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Just a ballplayer

Gibbs freshman Molly McKesson has been playing on teams with boys since she was 7. This season she became the first girl in Pinellas County history to play on a varsity team. So what's the big deal?

By PETE YOUNG

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 2001


It's one of the most significant sports stories of this past school year. Huge news, a great accomplishment, a gender-athletic breakthrough:

This season, Molly McKesson of Gibbs became the first girl in Pinellas County history to play varsity baseball. Ever.

Her reaction? A shrug. A "no big deal" smile. A comment about how she has been playing baseball with boys since she was 7, when she switched from softball after one of her high-velocity practice tosses nearly broke the nose of a teammate.

Boys, girls -- whatever. For McKesson, a freshman, it's the same as always.

"I'm just playing," said McKesson, a 5-foot-7 right-hander who appeared in five games (one start) for Gibbs this season, going 0-2 with a 4.20 ERA in 112/3 innings, striking out 9 while allowing 19 hits and 9 walks. "I've been playing my whole life."

Progressing from youth league baseball to high school was just the next step in a natural chain of events from McKesson's perspective. In fact, this being-the-only-girl thing is getting old.

She has played baseball with boys for years, in Northeast Little League and then in Fossil Park youth league. And she routinely makes all-star teams. At age 12, McKesson played for an AAU team, the Gulf Coast Breakers, that placed third in the state tournament and eighth in the national tournament. Among the players on the team was Clearwater freshman Chris Jones, who started for the Tornadoes' final four team this season.

A few years ago, an Internet search helped McKesson discover the American Women's Baseball League. She has played for the Ocala Lightning and a team from Michigan in tournaments all over the country, and she usually is the youngest player.

McKesson, who turned 15 on April 16, might seem to be underplaying her achievements with the high school team, but her brother isn't overwhelmed, either. Kevin, a sophomore, also pitches for Gibbs. Was he amazed to be playing alongside his kid sister this season?

"We've played on the same team two or three times before," said Kevin, who was 2-6 with a 5.40 ERA for the Gladiators, who went 6-18. "I'm totally used to it."

Her parents, Robert and Sheryl, also have grown accustomed to their daughter's trail-blazing accomplishments.

"Obviously, we're extremely proud," Robert said. "Both Molly and Kevin have been working hard at it since they were about 9."

Several years of pitching lessons from Countryside coach Steve Sharts, among others, and regularly attending baseball camps have honed McKesson's skills. She hopes to work her way into the Gibbs rotation next season and eventually play other positions as well.

Gibbs coach Tim King said McKesson was a model team member.

"She never missed a conditioning workout all year," said King, who was in his first year coaching Gibbs. "The first time I saw her throw, I hate to say she threw like a boy, but she obviously had some skill throwing the ball."

As for the myriad of potential problems with teammates, opponents, parents and fans, McKesson and King say that except for a few stray comments, everything went well.

"I was afraid they'd be iffy and stuff, but everyone's been nice," said McKesson, who along with her brother is in the arts program at Gibbs. "It's been fun."

Added King: "Never once did anyone say, "Oh, we've got a girl on the team.' Once they saw her throw and saw her work out, she was just a ballplayer."

The McKessons are baseball lovers. Inside the front door of their St. Petersburg home is a basket filled with bats, balls and gloves. Molly and Kevin spend hours playing at nearby Fossil Park.

Robert, a postal worker, is a die-hard Cincinnati Reds fan. He was at Riverfront Stadium the day Pete Rose set the all-time hits record. He needed special permission to attend that night from his wife, Sheryl, who was home with infant Kevin and pregnant with Molly. A couple of years later, the McKessons moved from Ohio to St. Petersburg.

McKesson recently was chosen to the United States team that will play against Canada, Japan and Australia in the Women's World Series from July 4-8 at the Toronto SkyDome. Last summer, she played in an all-star women's tournament at SkyDome.

However, McKesson might not make the trip. She was hospitalized April 28 when she felt a piercing pain in her head.

"Subarachnoid bleeding. Blood around the brain," Sheryl McKesson said was the diagnosis. "They're still not sure what caused it."

Getting her first start for Gibbs was exciting, but a visit from the Devil Rays' Fred McGriff while she was hospitalized vaulted The Crime Dog to the top of McKesson's favorite-player list.

"That was awesome," McKesson said.

She spent two weeks in the hospital and will be undergoing more tests in the coming weeks. McKesson has not been cleared to practice but is optimistic she will play in the World Series -- and take another big step in an already remarkable career.

"I'm hoping to be cleared, I'm really looking forward to it," McKesson said. "This is what I love to do."

Introducing: Molly McKesson

FAVORITE TV SHOW: Law & Order

FAVORITE MOVIE: *61

FAVORITE FOODS: Veggie lasagna and pizza

FAVORITE BASEBALL TEAMS: 1. Cincinnati Reds (her family is from Ohio), 2. New York Yankees, 3. Devil Rays (with a bullet)

FAVORITE BASEBALL PLAYERS: Pedro Martinez, Fred McGriff

PITCHING REPERTOIRE: Fastball, curveball (best pitch), changeup, cutter

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