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35 under 35: On the mound and in the commissioner’s office, Elizabeth Benn brings the intensity

NEW YORK — When Elizabeth Benn first started pitching in the New York Metro Baseball League, an amateur collective for former college players and weekend warriors, an opposing batter would step into the box and laugh. Just like that. Happened all the time.

Some guys smiled. Some looked ... uncomfortable. Some just hurled thinly veiled, sarcastic remarks from the bench.

The best reactions, however, came when the at-bats were over. This was after Benn had spun her breaking ball and located her fastball and unleashed her changeup, after the batter had grounded out weakly or popped up, after an opponent from the Bronx or Queens had seethed on the bench or smashed his bat against some poor inanimate object.

“The number of guys who would break their bat after facing me,” Benn says, “... it was a lot.”

At first, Benn sought to take the response in stride. At age 25, she is many things — the first woman to play in the NYMBL, a coordinator in the labor relations department at the MLB commissioner’s office, an adjunct lecturer in philosophy at Lehman College — but one thing she is not is timid. When she was a little girl in Toronto, she joined a local Little League and played baseball with boys. When she arrived in New York for graduate school, she did a Google search for “adult baseball leagues.” When she earned her master’s in philosophy from Columbia University in 2017, she entered a presentation into the Baseball Hall of Fame’s annual symposium, “Baseball and American Culture.”

The title? “Baseball’s Gender Problem.”

“It was about if you’re discriminating based on an arbitrary line,” Benn says. “If it’s just based on something like gender — and it’s not about talent — then there’s a problem.”

Two years later, Benn is still in baseball. That gender problem? It’s something she thinks about nearly every day. During the week, Benn works in the MLB commissioner’s office in Manhattan, where she focuses on player programs in the labor relations department and on development initiatives to grow the game and promote opportunities for women within it. On the weekend, she is one of the top pitchers on the Yonkers Railsplitters, a title contender in the A division of the NYMBL, which is how I came to find myself at a dusty, sun-baked baseball field in the Bronx on a Saturday in August.

The Railsplitters, Benn’s team, were up against a squad called the New York Patriots in a best- of-three championship series. They had already won Game 1. Benn, in her fourth season, stood near the end of the dugout, sunglasses covering her eyes, her hair in a ponytail, her head turned toward the action.

“She’s smarter than everybody in the league,” says Jonas Wanning, a friend and longtime NYMBL player.

The New York Metro Baseball League is the kind of city league for former small-school college players and high school standouts, those who grew up playing and can’t give up the game. There are two divisions, with the main distinction being that the pitchers throw a lot harder in the AA division. The teams play games throughout the city, the hitters swing wooden bats, and the fundamentals are sharp, even if the speed and athleticism can be dulled by age.

On this day, a small group of friends and family watched from behind a chain-link backstop as reggaeton music blared from a nearby stereo. The umpire, mustachioed and clad in full equipment, soaked in the afternoon heat. “People take it really seriously,” Benn says. “But I really enjoy the intensity.”

The Railsplitters took an early lead before falling apart late. The loss meant that Benn would start Sunday in a decisive Game 3. Six innings later, she was still pitching in a 1-1 tie when a thunderstorm pushed the conclusion to this weekend. There were no laughs from the other side.

“There’s always people that don’t want you there,” Benn tells me, sitting at a coffee shop in the Upper East Side one afternoon this month. “But people are getting more comfortable.”

Growing up in Toronto, Benn found baseball in the usual ways. Her mother, Ann Procyk, is a New Jersey native who passed down her love of the New York Yankees. Her older brother, Andrew, was a devoted Little Leaguer who needed a partner for practice sessions.

Benn joined a local Little League when she was 8; she immediately took to pitching. She was the little girl who idolized Roy Halladay and Mariano Rivera, who knew more Yankees than people in her neighborhood, who would take a tennis ball and heave it against a brick wall, pretending that one of the bricks was the strike zone.

“I’d always pick one brick in the wall that I was trying to hit,” Benn says. “And if I missed that, I’d tell myself that they hit a bomb off me.

”She was also the rare girl who stuck with baseball when so many of her friends moved on to softball. Eventually — inevitably — she was the only one in a league full of boys. The reaction, she says, was what you’d expect: For every supportive coach, there was someone offering a surprising glance. “People kind of look at you a bit funny,” she says.

Benn was unfazed. For one, she was a pitcher, which didn’t exactly translate to softball. And then there was the fact that she loved baseball — the strategy, the thinking, the cat-and- mouse game between pitcher and hitter — so why stop? She played against boys in a local rec league until she tore her labrum when she was 16. When the rehab process stretched across the next two years, she finally relented, joining the varsity softball team during her undergrad years at the University of Toronto.

