Tokyo phenom: US schoolgirl rewrites baseball record books
On Sunday May 22, Bessie Noll, a rangy 15-year-old sophomore at Tokyo's American School in Japan, will board a plane bound for Seoul, South Korea -- and she won’t be going there on vacation.
Instead, she’s traveling as the leadoff batter for the school’s elite varsity baseball team -- the first girl to make the team since its inception, almost a century ago.
Playing with boys is not new to Bessie. She spent the last six years turning out for Musashi Fuchu, a Tokyo Little League team that regularly qualifies for the Little League World Series.
She credits her current success -- batting .345 this season --- to the hard work and discipline of Japanese Little League.
“I know I wouldn’t be here today playing on an American boys' varsity baseball team if I hadn’t been through the rigors of the Japanese system -- I might not even be playing baseball at all,” says Noll.
Going it alone
Bessie has traveled to away games before, but always accompanied by her mother. “This time I’ll be alone. I don’t expect to hang out with the guys, playing video games or anything but it would be nice to eat with the team," she says.
"Anyway, it’s a week before exams and I’m a study freak, so that’s how I’ll be spending my downtime.”
At last year’s Spring Fling in Okinawa, a week-long baseball tournament, several of the players went to the U.S. airbase barber for Mohawk cuts. Is this something she would consider? Laughing, she shakes her head and says “No way -- no Mohawk for me.”
What about the difference playing with Japanese boys or American boys? “Even though I speak Japanese, I was never at a native level, so for years I wouldn’t say anything -- I was mute. But it’s easier to talk to my American teammates because we speak the same language,” says Noll.
How do Bessie’s teammates feel about playing with a girl? “One of the great things about baseball is that it’s not all about strength and physical attributes, it’s about hard work and determination,” says Nathan Lorentz, team captain and 2010 Most Valued Player.
“Bessie personifies those characteristics. I don’t judge on gender -- just skill, and with Bessie, it's a level playing field.”
In addition to playing third base and right field, Bessie also pitches. Being a girl in a field of boys is attention-getting enough -- does she feel more pressure on the mound?
“All my life I’ve been in pressure situations, so I’m used to it and it doesn’t phase me anymore,” says Noll.
Empty locker room
Then there are the little things -- the practicalities of being the sole female player. Getting psyched up in the locker room before a game isn’t easy when you are the only one there.
Still, she loves music and enjoys listening to Lady Gaga, John Mayer and The Script.
Any pre-game rituals? “I don’t have any special rituals that I do before a game, but I do find I play best when I get in my zone. I don’t think about anything -- I just play,” says Noll.
Some observers have described Noll as “patient at the plate.” When asked why, she says, “I’ve always been patient -- maybe too patient. I get a lot of walks -- more than most players. The Japanese have a smaller strike zone than the Americans, so my eye for strikes is good.”
“I think playing on a boys' baseball team provides a higher level of competition than I would find on the equivalent girls' softball team, which will prepare me for when I return to softball.”
In the summers, Bessie returns to her home state of Minnesota to play on an elite girls’ softball team called Players Only Impact -- a fast-pitch team that hopes to qualify for national tournaments.
But why make the switch, even if it is temporary? “I’ve always played baseball but started playing softball a few summers ago and it’s starting to grow on me,” explains Noll. “It’s a fun game to play. I play centerfield, which I love. And playing on a girls team is hugely supportive -- so much different than with the boys.”