For their final game before Independence Day, the St. Joseph Mustangs welcomed members of the Falcon Skydiving Team to parachute onto their field, and they hired an Abraham Lincoln impersonator to read the Declaration of Independence before first pitch. Though Lincoln claimed to be wearing his summer suit, it was hot enough on Tuesday that during his performance, Honest Abe vomited.
All of which was good entertainment, but the person who garnered the greatest applause from the crowd at Phil Welch Stadium was decidedly not a gimmick or a promotional stunt — even if she was the first woman to play in the MINK summer baseball league for college players.
“I’m not out here to take anyone’s spot” Mizzou softball senior Regan Nash said before the game. “I’m just out here to prove something.”
Nash, from Camden Point, Mo., was an All-SEC freshman team selection in 2016 and a member of the All-SEC second team in 2017. If she carried the same accolades as a baseball player, she would easily find her way into one of the many summer wooden-bat leagues that provide college players with opportunities to develop while playing almost every day of the season.
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But women don’t have the same opportunities.
There are some summer softball leagues for college players, but they are so scarce and unpublicized that even St. Joseph native Cheri Kempf, the commissioner of National Pro Fastpitch, the preeminent pro softball league, said she did not know what opportunities are available for women during the summer.
Kempf said she has considered the idea of her league creating a collegiate development team, but that’s another cost for a league craving more public exposure and money, so that it can pay players enough to devote themselves to the sport full-time. According to Kempf, as long as professional softball stays out of the mainstream, enough summer-league opportunities for college softball players will never exist.
“It’s the same thing as always,” Kempf said. “When you have a monster progressional league that exists — MLB, NBA, whatever— you’re going to have college wood bat leagues, the D-League.
“Opportunities lead to opportunities.”
So Nash’s debut with the Mustangs on Tuesday won’t spawn a score of new leagues for women. Nash knows that, but she hopes she at least educated people about the inequity she and other college softball players face.
The Mustangs' general manager, Ky Turner, and owner, Dan Gerson, were unaware of the lack of summer college softball leagues when they first considered the idea of Nash, a team intern, suiting up. Turner admitted that he at first figured a MINK league appearance could be “something that was fun.” Then Nash told them why she wanted to play for the Mustangs.
“This isn’t really about a promotion,” Turner said. “This is about a statement.”
They agreed that Nash would play just one game for sure, leaving open the possibility for more. That was fine with Nash, who doesn’t want to take someone else’s playing time and doesn’t really want to play baseball at all.
“My real goal for all of this is have enough people see this, that I have to play baseball to be able to play during the summer,” Nash said. “I don’t even get to play my own sport. I have to play someone else’s sport.”
In past summers, Nash played in a local fastpitch league with men to keep her skills sharp. A college summer league would give her more opportunities to practice and play, even if teams held only two games per week, she said. It would also provide her with a new life experience that baseball players have every summer, when they live in a new part of the country, often with a host family, and learn about a new community.
Gerson called the summer experience “everything” for baseball players.
“It gives them so many different experiences,” the Mustangs’ founding owner said.
The 10-year-old St. Joseph club regularly draws more than 2,000 fans to home games, and on Tuesday almost 3,500 people were in the stands. Plenty of them had their phones out to record Nash taking left field in the top of the fourth inning and later stepping into the batter’s box.
When Nash hit in the bottom of the inning, with the lightest wooden bat the club had, she hoped to get on base and steal a bag. Instead, she struck out swinging in three pitches while facing a side-armed thrower.
In the days leading up to the game, Nash was still adjusting to baseball — to the long run to first, to the extra distance from home plate to the pitcher's mound and to all of the space she had in the outfield.
Even during batting practice on Tuesday, Nash’s mother noticed her daughter was slap-hitting the ball, evidently still thinking about softball, even while playing baseball to make her statement.