BETHESDA – Kelli Jenkins had been attending Bethesda Big Train baseball games at Shirley Povich Field since she was a child. She would sit in the stands, learn from the Division I college baseball players and watch them hone their craft.
After all, even at a young age, baseball was also Jenkins’s craft.
On July 19, those summers spent as a fan at Shirley Povich Field came full circle for Jenkins. She became the first woman to play in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League when she took to the field clad in the green and white of the Bethesda Big Train. Jenkins pitched a clean fourth inning against the Gaithersburg Giants; the Big Train would end up winning the game 9-7.
Pitching for the Big Train seemed to be a natural next step for Jenkins’ baseball career. While most girls and young women play softball, Jenkins gravitated to baseball, thanks to her older brother, Niko, who is a pitcher at La Salle University.
Playing on a tee-ball team and at backyard games with a Whomper bat eventually led to a spot on the St. John’s College High School baseball team; in the fall of 2017, Jenkins announced her intention to continue her career at St. Mary’s College.
After she graduated from St. John’s, Jenkins reached out to BCC Big Train Stars Head Coach Bryan Towers and asked if she could play on the team. The Big Train Stars play in the Maryland Collegiate Baseball League and are sometimes referred to as the “Little Train,” since many of its players move on to play for the Bethesda Big Train in the Cal Ripken League.
“Just to pick up the phone and make a call like that tells me that she loves to play and she wants to play,” said Towers. “I’m all about giving opportunities to anybody in the game of baseball, so I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I told her she’ll always (have) a place to play as long as she wants to play.”
And if there is anything Jenkins wants to do, it is play baseball. Even during the offseason, Jenkins practices her pitching and often calls friends to come out to a field with her so they can practice together. She helps coach children at the baseball camp that her parents run. And she takes her impact in a male-dominated sport very seriously.
“She was always adamant that, ‘No, I’m not playing softball.’ So she loved having her pink helmet with the ponytail holder; she always wore that,” said Kathy Jenkins, Kelli’s mother. “At some point, she began to feel like she had to be a role model for other girls, so that they know they don’t have to play softball; they can continue to play baseball if they want to.”
Jenkins’s impact on female baseball fans was made evident during one of the Big Train Stars’ last games of the season.
“She did have a follower, a young girl that was there to watch her pitch,” said Towers. “And she went out there and got three outs, and I can tell you that the young girl was glued against the fence watching her, her every move. How she warmed up, how she did in the game.”
“After I pitched, I went over and threw with her. It just comes naturally because I love working with little kids,” said Kelli Jenkins. “It was a lot of fun to see that. I signed a baseball for her, and she asked for some of my teammates’ signatures. That’s what makes it a lot of fun, outside of baseball.”
Towers referred to Jenkins as a “consummate teammate.” Even on nights when Jenkins isn’t scheduled to play, she still comes to the game to get involved and help out her team in other capacities. Some nights, she is manning the stat book; other nights, she’s hunting down foul balls.
Big Train Manager Sal Colangelo noticed Jenkins’s talent and work ethic during a scrimmage between his team and the “Little Train.” Colangelo asked Towers if Jenkins could join the Big Train’s roster for the past few games of the season. At first, Jenkins asked Towers if Colangelo was joking.
“I said, ‘No, Sal doesn’t joke about baseball,’” said Towers. “It’s a pretty big deal, the mere fact that Sal Colangelo, who is pretty well-respected in the Cal Ripken League and has a perennial championship team, for him to see something in Kelli and give her a chance to go out there and show what she can do.”
“It’s an acknowledgement that hard work pays off. She never takes a break from it,” said Kathy Jenkins.
Kelli Jenkins admitted that she was nervous when she first stepped up to the mound against the Gaithersburg Giants. However, after the first few pitches, Jenkins hit her stride, and the nerves disappeared.
“My mentality definitely wasn’t the same as how it normally is, when I was playing for the Little Train Stars. I was a bit of a nervous wreck when I first went out there,” said Jenkins. “The first inning you throw for any new team, there’s always so much pressure on that first inning, because that’s how they’re kind of going to judge you afterwards.”
Despite the initial nerves, Jenkins said she is looking forward to learning from the Big Train’s coaches and her Division I teammates. After all, for the young woman who once wore a pink helmet and has a large pink New York Yankees banner in her bedroom, it’s all about the love of the game.
“I love this sport so much, I really do,” said Jenkins. “I want to go as far as I can.”