Despite being one of the better catchers and second basemen in her age group, 13-year-old Anna Perona didn't always assume she would be rewarded for it.
"I expected I'd have to play in the outfield, and that I'd have to bat last," Perona said. "I expected not to feel part of the team."
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But in perhaps a small testament to how far society has come since Title IX legislation was passed 40 years ago to ensure equal opportunities for girls, Perona got the surprise of a lifetime when she joined her teammates for the start of baseball season.
Yes, baseball season.
Perona, a Rogers Park eighth grader in the Warren Park Youth Baseball League on Chicago's north side, was the only girl on her team three years ago, and she one of only several girls in the league.
Yet most of her teammates, boys who have grown up knowing that women can be amazing athletes, barely seemed to care.
"I guess there were a couple of boys who questioned it at first and kind of gave me the cold shoulder," said Perona, who had tried softball but didn't like the game as much as baseball. "For the most part, all of them were really welcoming. That really surprised me. It was nice.
"And once the boys saw what I'm made of and how I play, they were even more accepting. They realized I was just one of them."
Perona and the rest of the girls in the league are blazing another trail three years later. They're still playing baseball with the boys, but now there are enough girls they've formed their own team, the Warren Park Pioneers. The name is clearly fitting.
Likely the only all-girls 13-and-under baseball team in either the city or the suburbs, the Pioneers play all of their games against boys teams in the Minors Division.
They are 4-7 in their inaugural season and in fourth place out of six teams. They've lost some close games and expect to make a strong push in the playoffs next month.
Before then, Perona will turn her attention to yet another groundbreaking opportunity.
She is also part of an elite travel baseball team called the Chicago Pioneers, an all-girls team that was established in 2006 and typically caters to slightly older players.
The Chicago team secured an invitation to play in a 50-plus team national tourney next weekend at the All Star Village in Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The Pioneers will be the first all-girls baseball team to participate there since it opened in 2004.
Not that Perona will even blink an eye. She's used to such distinctions.
"I'm excited to be a part of another thing that only boys have done in the past," Perona said. "This is a really amazing opportunity for us. My brother has played in Cooperstown in the past and it was such a great experience. You were just like, 'Wow! This is serious baseball.'
"I just want to keep showing people that you don't have to be a boy to play baseball."
Perona made a believer out of her dad, Joe, a former all-Big Ten catcher at Northwestern who was drafted by the Detroit Tigers and played minor league ball from 1991 to 1995. When he was growing up, girls didn't dare to play baseball much past T-ball.
"When I was growing up, there was probably that stereotype that baseball was for boys and girls don't play baseball," said Joe Perona, an options trader who serves as the president of the Warren Park Youth Baseball League. "Now, having a daughter, I'm just much more open. I want her to have a fair chance in everything she tries, and she loves baseball. I tried to get her to play softball, but they really are two different sports and baseball appeals to her so much more.
"It's been fun for me to see her enjoy a sport that I enjoy so much."
Perona also loves basketball, volleyball and soccer. She figures she'll get more serious about those sports once baseball ends. And it will end, although she vows to hang on as long as possible.
"Most of my friends who played baseball with me when we were younger quit a long time ago because they said baseball wasn't going anywhere, that they probably wouldn't ever be able to play in high school or college," Perona said. "They'd say, 'What's the point of going on?'
"But I say, 'What's the point of quitting a sport you love when you can still play it? I'm going to go as far as I can go with this and play for as long as I can, because I love it.'"
Be a Pioneer:
The Chicago Pioneers are always looking for talented female baseball players.
The team currently has two open spots. Interested players can be from either Chicago or the suburbs and should be no older than 16 on Dec. 31, 2012.
In late August, the Pioneers will be one of 10 teams to compete in the Bantam Girls 16-and-under International Baseball Championship in Canada. USA Baseball asked the Pioneers to train and field a team to represent the United States in the tournament.
For more information, contact Mary Jo Stegeman at (847) 679-8944 or visit www.chicagopioneers.com.