Plant City girl's pitching catches major league attention
PLANT CITY - After her second perfect game in a year, Chelsea Baker and her pitch that floats like a butterfly have caught big-time attention for the small-town girl. An ESPN film crew was in Plant City recently for a feature on Chelsea, a 13-year-old Little League pitcher who has a knack for striking out batters. A crew from MLB Advanced Media, a branch of Major League Baseball, is expected to interview her late this week. "She's been good at ball for a long, long time. Since she pitched two perfect games, people are now starting to notice her," her grandmother Dottie Hutchinson said. It started April 9, when the knuckleball pitch she learned from baseball legend Joe Niekro helped seal her second perfect game for Brandon Farms. She struck out 16 of 18 batters in six innings in a 1-0 victory over J.R. Farms.Her first perfect game was in a lopsided 21-0 victory over North Lakeland in an all-star tournament last summer. Much of the attention has focused on the role played by Niekro, who moved to Plant City and volunteered as a youth baseball coach after he retired from the big leagues. Niekro died in 2006. Chelsea is the same age as Niekro's youngest son, J.J., and the youngsters are friends. Ironically, J.J. was on the mound for the opposing team when ESPN cameras were on hand May 7 to record her final regular-season game at Mike E. Sansone Community Park. Chelsea led her team to a 4-1 win over Zaxby's. Footage from the game will be used on a half-hour documentary that will air in mid-July on ESPN, online channel ESPN3 and ABC's "Good Morning America." "It's pretty awesome. It's exciting for everybody. All the kids are excited," said Armand Cotnoir, who's been Baker's coach for six years. Local television stations and AOL Fanhouse have also featured Chelsea, whose arsenal of pitches includes a 70-mph fastball. Her manager, Steve Gude, signals her which to throw during the games. Chelsea said she's been overwhelmed at the attention. "I can't believe it," she said. ESPN will be returning to film her at Turkey Creek Middle School, where she has a 4.0 grade-point average and is a member of National Junior Honor Society. The film crew will also visit her Plant City home, where she lives with her older brother Gary Baker and stepfather and mother, Rod and Missy Mason. Turkey Creek Principal Dennis Mayo describes the family as a loving and supportive. Mayo's daughter, Danielle, and Chelsea are both seventh-graders and good friends. "It's great to see my students succeed. Chelsea sets an example on and off the field. She's a phenomenal kid," he said. Word of her fame has circulated among her friends, Chelsea said. "They're always asking who else has interviewed me," said Chelsea, who plans to be a veterinarian. She said she did have to explain the concept of a perfect game - a complete game with no hits, walks, wild pitches or errors - to some her girlfriends. Her parents say Chelsea has been so modest about her pitching talent that most of her teachers didn't even know she played. "She's so humble. She doesn't brag. She's a great kid, role model, and a best friend to all the boys. They're all cheering her on," said Cotnoir, who's nicknamed her "Atta Girl" because he's always yelling it to her from the dugout. If Chelsea ever shows off a little, it's the trick she taught herself. She can throw a knuckleball from outfield to home plate, grinning all the while. Second baseman Kalab Tew said his teammate of four years is pretty cool. "She's really good and enthusiastic. She's pretty much one of the guys," said the 12-year-old who assisted Baker's April 9 perfect game by throwing a hitter out before he could reach first base. Cotnoir said Chelsea's gender has never mattered to her teammates. "Here she fits in. She's respected for being a ballplayer," he said. The Masons say Niekro gave their daughter wings by teaching her his famed knuckleball. Niekro retired in 1988 with 221 wins over 22 seasons. Chelsea and her parents said they believe Niekro, who Chelsea called "Coach Joe," is perhaps looking down from his own dugout above. In an obituary tribute, Chelsea wrote, "Coach Joe taught me so much in the few short years I new (sic) him. He taught me how to have pride in myself, and to be humble. Most of all, he taught me to throw his famous knuckleball. ... I miss seeing him ... and his happy face at the ballpark. I will always remember and love you. - CHELSEA BAKER." When he was her coach, Niekro never gave Chelsea the game ball without her giving him a kiss on the cheek. Returning the gesture, Chelsea placed a baseball she used for pitching practice in Niekro's open casket. Niekro's older son, Lance, a former first baseman for the San Francisco Giants, said his dad spent much of his later years giving back. "I would say my dad is a part of all of the kids out here. He helped each of them in one way or another," he said. Lance watched Chelsea pitch for the first time at the May 7 game, when she faced his younger brother, J.J. "She throws hard," he said. "It was a good game. We played hard, and both of us pitched well," said J.J., who's been Chelsea's friend since they were 7. Joe and his wife, Debbie, met Chelsea when they signed their son up for a local travel team called the Patriots, and the pair became teammates. It was there that Niekro returned to the diamond and took on the role of Coach Joe. Coach Michael Palestrini said it wasn't just the kids who benefited. "We all learned a lot from Joe. He did fun drills with the kids and taught basic pitching skills," he said. He liked to throw his famed knuckleball pitch to stir the young players; Chelsea prodded the pitching icon until he shared his secret. "She was intrigued by it. He showed her, and she took a liking to it. She's worked hard at it," Lance said. Chelsea's neighbors, Ken and Karen Grimmer, were among those in the crowd when ESPN filmed her. They can attest to her devotion to the game. "She practices all the time. ... She can tote those boys around," Karen said. Chelsea's knuckleball throws fans, coaches, batters, catchers and umpires for a loop. The fluttering pitch is an umpire's "nightmare when she's on the hill," Plant City Little League umpire Derek Youngblood said. "It's amazing how it dances around and drops down at the end. You've got to keep your eye on it or you'll miss the call. It keeps the batters off balance. If they do hit it, it's a dribble down the line, but never a solid hit. They don't know what to expect," he said. Youngblood said Plant City High School has already approached her with great interest. "She's going to be striking them out in high school, and carrying the K's (strikeouts) with her," he said. After Chelsea's first perfect game, New York Sparks coach Justine Siegal brought her to the Big Apple, where she filled one of 13 coveted positions on the traveling girls baseball team that plays the best boys traveling teams in the nation. Siegel founded Baseball for All, an organization that provides opportunities for girls to play baseball. "She (Siegal) inspires me. She played in high school and college," Chelsea said. Chelsea said her other role model is her stepfather. "He's been with me all of my life and takes me to practice. He inspires me," she said of the man who helped raise her since she was 1. "When I was pregnant, I was going to do her hair up and put her in pageants. We did (Florida Strawberry Festival) Junior Royalty once. That's as far as I got," said Chelsea's mom, Missy, as Chelsea chimed in, "That was boring." The mother and daughter never start a game without saying a prayer. Her 15-year-old brother, Gary, said he's been mostly blessed. "It's like having a brother, except I can't hit her," he said. The siblings also play such sports as dodgeball and basketball. Chelsea's goal at the moment is to make the high school baseball team. The next step would be college baseball. Chelsea's hitting coach, Keith Maxwell, who once played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, said she has more power than any 13-year-old he's ever seen. "Chelsea has a passion. She loves the game. When she comes in, she's hungry. If she keeps the same hunger, she could make it to the next level, possibly college. She could be the first girl to play professional baseball. She has a talent you don't find in most girls," he said. Hutchinson said no matter what is next for her granddaughter, she's sure of one thing. "She'll remain humble. She's not getting a big head from all of this. "She's just Chelsea."