Ghazaleh Sailors was willing to travel to the ends of the earth for the chance to play college baseball.
The most recent stop is Presque Isle, where the 20-year-old from Santa Barbara, California, is a junior pitcher and backup second baseman for the University of Maine-Presque Isle.
According to Gail Dent of the NCAA public and media relations staff, Sailors is the only woman playing baseball in the NCAA in 2014.
“I was asked to play Division I softball when I was in high school and I had [scholarship] offers and I chose to follow my dream and play college baseball,” Sailors said.
During her baseball journey, Sailors has encountered ridicule, physical and mental abuse, and worse.
“I’ve gotten death threats over the internet. That was pretty scary,” explained Sailors, who also was forced to switch high schools after enduring harassment from her teammates because of her gender.
“When I talk to the media about it, I just say it was bullying and abuse,” she said.
More recently, the right-hander has found a more accepting environment at UMPI. Sailors has a 1-1 record and a team-best 4.95 earned run average in eight games, including two starts.
She is among only a handful of women who have earned an NCAA baseball victory on the mound. On April 3, Sailors pitched five innings of six-hit ball in a 13-1, five-inning win over NCAA Division III provisional member Valley Forge Christian College at Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.
“It was a great feeling,” said Sailors, who hadn’t expected to pitch that day.
“She can get inside her own head, so I tried to wait as long as I could to give her the ball and let her know she was starting,” said first-year UMPI head coach Mike Pankow.
Sailors, who does not throw hard, relied on her breaking pitch.
“I was in command,” she said. “I just kept hammering the curveball and I had eight strikeouts.”
The feat almost didn’t happen, as the umpire announced he would call the game at 7:30 p.m. because of darkness.
“I got the last out, it was a strikeout, at like 7:28 — just in time to get five innings in,” said Sailors, who was more excited that UMPI had earned its first win of the season.
The 5-foot-4 Sailors has allowed 29 hits and 11 earned runs with 11 strikeouts and nine walks in 20 innings.
She picked up her first college victory on May 5, 2013, in a 12-1, five-inning win over Eastern Maine Community College of Bangor.
“I think it’s been a while since a girl got a win period, besides myself, because there’s so few girls playing college baseball,” she said.
NCAA records show that Molly McKesson of Division II Christian Brothers University in Tennessee won a game as a freshman in 2005.
On Wednesday, for the second straight year, Sailors worked a scoreless inning against Division I University of Maine. She allowed a double and hit a batter, but induced an inning-ending groundout.
“I’m short. I’m small. I don’t throw very hard at all,” Sailors said. “I kind of rely on my offspeed to get me through the games.”
It was former UMPI coach Leo Saucier who in 2011 opened the door for Sailors to play college baseball.
“When she was trying to find a place to play, nobody would give her a shot, so she came all the way across the country to do it,” Saucier told the BDN last year.
Sailors, whose first name is pronounced OZ-uh-lay (her friends call her Oz), had no qualms about relocating 2,740 miles from Southern California to northern Maine.
“This was my dream when I was little, to play baseball until I couldn’t play anymore, and I want others to be able to follow their dreams, too,” she said.
Sailors stands alone
In 2013, there were 32,450 men playing baseball on 936 teams across Divisions I, II and III.
Dent said there are a few women on NCAA baseball rosters most years, but exact figures are hard to ascertain because women are not tallied separately.
Sailors is happy to be among those who have been counted.
“I was always told that I was a good player, I was talented, when I was little,” Sailors said, “but I definitely had more heart than talent.”
According to the NCAA, Julie Croteau in 1989 became the first woman to play collegiate men’s varsity baseball at Division III St. Mary’s College in Maryland.
The trailblazer among female college baseball pitchers was Ila Borders. On Feb. 15, 1994, the 5-10, 150-pound lefty from California became the first woman to pitch in an NCAA or NAIA game for Division III Whittier College.
As a senior in 1997, she had a 4-5 record and a team-leading 5.22 ERA. A year later, Borders became one of the first women to play professionally in the minor leagues.
One of the guys
Sailors admits she encountered some resistance from team members during her first two years in Presque Isle.
“There’s been a lot of harassment in the past, but this group of guys this year, I couldn’t ask for anything more,” she said. “They treat me like one of them and that’s what I want.”
Sailors described this team as more of a family.
Senior captain Lucas Molloy said Sailors’ approach to the game has earned her the respect and admiration of her teammates.
“She works harder than anyone on the team and I’ve told a couple people I wish we had 15 or 16 people with Oz’s mentality and work ethic and we’d have one hell of a team,” Molloy said.
He said team members now shrug off the reaction of opponents who are surprised when they realize Sailors is a woman.
“Everyone’s like, ‘is that a girl over there?’ We usually just chuckle under our breath because yeah, it’s a girl,” Molloy said. “They’re just not used to seeing it happen.”
Pankow appreciates Sailors’ resolve in playing baseball with and against men.
“She’s opening doors for young women across the country,” he said. “She just wants to play ball.”
No soft spot for softball
Last year, Californian Marti Sementelli also was playing baseball at NAIA-affiliated Montreat College in North Carolina. She since has joined the school’s softball team.
In March 2011, Sailors and Sementelli went head to head in what was believed to be the first U.S. high school baseball game to feature girls as the starting pitchers. Sementelli’s Birmingham High team beat Sailors’ San Marcos squad 6-1.
American girls who start out playing baseball are usually steered toward softball by the time they reach middle school or high school.
In 2013, there were 18,671 women playing softball on 988 NCAA teams.
For Sailors, softball was never an option.
“I couldn’t imagine my life without baseball,” she said. “Even if I couldn’t play baseball, I’d just play another sport. I don’t think I’d play softball.”
A league of their own
There are opportunities for women who want to play baseball at a high level. Sailors hopes to again earn a spot on the USA Baseball Women’s National Team, for which she played in 2010 and 2011.
Team USA is gearing up for the Women’s Baseball World Cup, slated for September in Japan. She will attend a regional tryout in Houston in June.
Last summer, Sailors pitched for the San Francisco Seals of the Far West League, a collegiate wooden-bat league. She had a 1-1 record in four outings.
Sailors, whose ultimate goal is to play in the Japanese women’s professional league, admits it has been difficult dealing with prejudice and sexism.
“I want to make a difference and that’s why I chose to stay in baseball,” she said.
“The battle is fought on the field with your glove and your bat. It’s how you play the game.”
While Sailors enjoys serving as a role model, she would prefer not to carry the torch alone.
“It’s a blessing to see that there’s other little girls that want to play college baseball and they look up to me and they want to follow in my footsteps,” she said.
“People ask me, ‘do you like that (being the only woman in college baseball)?’ I’m like, no, because I want to see the sport grow,” Sailors said. “I want others to be able to follow their dreams, too.”