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Thursday, Mar 30, 2017

Plant City pitcher remains in limelight after perfect games

PLANT CITY - Chelsea Baker never would have guessed how the future would unfold this spring after she pitched her second perfect Little League game in less than a year. She's appeared on CNN, "Good Morning America" and was a SportsKids of the month on a Sports Illustrated website. Actress Geena Davis heralded the 13-year-old as perhaps the best Little League pitcher in the nation in a feature that Davis narrated for ESPN's "E:60." The jersey she wore during the April 9 perfect game is destined to be displayed at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. "I'm always wondering what's going to happen next," she said.
She's grown accustomed to limousine rides, sitting in studio chairs for professional hair and make-up, having cameras in her face everywhere she goes, and signing her well practiced autograph with her signature "#1" above the tail end of Baker. Chelsea's stepfather, Rod Mason, said opportunities just keep coming her way. "It's mind boggling. It seems like just when things quiet down, boom! Something happens," he said. Her latest excitement came on Sep. 27 with a visit from minor league knuckleball pitcher Eri Yoshida of Japan, who is the first woman to play professional baseball in a decade. Yoshida, 18, pitches for the Chico Outlaws in the independent Golden Baseball League. Yoshida had watched Chelsea pitch on television, and came from California to meet her at Mike Sansone Community Park. "She's great! She's only 13, and she's already pitched two perfect games. Her knuckleball is unpredictable. The baseball has no turning or rotation," Eri said of Chelsea. Chelsea learned the pitch at age 8 from one of the most heralded knuckleballers, Joe Niekro, who pitched in the major leagues for 22 years. He retired in Plant City, where he coached youth baseball. Chelsea spent two years mastering the pitch with the help of Niekro, who died in 2006. Chelsea considers her crowning achievement to be made a part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, which houses the artifacts of such baseball legends as Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth. Her jersey is part of the hall's Diamond Dreams: Women in Baseball. The exhibit showcases notable women in the game. She presented her jersey Aug. 16 to Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson. "The Hall of Fame is my favorite memory. I'm the youngest person ever to be inducted," said Chelsea, whose jersey will remain there with approximately 36,000 artifacts of mostly male players. Before leaving New York, the producers of "Good Morning America" invited Chelsea and her family to be on their Aug. 21 show. Rod, her mother Missy, her 15-year-old brother Gary Baker, and her grandma Dottie Hutchinson visited the set, where Chelsea threw her knuckleball outside the show's studios in New York City. "How much prouder can you be of a kid, and of one with such great humility? All of the hard work has paid off, and she's reaping the rewards," Rod Mason said. When Chelsea returned to Turkey Creek Middle School following the summer break, peers asked the eighth-grader for her autograph. "The students always ask me, 'So who interviewed you today?' They think it's awesome," she said. Plant City native Chad Allman has watched Chelsea from the bleachers, in the dugout, and on television.

"I'm proud of her. She's a good kid," said Allman, who coached Chelsea and his 13-year-old son Colin on the Little League team the Angels in 2007. Colin is proud of his former teammate, who threw her first perfect game June 30, 2009. "At this age, she's as good of a player as any boy out there. She's got the ability and the heart. She can do anything she sets her mind to," he said. To those closest to her, she's still the same young lady who likes to draw, play the piano and aspires to be a veterinarian. She hasn't let the fame go to her head, her stepfather said. "You look at her, and she's still the same kid as she was April 8," he said. Currently, she's practicing about an hour and a half, four days a week. She wants to play high school baseball. Chelsea, who's been on the diamond since age 5, said the journey is surreal. "I never thought anything like this would happen to me. It's been an amazing ride," she said.