ESPN airs profile of Plant City pitcher Chelsea Baker
PLANT CITY - Chelsea Baker, a 13-year-old Plant City Little League pitcher who has thrown two perfect games in a year, got some nationwide TV exposure this week. She was profiled by ESPN's primetime newsmagazine "E:60" that aired for the first time July 20. The segment will air again periodically on ESPN and ESPN Classic, and also is available at http://sports.espn.go.com/broadband/video/clip?id=null&categoryid=3060647. Her story is narrated by actress Geena Davis, who said Chelsea's tale was magical, including her knack for "baffling and befuddling the boys." "Chelsea Baker is the only girl on an all-boys Little League team," Davis said in the 10-minute profile. "At age 13 she may be the best Little League pitcher in the country. She has not lost a game in four years."The show includes scenes of her pitching for her Brandon Farms team, and footage from around town, including the historic downtown business district, the mural next to the Whistle Stop Café and the city water tower that is painted to resemble a strawberry. Chelsea talks on camera about her 65 mph fastball and her strikeout pitch, a knuckleball she learned from Joe Niekro, a former Major League pitcher and Plant City resident who died in 2006. Niekro played for seven teams but was best known as a knuckleball pitcher for the Houston Astros, where he had back-to-back seasons winning 20 or more games. He won 221 games in a career that spanned 22 seasons, ending in 1988. Chelsea called him "Coach Joe," and she said it took some coaxing to get him to share his famous pitch. She wrote a tribute to him after he died and placed a baseball he had given her in his casket. "Joe Niekro's knuckleball lives on through Chelsea Baker, a girl who truly is in a league of her own," said Davis, star of the 1992 baseball film "A League of Their Own." Chelsea said she sometimes hears negative comments from parents of opposing players who suggest there is no place for a girl in a boy's game. "Some of the things people say are that you should switch to softball. You are never going to be able to stay with the boys," she said in the ESPN profile. The segment includes a comment from a boy she struck out, who said he might be in for some teasing because he was fanned by a girl, but that he could handle it. Another boy was shown crying after she struck him out. This spring, a crew for ESPN videotaped Chelsea at one of her games, at Turkey Creek Middle School, and at her home, where she lives with her older brother, Gary Baker, and mother and stepfather, Missy and Rod Mason. She has received a lot of attention since hurling her second perfect game April 9. Her first perfect game was in a lopsided 21-0 victory over North Lakeland in an all-star tournament in summer 2009. Much of the publicity has focused on the role played by Niekro, who volunteered as a local youth baseball coach after he retired from the big leagues. Chelsea is the same age as Niekro's youngest son, J.J., and the youngsters are friends. The show includes interviews with J.J.; Niekro's widow, Debbie; and Niekro's eldest son from a previous marriage, Lance, who played for the San Francisco Giants. Rod Mason said he was taken by surprise that Niekro would play such a role in his daughter's baseball career. "We knew she was going to miss him," he said. "We didn't realize how much a part of her life he had become."