Kelli Jenkins: Barrier Breaker

by Staff

When Kelli Jenkins was in the third grade, her teacher gave the class a reading assignment. She was given A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie ‘Peanut’ Johnson, by Michelle Y. Green. It’s a story about Mamie Johnson — one of three women who played in the Negro Leagues — and how she overcame adversity to play professional baseball from 1953-55.

Jenkins was a baseball player herself at that age, but didn’t have a figure to look up to and see a pathway for a female baseball player. Once she completed the story, she had a new role model, and has kept the same copy of the book to serve as an inspiration for her career.

From then, Jenkins continued to break barriers in the D.C. area baseball community, becoming the first female in numerous leagues and teams.

In 2019, she became the first female player to play in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League (CRCBL). But if you ask her, that achievement is something she’s grown accustomed to.

A native of Potomac, Maryland, Jenkins grew up in a baseball-oriented family. Her brother, Niko, helped her practice alongside her siblings. While the idea of switching to softball hovered, Jenkins stayed committed to pursuing a baseball career.

“Everyone in my family plays. My older sister played, but she eventually transitioned to softball just because she wanted to play with girls,” Jenkins said. “My older brother, he’s just two years older than me, so I just played with him. I have a younger brother who plays baseball and he has dreams of playing in college, too. It’s kinda like if you’re in my family, you play baseball.”

From family games and regular throwing sessions, her career continued with the St. John’s College High School Cadets in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference — which has produced professional athletes across numerous sports.

The competition didn’t faze her. It only fueled her.

“It’s one of the toughest programs in the area that you can play in,” Jenkins said. “It just kind of made me realize how much I love the sport, because if you play baseball at St. John’s, you live and breathe it. It’s your whole life. Waking up at 5 a.m. for workouts, I loved it. I loved seeing my teammates and everything … I don’t think I would be playing in college if it weren’t for me going to St. John’s.”

Jenkins played basketball as well during her prep career, helping her gain skills and attributes that she could use in both sports. It wasn’t until the summer following her freshman year at St. John’s when the idea of playing baseball at the next level settled in.

The dream became reality at St. Mary’s College (MD). While walking off the mound following a 1-2-3 inning in a high school summer game, the Seahawks saw what Jenkins could bring to their team. She was offered a spot on their roster, with the opportunity to continue both her baseball and basketball careers.

“What stands out about Kelli is how confident and poised she is when on the mound,” Big Train manager Sal Colangelo said. “You’d never know that she had a nerve in her body. You’d never know she’s getting ready to throw to a big-time college hitter … She’s more confident and poised on the mound than some of our guys. That’s just what she brings.”

In 2019 — her freshman campaign — she appeared in two games for the Seahawks. Her collegiate debut came against Wesley; she pitched one inning, gave up one hit and no runs. Her second outing, versus Christopher Newport, saw another shutout inning.

She reached out to Big Train Stars — known colloquially as the Little Train —  and asked head coach Bryan Towers if she could earn a spot on the team, which plays in the Maryland Collegiate Baseball League (MCBL). Towers was more than happy to give her that, but what Jenkins did with that opportunity gave her the chance to break the biggest wall of her career.

The moment Jenkins was told she would be brought up to the main team came after a scrimmage between the Big Train and “Little Train.” Colangelo and Towers told her how impressed they were, and said they wanted her to play in games before the Big Train began League Championship Series play.

What stuck out to Big Train coaches was how she handled herself on the mound. Pitching coach Craig Lopez said her breaking ball sparked attention, but it was her composure when facing batters that gave the staff confidence she’d be up to the challenge of being called up to the Big Train. Her knuckle ball also threw opposing batters off balance, which helped continue the pitching staff’s momentum in keeping hitters at bay.

“What Kelli brought to us was that she made our family better,” Lopez said. “I’m telling you, she was impressive. Just her character, tenacity, integrity, the way she came at each and every day. She helped me become a better coach. I loved what she brought to the game.”

Colangelo didn’t call up Jenkins to the Big Train to be attached to a milestone in CRCBL history. He knew the skillset she carried and the poise she brought. He knew that the mindset of a pitcher can greatly influence how a team performs, and Jenkins brought the calm presence that could inspire her team to play with the same mentality.

That mindset gave her a moment she’d worked tirelessly for. On July 19, 2019, it came.

In a game against the Gaithersburg Giants at Povich Field, the Big Train led 2-0 in the top of the fourth inning. After Anthony Piccolino (James Madison) threw three shutout innings to open the contest, Colangelo went to Jenkins for the top of the fourth. She was nervous, as she describes the moment as the biggest game of her career, but it wasn’t long until she settled down and she focused on the task at hand.

“I think I walked the first or second batter, that’s when I told myself, ‘Alright, these nerves need to stop,’” Jenkins said. “And I just calmed down and went back to normal.”

She threw one inning, giving up just one baserunner and no runs. She’d go on to make a second appearance five days later against the Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts, further cementing her place in Big Train and CRCBL history.

“When she pitched, man it was a cheering section,” Colangelo said. “They just loved her … As a dad of two young ladies, it shows no matter male or female, you can play this game at a high level.”

Jenkins’ perseverance stems back to her childhood. Countless questions of why she didn’t transition to softball were put away, and her fortitude in ignoring the stigma of female baseball players culminated as she threw her first official pitch at Shirley Povich Field — a field where as a kid she grew more in love with America’s pastime.

The barrier was broken. The path for young girls aspiring to play baseball has been paved by the likes of  Jenkins and Mamie Johnson. Jenkins shows that girls can exhibit the intense athletic ability required to compete against top-level collegiate male athletes, as she did when she took the mound for Bethesda. Despite the milestone achievement, she doesn’t let it go to her head. It’s just another chapter in her career.

“I never really think about that because that’s kind of normal for me to be the first girl to play in all these teams,” Jenkins said. “I never think about that when I’m pitching.”

Colangelo knew it was her moment. Not his, not the Big Train’s, but Jenkins’ time to be embraced by her team and the Bethesda community. But, it was indeed a proud moment in his coaching career. That’s how the Big Train community works, he says. Anyone part of it is a member of the Bethesda family.

“She’s given the youth for tomorrow an opportunity that it can happen if you put your mind to it,” Colangelo said. “She has been a silent leader in society just by her actions and her on-the-field play to show all the young ladies that if they want to play the game of baseball, they can do it. She will be a role model for those young ladies.”

After two years at St. Mary’s, Jenkins is transferring to Chatham University in Pittsburgh, where she will play on the baseball and women’s basketball teams. Currently, she’s focused on continuing to improve in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and with the help of her baseball-crazed family, she’ll be ready to go once collegiate sports return.

Her craft earned her the opportunity to play for the most storied franchise in the CRCBL. Her passion enhanced her teammates’ and coaches’ Big Train experience, earning the trust and love of past and present players. When she fielded every question about her decision to play baseball, she let her talent do the talking.

Now, she serves as an inspiration to younger generations of female athletes.

“I love that because like I said, in the third grade, I didn’t really have anyone to look up to,” Jenkins said. “I didn’t know whether it was possible for me to continue playing. Then, I read the book about Mamie Johnson, and I was like, ‘Alright, I can do this.’ I feel like I’m kind of the same for younger girls who see me play.”

Photos by Niamh Brennan and courtesy of Kelli Jenkins.