Does Women's Baseball Have a Future in the U.S.?

Captain Malaika Underwood, right, celebrates with her teammates after scoring a run during the 2015 Pan Am Games at Ajax Pan Am Ballpark in Ajax, Ontario, on July 20. Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports/Reuters

The most common response to hearing that the U.S. Baseball Women's National Team won the gold medal at the Pan American Games on Sunday seems to be, "I didn't even know we had a women's national baseball team." But the U.S. team has actually been around for 11 years and, despite having no women's collegiate system to grow up in, made an impressive showing at the games in Ajax, Ontario, in the past week.

The U.S. Women's National Team, founded in 2004, competes in international tournaments and is governed by USA Baseball. They have competed in the Women's Baseball World Cup tournament each year, winning it in 2004 and 2006. And in the past two finals they've lost to Japan, a country that, unlike the U.S., has its own women's professional league.

This was the first year the Pan Am games featured a women's baseball championship. Five teams, including Cuba, Venezuela, Canada, the U.S. and Puerto Rico played in the tournament. "The level of play at the Pan Am Games was exceptional," U.S. team captain Malaika Underwood tells Newsweek. "Some of the best baseball countries in the world were there, and the environment was unbelievable." The U.S. went 4-0 in the preliminary rounds, outscoring their opponents 33-7 overall. They had two shutout games, one of which was a no-hitter thrown by Stacy Piagno. That secured their spot in the championship game vs. Canada, who suffered its only defeat in the prelims to the U.S. by the margin of 3-1.

The competition between the two teams was fierce going into the game, as the previous eight matchups between them had been split. Canada's pitchers went in with a combined 1.29 ERA, but it wasn't enough to hold back the U.S. bats. The U.S. scored four runs in the first inning. Starting pitcher Sarah Hudek, who had three RBIs on the day, gave up three runs to Canada in the top of the fourth to bring Canada back within two runs, but U.S. catcher Anna Kimbrell drove in three more runs in the fifth inning with a double, and the U.S. went on to win 11-3.

While women's baseball is still not part of the Olympics, its inclusion in the Pan Am games brings an unprecedented level of exposure to the sport and its players. For many of the players who left baseball for softball during high school in order to pursue college scholarships, the U.S. national team has given them a chance to return to their original sport. The U.S. team's players range in age from 16 to 41, and when not on the field, work in careers that range from firefighting to graphic design.

But the younger players are sticking with baseball. Hudek, the starting pitcher, is the only member of the team who will play on a collegiate team this fall, after receiving a scholarship to play on the men's team at Bossier Parish Community College in Louisiana. Another pitcher, Jade Gortarez, will be play for her high school's boys' varsity team. And while it's no small feat that for the first time a woman has recently been added to Major League Baseball's international registration list, which means she will be eligible to be signed by a major league club, women's increasing visibility also reveals the lack of opportunity for young girls playing the sport. "We are looking for opportunities to play the game and...that often means we have play with guys," says Underwood.

At the Pan Am Games, the U.S. women's team proved that not only can women play baseball, they can play it at a high skill level worth watching. So does Underwood think the U.S. is ready for a women's pro league? "I think the question is a bit like putting the cart before the horse," Underwood says, while pointing to the lack of a youth development system for girls wanting to play baseball. "Think about the enormous pool of boys that want to be pro baseball players, and the training they receive, versus the smaller pool of girls who feel they can pursue the same dream. Let's talk about building youth systems that support girls playing baseball—competitive girls high school and college baseball teams—before we jump to a pro league."

As the team moves on to prepare for the 2016 World Cup in South Korea, there's hope that every new game reinforces the idea that the female equivalent of baseball…is baseball.