Photo by Kimberly Contreras

First female MLB coach Justine Siegal makes impact with Oakland A's

Justine Siegal made history with the Oakland A's this fall when she became the first woman to coach for an MLB franchise. Kimberly Contreras delves into Siegal's impact on history and on the A's.

Editor's Note: History was made during the Oakland A's fall Instructional League when Justin Siegal became the first woman to coach a Major League Baseball team. Kimberly Contreras recounts the impact Justine's time at A's "Instructs" had on women who love baseball and on the A's themselves.

September 29th

For most people, making history is just a dream; for Justine Siegal, “breaking down barriers” as she refers to it, is more of a habit.  

First woman to coach a college baseball team for more than one season**? Check. First woman to coach a professional baseball team? Check. First woman to throw batting practice to MLB players? Check-a-roonie! And, of course the most recent effort; the first woman to be employed as a coach of an MLB organization. Check MATE. Whether it’s history-making or barrier-breaking, Justine Siegal did it four times, in fewer than 10 years.

The most recent of such was announced on September 29th. It was at the end of a frustrating, losing season where the Oakland A’s finished last in the AL West – 20 games behind the division champion Texas Rangers.  Oakland A’s general manager David Forst announced the addition of a woman to the coaching staff. The progressive brain trust from the Bay Area was once again ahead of the curve, as they assigned 40-year-old Dr. Justine Siegal to the fall Instructional League in Arizona. Word spread quickly to - and through - media outlets, both domestic and international; sports-focused and not; gender-slanted and not, it made no difference as the message was clear: the Oakland A’s chose a well-respected, seasoned professional to be employed as a coach.  The buzz was electric. It was so good to see the Athletics highlighted in a positive way, especially after such a long season.

The excitement and support for this landmark decision was important, but the result; that which was actually accomplished was the next, equally important step. Some believe “we” (women, I presume) should just be happy that it happened. Call me hard to please, but I want to know what transpired.

What did she do? What was the mood when she arrived mid-camp? How easily – or not – did she fit in? How did she interact with the players? After the initial “newness” wore off, and aside from the physical appearance, was there a noticeable difference as to who was the “girl coach”? Or, was it as Forst expected, where the only discernable difference would be between rookie coaches and the veterans? Because, really, isn’t that the goal in a situation like this? Not that she stood out, but that she proved to be a valuable resource and that by the end of camp, no one thought she was “special”; proving to be equal to the task?

I asked and observed. Here’s what I learned:

Let’s start with the basics. Just like the other coaches, Justine arrived at the Lew Wolff Training Center at Fitch Park before the sun. Only difference was the locker rooms. She had the entire women’s locker room to herself, where she had her number 15 uniform waiting for her each day. Ok, so it was the auxiliary facilities that were temporarily renamed by way of a plain white paper with “Women’s Locker Room” printed from someone’s computer, and secured by a piece of tape. Aside from the veteran-versus-rookie identification, the locker room was the only time and place where she was different from the other coaches; other than that, they ate together, participated in meetings together, everything else.  

According to many of the players and coaches, the anticipation of Justine’s arrival was extremely positive. The first hour or two was the only time of any awkwardness, and that was admittedly more due to the hour of day after a day off than anything else. This comes as no surprise. When leadership at the player development level is as inclusive and strong as it is under Oakland’s Farm Director Keith Lieppman, a positive approach is the only expectation. By the time the visiting Arizona Diamondbacks arrived for the 12:30 game, there were only two types of coaches: veterans and rookies.

While the Instructional League is a more relaxed environment, for the purpose of capitalizing on teachable moments, the daily schedule is still long and still requires 100% participation and effort. And, as I mentioned, the days start with the sun. Instructional League Games (or “Instructs”) are played against other Cactus League teams at 12:30pm, Monday – Friday and at 10:00am on Saturdays.  Camp Days are scheduled throughout the camp, so there is time for in-house instruction and usually include a scrimmage / intrasquad, and some classroom time. The days start very early, and end early as well.

A typical day is something like:

5:30am – 6:00am   Arrive, dress, breakfast for players and coaches

7:00am                Meetings for coaches and players; Pitchers leave with pitching coaches / Hitters stay with hitting coaches

8:00am – 10:45am  Early work; On the field for warm-ups, drills, batting practice, infield, special focus times, etc.

10:45am 11:30am      Lunch in the wonderful new kitchen and dining area.

11:30am                    Leave if there’s an away game

12:30pm–3:30pm   Game. Usually longer due to informal structure, often add innings if one team has more pitchers who need to throw.

4PM                           Return to home facility. Sometimes, if players want extra work or extra cage time, coaches will stay. 

That’s a long day and it’s usually quite warm still, as it was this year; triple digits each day and not dipping back to double digits until the evening hours.

During early work, coaches break off and work with specific groups. Though she is a pitcher by position, Justine would usually work with the infielders; running drills and skill building. During games, whether home or away, she was part of a rotation of first base coaches, a role she knows well, this being her third such assignment.

The first time Siegal – make that Doctor Siegal – coached first base was at Springfield College, where she spent three years as a member of the staff, while she was also earning her Ph.D in Sport Psychology. Seven years earlier, in her early 20’s, she founded the not-for-profit organization known now as Baseball For All, whose mission is “providing meaningful opportunities in baseball, especially for girls.” Advisors to the organization include respected sports journalist Tim Brown, MLB Historian John Thorn, and a man who has baseball team ownership in his DNA, Mike Veeck, son of Bill, who signed Larry Doby as the first African-American player in the American League.

