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Brooks out to prove she's more than a gimmick
If it weren't for a baseball coach from Aruba, standing on a field half the world away, Tiffany Brooks would have never been sitting in the dugout at Desert Sun Stadium on Tuesday.
The events of that fateful afternoon in the Netherlands were borne out of a juvenile gaze and a concise conversation. The Spokane, Wash., native was in the Netherlands to play professional softball, but she was still interested in that smaller sphere with the red laces. As she watched the local men's baseball team take groundballs during practice, Brooks couldn't help but feel envious.
“I must of looked like one of those little kids saying, ‘Oh please, come on, let me come out and play,'” Brooks said. “The coach — he speaks very little English — says to me, ‘You. You catch.'”
Brooks looked around and pointed at herself.
“Me catch? Yeah, I can catch,” Brooks said.
She eventually practiced and pitched for the team in 2007, and has been playing baseball ever since.
The people, the culture, the opportunity — the Netherlands still holds a special place in her heart. Listed at 6-feet-2-inches, 195 pounds, Brooks usually sticks out in a crowd. But not in Holland, home to one of the world's tallest populations.
“I love the Dutch,” she said.
Initially, entering the realm of professional baseball was an experience that tested her character. Brooks became self-conscious and didn't know how to portray herself to her male teammates. The key, she said, was simply self-acceptance and being comfortable with the situation.
This week, she's even become a source for guidance from fellow players, who pepper her with questions on what to expect from a league like the Arizona Summer League.
“It's getting less weird,” Brooks said with a laugh. “It started our really weird. ... I was really tentative, especially tentative with locker rooms and how do I present myself — ‘Who do I be to fit in.' Now, I'm just myself. Just a ballplayer.”
The four-team ASL starts play today, with a short season running through the end of the month. Brooks will serve as a reliever for Team Canada, and is one of just four pitchers on the team so she figures to get plenty of work. Games will be played at 9 a.m. and noon each day until July 30, with the exception of Mondays and Tuesdays. Games will be played at the Ray Kroc Baseball complex.
Brooks will be quick to tell you, she doesn't view herself as a gimmick or a marketing ploy. She's a player and she's a student of the game.
Brooks went so far as to call Jamie Moyer one of her heroes. The ex-Major Leaguer played at the game's highest level until he was 47, relying on the art of deception throughout his career. With a fastball that tops out at 80 mph, Brooks has adapted her game, too.
She features a six-pitch arsenal with three arm angles to choose from — overhand, her natural 3/4 motion and a submarine pitch.
“But on any given day, it's a roulette wheel as to which four or five pitches will work,” Brooks said.
If only her parents could be around to see her success. Unfortunately, they both passed away before Brooks' professional baseball career launched.
“They were both heavy, heavy smokers. My mom passed first and then my dad,” Brooks said. “My dad would be tickled pink. I don't know how my mom would feel, I think she wanted a girly girl.”
Though she's enveloped in a man's world of baseball, Brooks will still throw on a nice shirt and skirt if she wants to go out to a nice dinner. No heels, though, saying she's too tall. Sounds like an excuse from a woman who spent her childhood trading Barbies for baseballs.
When Brooks pitched for the Big Bend Cowboys in May 2010, she became the first woman in a decade to play in an American men's professional league. Brooks said she enjoys the responsibility that comes with her position as a pioneer in the sport.
“I'm not naive enough to think that somebody isn't going to try and capitalize on the notoriety that comes with having a female baseball player,” Brooks said. “I don't want to sign with anybody as a publicity stunt. There's absolutely no way. That's not what I'm here for, I'm here to be seen as a legitimate player.”
According to Brooks, 1,037 girls played varsity high school baseball in America last year, something inconceivable in Brooks' high school days. In fact, Brooks herself was barred from trying out for her prep team.
But she knows she's making a difference. At a recent tryout for the Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings, a team in the North American Baseball League, Brooks had her own fan section.
Waiting patiently in her baseball uniform, 12-year-old Emily Michki and her family watched as Brooks worked on the mound, trying to earn a job. Though Brooks didn't do enough to woo the Rio Grande Valley front office, Michki was honored to meet her after the tryout. The Michki family and Brooks still keep in contact to this day, and it's clear she's served as an inspiration.
Now Michki plays for a traveling all-girls outfit called the Dream Team, which plays exclusively against boys teams in tournaments across the country. Michki was recently struck by a line drive, which broke her arm, but she can't wait to get back on the mound.
Every time Brooks gets in between the lines, she thinks of the Michki and the thousands of other girls watching from afar.
“It's very, very cool,” Brooks said. “The only thing I would say, is that for every small thing I can give back to them, they give even more to me.”