or bad? I can’t affect how things will go on the field, that’s out of my control. All I’m trying to do is handle things that will make it easy for her to just be a player.”
That’s exactly what he was trying to do when he sat down in the stands to talk with Lyszczyk after her first game, the home loss to the Breakers. He asked her how she felt, and she immediately started talking in baseball terms, but those weren’t the answers Walker was looking for. He put all talk of stats and performance aside, and went straight to what mattered.
“I said, ‘girl, you did it. You did it.’” he said. “‘Enjoy that, man, come on. When you go back home, let that sink in a little bit what you’ve done.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, I guess I need to be in the moment more.’ I said, ‘Heck yeah, you did something no one has ever done.’ And you could see her whole body relax.”
Learning to enjoy the ride at the same time she pushes for improvement is the balancing act Lyszczyk will try to follow as she looks ahead. She has four more years of eligibility left at Rivier, after which she hopes to continue playing baseball professionally. She knows the road will never be easy for her, but she’s committed to staying on it.
“Honestly, I couldn’t imagine my life without it,” she said of baseball. “Going into anything when you’re the first is hard, but I try to carry myself the right way, on social media and in person, because I know a lot of young girls are following me and I pride myself on being a good role model.
“It’s cool to influence little girls, not just in sports but just generally about following your dream,” she continued. “I’m a big dreamer; I always think a lot of things are possible.”