In 2009, Siegal broke down more barriers, for the second time as a first base coach. Manager Chris Caminucci of the independent Can-Am League’s Brockton Rox made history hiring the first woman to coach professional baseball. Some recognizable names on the Rox rosters during Siegal’s tenure include MLB right-handed reliever Steve Delabar, left-handed pitcher Brad Hertzler, a one-time Oakland draft pick (15th round, 2007). Brockton finished first in the league, but lost in the semifinals.

When I saw Justine this past October, coaching first base, I admit I was more excited than I thought I would be. Just as I was when I saw her throw batting practice to the big league A’s during spring training 2011. Like Siegal, my dream was always to play baseball at the major league level. Along with Melissa Lockard, we’ve been fans and supporters of Justine’s for many years. We live vicariously through her efforts. 

During Instructs, the days were long, and she enjoyed every minute, the nights were short, but she maximized the time to be as well rested as possible. After the initial round of media interviews when the news was announced, Siegal spoke to only a handful of media after she arrived in Arizona. This was news to me because I intentionally kept my distance for fear of interrupting her from actually doing her history-making-job. I did not speak to her until the last day of camp. Getaway day.

When I finally met Justine, I liked her immediately. Her quiet confidence was warm and welcoming; her youthful beauty and long blonde hair, pulled back in a ponytail and under a cap, did not resemble a 40-year-old by anyone’s definition; her humble honesty was a breath of fresh air; no rhetoric; she was easy to talk with and ask questions of; very bright in an unassuming way.

As mothers, we talked about our kids and college – her daughter is passionate about the arts and will immerse herself in that field in higher education. I kept thinking how fortunate her daughter is to have a mother, and a role model, who is a force of change and progress, and allows her daughter to be her own person.

When I asked about her daily field duties, she confirmed that like the other rookie coaches, she did a lot of fungo-hitting and BP-throwing along with her in-game duties. On Camp Days, her assignments included giving a presentation to the young players on the importance of continuing their education, a subject she is quite passionate about. Immediate feedback from the boys was very positive, one told me that the way she delivered the information spoke to him in a way that no one else had been able to.

Often we meet those who are difference-makers and find their persona is just that; a persona. They seem to always be “on”, as in on-stage, and that can be draining on those around them. Not the case with Justine; she is nothing other than who she is; in her spirit. She leaves you feeling better about yourself, regardless of the topic of conversation.

Photo of Justine Siegal and Jesus Zambrano by Kimberly Contreras

On that last day of Instructs, I did notice a subtle tenderness expressed by Justine to the boys and vice versaThe one thing I noticed was the subtle tenderness expressed by Justine to the boys and vice versa. The boys knew they were part of an elite group; they were her assistants in making history. Only when someone from the outside brought up the topic did the young men express their pride in their coach and in their role, otherwise they never thought about it. Just as Forst had hoped it would be.

But on getaway day, the hugs were just a little more gentle with Siegal than they were with the male coaches; through the goodbyes, the respect and appreciation for their coach – oh yeah, who happens to be a woman – warmed the backfields in Mesa.

As they were departing camp, I asked a few of the players to share specific thoughts about working with Justine and what they learned from her, either directly or indirectly.  Their responses are from the heart and presented in full, below:

Trace Loehr – age 20 (SS)

"When she came in I was pretty anxious to see how everything was going to play out and what she was going to bring to the table. First day, she started hitting fungos to the third baseman and that's when I thought to myself, "Damn, she's really about this." She was very professional about her business and we treated her like our coaches that we have had since we started pro ball. She is one of us now. Biggest thing I learned is nothing she really said or did on the field. It was more in the fact that she broke a tremendous barrier with women who want to get in the game of baseball. If you fight for it, eventually good things will come. That's what I learned from Justine."

Steven Pallares - age 22 (OF)

"I had limited interaction with her, but I did spend some time talking to her and listening to stories while we were watching the game.

At the beginning, I could tell she was nervous, but she got more comfortable with us and was able to really open up. She blended in with the coaching staff and she was another staff member I could ask questions and gain information about the game."

Joe Bennie - age 24 (OF)

"I learned a valuable lesson about perseverance and overcoming the odds and never giving up on your dreams. Just from a couple times talking to her in the dugout during games I really became inspired. What she had to go through to reach this point is unbelievable and I think her story relates to minor league players and actually all baseball players who aspire to be a major leaguer. The odds of making it to the big leagues is not in our favor and a lot of players don't have the mental toughness to stick with the grind and put in the time to reach their goal. And in Justine's situation all odds were against her to become a baseball coach and with years and years of persistence and never giving up on her dream she got to put on an Oakland Athletics uniform for two weeks and coach professional baseball players. Her story of perseverance is something I'll take with me through the rest of my career. She's living proof that no matter how many set backs you have, if you keep fighting and believing in what you want it'll happen.

Her inspiration and coaching stemmed away from the mechanics of how to field a ground ball or hit a baseball but she coached me on how to be a stronger person.

I think she blended in perfectly, after the first day of "hello" and "nice to meet you.""

James Terrell - age 18 (OF)

"She was great! As she got more comfortable with guys, she'd join in our dugout shenanigans, and inside jokes (ALL APPROPRIATE). She once explained to me how she didn't just take the step forward and being the first woman coach for herself. She did it for other girls, like her, who love the game and want to do something with that passion. I loved it!

She's an amazing woman. She also shared to the whole team about her downs in the process of her getting to where she is and I commend her for staying strong, even when no one else believed in her. Again she is amazing and I hope to see her in the spring!"

***

History will likely remember 2015 as the year of broken barriers, with women in sports. The NFL, NBA, ESPN and MLB, because of the Oakland Athletics all made history. Hopefully sooner rather than later, this inclusion will be more of something to reflect upon and wonder why it wasn’t always a level playing field.

** Julie Croteau, the first woman to coach men’s baseball, did so for UMass-Amherst, for one season.


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