Growing up, Skylar Kaplan imagined herself in the shoes of Nick Markakis as he stepped up to bat for the Orioles on her television.
Now 17 years old, she played baseball on a Major League training field for the second time.
Over the second weekend of June, the Glen Burnie resident joined 65 high school-aged girls to work on skills and development at Major League Baseball’s second yearly Girls Baseball Breakthrough Series, a four-day camp held at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Fla.
Kaplan trained in her primary position, outfielder, and absorbed sage advice on her secondary position, pitcher (she’d recently tweaked her arm). She developed hitting and listened to various panels, like one on improving health and strength in a ballplayer’s arm.
The North County rising senior, who played basketball in the winter and ran cross country in the fall, had taken part in the program last year, as well as MLB Grit, an all-girls tournament held in March. Moreover, it was her inherent qualities that caused her to be chosen for the camp again this spring, said Elizabeth Benn, coordinator of labor, diversity and youth programs for Major League Baseball.
“She was a really positive kid. She was really great to her teammates and encouraged them on,” Benn said. “She worked really hard and asked the coaches a lot of questions. And just looking at her video (component to her application), she’s fundamentally sound.”
The training was already satiating enough for Kaplan; then there was the bonus of getting to surround herself with several dozen other girls doing the same thing.
“I think it takes the pressure off because you go in there, have fun and learn the game you love, instead of always worrying about being perfect,” Kaplan said. “Because if people see a girl mess up, they don’t think of it as, oh, she just made a mistake. They think of it as oh, she did that because she’s a girl.”
Kaplan started playing baseball when she was 4, but after t-ball, she noticed all of the other girls started to vanish, leaving her among the boys that pack the rosters of Anne Arundel County public and private-school rosters, that lined the field at Camden Yards this month for the All-Star Game.
The first time she played with girls again was in 2015, when Kaplan competed in a tournament held by Baseball for All, a nonprofit devoted to girls continuing baseball. The second time was at the inaugural Girls Baseball Breakthrough Series last spring.
Though 100,000 girls play baseball at the youth level, only 1,000 continue at the high school level, per Baseball for All. Kaplan, of course, defied the odds, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t subject to cynics along the way.
Parents hissed negative comments behind her back here and there. At a tryout for a 13-14U team, as Kaplan stepped up to bat, her male friend listened as a teammate spoke ill of her in the outfield.
“I bet she’s going to suck,” Kaplan recalled. She didn’t. She made the team.
Kaplan had two main goals for the development camp this year: increase her speed in the outfield and shake her slump she’d sunk into recently — both which she was proudly able to do. Her team, one of four, won its first game during the series.
Kaplan played for the North County baseball junior varsity team for two seasons. This March, she tried out for varsity and, to her surprise, was cut from both teams.
Junior varsity coach Jake Geis recognized Kaplan’s speed and hitting, but said it wasn’t his decision. North County baseball coach Wayne Feuerherd did not respond to requests seeking comment.
“I didn’t get to see any live (pitching) for two, three months,” Kaplan said. “Trying to get back into it, that caused my slump.”
Juan Palacios is a hitting coach and professional baseball trainer with three decades of coaching experience, including the Houston Astros’ Carlos Correa, the Cleveland Indians’ Francisco Lindor and 2019 Gatorade Maryland Baseball Player of the Year Jack Bulger (DeMatha).
He first started working with Kaplan at 13 years old with a focus on elevating her speed and power to compete at the same level as her male peers.
Currently, she clocks a 76 to 78 miles per hour exit velocity. Her fastball tops out at 68 to 70 miles per hour and she runs a 7.6 60-yard dash.
“On the field, she really knows the game,” Palacios said. “She knows how to position herself in the outfield. Her strongest asset is she can hit the ball. She has power to all sides. … She can help you.”
Programs like the Girls Baseball Breakthrough Series, Benn said, continues to move the needle in favor of more girls maintaining their baseball careers over a longer lifespan.
“It, one, encourages younger girls to continue to play, and also introduces some girls who have never played with another girl before. We’re providing that opportunity to play with other girls for the first time ever,” she said. “That also allows us to gain a support system and a community to surround them as they continue in this sport.”
Though many girls are shifted from baseball to softball at an early age, softball never suited Kaplan. She preferred a different speed, a larger field and longer basepaths, as well as the challenge of playing against boys. She aims to continue playing baseball in college and one day make the USA Baseball Women’s National Team.
“I wanted to continue playing baseball,” she said. “I wanted to make the team, to try and prove people wrong at the same time.”
Despite its emphasis on one sport, Girls Baseball, as well as its sister programs, isn’t about pitting baseball against softball — just the opposite.
“We love women playing baseball. We love women playing softball. We love women doing both,” Benn said. “It’s also great to open more doors than shut them out.”
More than just improving mechanically, Kaplan, who also made the Women’s National Team Trials roster last year, relished the chance to interact with girls with similar backgrounds and motives, as well as women who’d already reached those goals.
Over the weekend, the players had the chance to speak with female-identifying members of the Marlins organization, meant to inspire some of them to one day pursue careers in baseball operations — a class of people sorely needed in the pro-baseball world.
Men take up the lion’s share of visibility when it comes to baseball, whether that be as players, coaches, on-field staff or analysts. Per an April National Public Radio report, less than 200 women hold jobs in baseball operations, spanning from all 30 Major League ballclubs as well as its 256 minor league teams. That 30 percent ratio earned MLB a gender grade of C on its annual report card in 2018.
It’s crucial, Benn said, for young non-male players to see women holding diverse roles in the baseball world, often in positions of power behind the scenes.
It was like getting to watch Mo’ne Davis in the Little League World Series all over again.
“It gave me hope,” Kaplan said, “seeing all the girls that are the same and doing the same things, breaking barriers at the same time.”