After finishing school, Benn moved to New York to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy. Yet she still had an itch to pitch, so one chilly spring day in 2016, she took the subway up to the Bronx and showed up for an NYMBL tryout. The process, Benn recalls, was unnerving. When she stepped off the train, she saw a “massive dude” carrying a baseball bag. When she arrived at the field, Christen Colon, the league’s commissioner, said a group of guys wondered if she was actually looking for a softball tryout. It was also freezing. Colon, a former college player who doubles as a shortstop for the Railsplitters, knew Benn was coming. The league, which started in the mid-2000s, had never had a woman join, but Colon figured the diversity would be healthy. And when Benn got up to throw a side session, the players and coaches quickly agreed.

Four years later, Benn finished the 2019 season with a 3.72 ERA while making six starts. She also excels as a crafty reliever, a nice change of pace after a hard-throwing starter tires. Benn does not throw hard; before her shoulder injury in high school, she topped out at around 70 mph. But what she lacks in velocity, she makes up for in guile, using two fastballs, a slurve, a 12-6 curveball and a changeup. The hitters in the league, Wanning says, cannot square her up, a result of her pinpoint control and what he calls “this masculinity bullshit.”

“Guys gun up on her fastball and she throws you a curveball or this pitch that breaks three feet off the plate,” Wanning says. “She can dot her pitches, too. She’s not intimidated at all. She doesn’t miss. It’s pretty amazing.”

For years, Benn liked watching Marco Estrada, the former Blue Jays starter whose fastball tops out in the 80s. There was an art to his pitching, a process of thinking that demanded focus and intensity and dedication to detail on each pitch. She found it thrilling.

“You have to think so much,” she says.

In most ways, Benn viewed baseball as an avocation, something to pass the time as she finished school. But when she took a social philosophy class, something began to stir inside. The class covered discrimination theory and gender norms. It was, she says, the same sort of thing she thought about when she arrived at a baseball field with all men. So, she wondered: Could she ever make a difference in baseball? Was there even a job out there for someone like her?

In 2017, Benn began an internship at the MLB commissioner’s office. It was, broadly, an intriguing time for women in the sport. For much of the decade, the league had wrangled with, and sought to address, a number of key social issues, from homophobia to sexual harassment to domestic violence. In the words of Paul Mifsud, vice president and deputy general counsel for MLB, the league needed to “walk the walk” on equality and inclusion. So in 2013, a new workplace code of conduct was put in place. And two years later, the league and players association agreed to a new policy that covered, among other things, domestic violence and sexual assault.

The policy initiatives represented progress. Yet Mifsud still remembers a conversation with Jean Afterman, the Yankees assistant general manager and a friend, that came soon after. “What are we doing for women?” she asked.

The answer, in part, came in 2016, when MLB commissioner Rob Manfred hired Tyrone Brooks, a former front office executive, to lead the league’s new Diversity Pipeline Program, which seeks to increase the pool of minority and women candidates in baseball operations roles. League officials view the mission as a long game; success will be measured over 10 or 15 years. Yet the desire for new perspectives is why Mifsud was determined to hire Benn when her internship concluded in 2018.

Benn had spent part of her internship in youth programs and sought a possible job in baseball and softball development. Mifsud, however, believed her playing experience as a woman in baseball could offer value to the labor relations department, which handles player programs and education, among its other responsibilities. In fact, Mifsud said, as the league spent years addressing various social issues, he began to see a common thread.

“You start to realize that the more accepting and inclusive baseball is of women at all levels of the game, you can start to address these issues,” he said.

In that sense, someone like Benn is both an asset for the presence and part of an investment into the future. In her role as a coordinator, she has responsibilities in educating current players, helping with diversity and inclusion initiatives, and growing baseball and softball at the youth level. Benn says the latter parts of her job can go hand in hand.

During his time as commissioner, Manfred has made it a stated goal to promote the game at the youth level. Benn is among those hopeful that investments in women’s baseball will not only lead to more opportunities for young women to stick with the sport longer, but also result in more job candidates for various on-field roles down the road.

While progress has been slower than some would like, league officials are still hopeful that, as baseball front offices become more data-driven, the number of women in baseball operations roles increase. As Benn says, “intelligence is not gendered.”

“If you want to be an analyst,” she says, “if you want to be in research and development, and you have those skills and the academic credentials to get in there, you’re not going to have a problem getting in there.

“We might not see many women in front offices right now; I think that’s going to continue to grow.”

For women in baseball, the more difficult breakthroughs will likely come in on-field roles, including coaching. In 2015, Justine Siegal became the first woman to coach with an MLB team, spending time with the Oakland A’s in instructional league. This spring, Veronica Alvarez, the manager of the women’s national baseball team, spent time as a guest instructor at A’s camp. Like many parts of the game, Benn says, the progress can feel slow and incremental. It’s why she loves taking part in MLB’s various development series for softball and girls’ baseball; it’s why she loves watching girls coached by women in the sport she grew up playing. In that respect, Benn wants to play the long game, too.

“I never considered working in baseball when I was younger — aside from when I thought I was going to be the first female pitcher in the major leagues,” she said. “I didn’t really know that working in baseball was an option. We see the people who are on the field. But we often don’t see the people in the front office or in the commissioner’s office.”

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