Claire Eccles throws a pitch that makes batters buckle at the knees.
On Tuesday, one of those rare days when your passions and your dreams come together in historic fashion, Eccles could be excused for feeling a little wobbly herself at times.
“I am more excited than anything, but I am going to be a little nervous,” said Eccles, 19, a UBC softball outfielder who signed on with the Victoria HarbourCats men’s baseball team as a southpaw knuckleball pitcher. “I think anyone in my position would be, too. But it’s good nerves.”
Eccles will become the first female player in the history of the West Coast League, a prime summer developmental league for top men’s players with remaining collegiate eligibility.
And while her even-tempered persona will serve her well coming out of the bullpen once the campaign gets underway in late May, HarbourCats general manager Brad Norris-Jones is confident that Eccles, who spent last summer with the Canadian women’s Under-20 national baseball team, will be able to handle the additional media and fan scrutiny she will encounter over the course of her pioneering first season.
“As a person, let’s first just take the baseball right out of this,” began Norris-Jones, who is aware skeptics may think of the signing as a way to generate publicity. “The day I met her, I knew instantly that as a young lady she could handle being in a challenging position. After five minutes she was ‘OK, I’m all in.’”
Norris-Jones says Victoria fans will see “a true baseball player.”
“All the reports that I have gotten from scouts and various people on Team Canada are the same,” said Norris-Jones.
“Then I played catch with Claire and there is no doubt she has something special,” he continued of Eccles’ signature pitch, one which she has refined over the last seven years. “I have never had a knuckleball pitcher and this thing just dances. It’s a next-level pitch and we’re at a high level here, but I know Claire can compete.”
The West Coast League. which uses wooden bats and a designated hitter, is comprised of 11 teams in B.C., Washington and Oregon, stretching from Kelowna to Bend, Ore.
And having an extended summer to play baseball is something Eccles has never really had in her life.
“It was honestly a good shock because something like this had never really crossed my mind,” said Eccles.”I just figured that a couple of weeks every summer with the national (baseball) team would be the only time that I would get to play.”
Prior to coming to UBC for her 2015-16 freshman softball season, the 5-foot-8 Eccles had played both sports every season with the exception of her Grade 8 year, when she focused only on softball.
The majority of her time was spent with the White Rock Minor Baseball Association and the White Rock Renegades softball club.
Eccles also played club soccer and high school basketball, the latter at Surrey’s Elgin Park Secondary, through her Grade 10 year, so she constantly sought out coaches who were understanding enough to allow her to maintain her multi-sport background.
“But I’ve always loved baseball, it’s my No. 1 sport,” Eccles says. “Softball has grown on me over the years. In softball, though, I tend to hang back a bit. But in baseball, being able to take to the mound and have a chance to take control and to lead, that is more of my outlet for that kind of stuff.”
And about her stuff?
“I think when I was 12, my last year of Little League, I noticed that I could throw a knuckleball,” Eccles remembers. “I took the next year off from baseball because my mom thought the guys were getting too big. But when I came back I kept working on it. It wouldn’t spin, which is the goal so I just kept working at it, and I’ve read books about it.”
And, along with her change-up, that knuckler proved efficient last summer when Eccles pitched at a four-nations event with the national team.
“There is the same possibility that she will give up a run as she will strike out the side,” adds Norris-Jones. “Claire is just like the pitcher I have coming in from Hawaii or the one I have coming in from the University of Pittsburgh. What happens to anyone on our roster isn’t guaranteed. On any given day that knuckleball might not be working, but it’s like I told her, she is a true baseball player. More often than not, that pitch will be dancing.”
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