© Copyright - 2017 - Victoria Sports News
There have been few female athletes who have had the opportunity to compete with and against men in elite sport. Claire Eccles of White Rock will be the first female to play in the West Coast League for the Victoria HarbourCats, the team announced Tuesday during a press conference at Royal Athletic Park.
In hockey, there is the legendary Haley Wickenheiser of Shaunovon, Sask and later Calgary, who played in the Finnish Elite league. She was the first female to play men’s pro hockey full time. Beauport, Quebec’s Manon Rheaume signed a pro contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992. She played goal in a few exhibition games during the ’92 and ’93 preseasons.
There was talk in 2013 of a National Basketball Association team drafting 6’9” Brittney Griner. It never happened, but there was talk.
Babe Zaharias, back in 1945 and more recently Annika Sorenstam, a LPGA legend, played a little in the PGA.
In a somewhat serendipitous matter of timing, the movie Boston is currently playing in theatres. It is a documentary about the Boston Marathon. One of the stories within the documentary is of Katherine Switzer, who was the first female marathon runner to wear a race number; she completed Boston in 1967. The race director Jock Semple tried to physically pull her off the course. At the time, no women officially ran the marathon, five years later, they were permitted to run; thanks to Switzer and her 235-pound boyfriend who knocked Semple off the course. Currently, as many or more women run the marathon as men do.
Switzer kicked a door open and the ladies followed.
Asked if she feels that she is a trailblazer, Eccles said, “Yeah for sure. I am the first women in Canada to get the opportunity to play at this level. I hope that girls hear about this. I hope this inspires girls to keep their dreams alive.”
The WCL is a men’s development league between university and professional baseball. The 19-year-old Eccles plays for Team Canada as well as the UBC Thunderbirds in the NAIA. She is a knuckleballer with talent, but does she have what it takes to stick in the WCL?
“This is no publicity stunt,” shared Managing Partner Jim Swanson. “This lady can pitch.”
Asked about her curveball throwing skills, Eccles said, “I can throw it anywhere. I can be down 3-0 with Team Canada and will still get the call to throw a curve or a knuckle.”
Eccles will suit up as early as June 6. Her playing status in any game is up to Head Coach Brian McRae, not Swanson or General Manager Brad Norris-Jones, who recruited her.
“I told Brian that he won’t be getting any phone calls from management to play her at any specific time,” added Swanson. “But she will get the opportunity to play.”
For Norris-Jones, her name kept cropping up as he did his research on women who may be able to play in the men’s league. Asked in what scenarios she would be inserted into the line-up, he said, “Being a lefty, she will pitch against lefties, but she also has a couple of other pitches. She will need to utilise her knuckleball, for sure.”
She represented Canada at the 2016 Women’s Baseball World Cup in South Korea last September, making two appearances including a complete game in her one start. In 8.2 innings pitched in the tournament, Eccles allowed just two hits while striking out five batters. Canada finished the Women’s Baseball World Cup in second place, capturing the silver medal.
"I'm extremely excited to be getting the opportunity to play at such a high level of ball, and being the first female in Canada to do so,” said Eccles. “The HarbourCats seem like an amazing organization and I can't wait to play for them. As much as this is an accomplishment for myself, I can't help but realize that this is a step in the right direction for any girl with a dream of playing baseball. There's a bigger picture out there.”
Eccles is a graduate of Elgin Park Secondary in Surrey. She batted .293 as a sophomore outfielder for the UBC softball team this spring. At UBC, she plays in the outfield.
The 5’8” Eccles will be with the HarbourCats throughout the season, but commitments with Team Canada and elite softball programs will take her away at times. She is scheduled to join the HarbourCats in Victoria on June 6 prior to their game against the Wenatchee AppleSox.
The HarbourCats open the 2017 WCL season on June 1 on the road against the WCL’s newest team, the Port Angeles Lefties. Their home opener at Royal Athletic Park is June 5 when the Wenatchee AppleSox visit Victoria.