Katie Griffith pitches in the low 80s. That’s not a temp. That’s a speed. Not softball, hardball, baseball. A couple of years ago, while coaching girls at Harvard Westlake High, Katie joined up with a group of guys who were working to play beyond the college-level, and soon found herself training alongside them. Going from softball to baseball is a leap, most especially for a pitcher. But this 6’0’, 145 lb. athlete was motivated by the challenge. And after four months of intensive training, she signed with Hit Kings in the California Winter League, making her the first woman ever to be signed by the league. She shared her story with _PRACTICE.
I WAS BORN AND RAISED just outside of Atlanta, in a rural area that had a slow pitch softball league, slow pitch. But there was a group of older girls that were 17 and 18 at the time that started playing fast pitch. I was eight when I first saw them play, and I would watch them with my dad, and one day, he said, “Hey, Kate, you want to try pitching?”
I took pitching lessons at this industrial park where the coach had put dirt on the ground for a field. That coach, she’s still a really important person in my life. On the first of lesson, I threw strikes, and she said, “You might be kind of good at this.”
And then I became obsessed with it. We pitched all that summer, my dad, and me and through that winter, too. We had a ranch style house and my dad would sit on a bucket at the end of the hallway. I would stand at the other end of the hallway, and I would practice pitching indoors – that meant throwing through the living room and all the way down the hall. I just wanted to practice and my dad was willing to do all that for me. So there were a few dents in the wall, yeah.
Once I started playing travel softball, that’s all we did, all year. Our vacations revolved around softball. And I still played Basketball in the winter. I loved basketball. My freshman year of high school, I almost quit softball for basketball but my dad put a quick stop to it. A lot of the girls were getting injured and tearing ACLs. I was already getting recruited by a lot of colleges and my dad told me, ‘Look this is your path, and basketball is basically a risk of that path.’ So I decided to just focus on softball.
I was recruited across the country, but wanted to stay in Georgia and went to the University of George. I had a pretty successful college career. We won the SEC Championship one year. Can’t beat that.
AFTER I GRADUATED, I moved to El Segundo, California, where I met Derrick Duarte, a baseball coach and bullpen catcher for the USC team. One day he asked if I wanted to go with him to USC and meet up with Tom House, the nationally known throwing coach for so many major pro athletes. Pitchers Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson both studied with him, and NFL quarterbacks Drew Brees and Tom Brady have trained with him, too. A lot of minor league guys would come and work for a day or a week or even a month with Tom. I was the only girl there and I’d work out along with them. And, after awhile, I started re-writing Tom’s program to make it applicable to softball.
It was a very accepting place to be, to be surrounded by athletically minded people, and to be respected as an athlete. All these things are important to me. This was 2015, and I was still coaching softball at Harvard Westlake. For my birthday, I took a few days off to go camping, alone, and think about my next step. When I came back, I told Tom, “I want to pitch. If there’s a woman who’s going to do this, I think she’s going to come from your camp, and I’m the only woman showing up, so I feel like it would be crazy for me to not at least try.”
Tom’s a no BS guy. He’s a very science based guy. He has this panel of tests that you have to do, a broad jump and a sprint and a backward sprint, and you throw a couple of different weighted balls and basically he can calculate, okay your body right now, with perfect mechanics, should be able to throw X miles an hour. It’s all science-based. It’s not like Coach Bob, just cheerleading saying, ‘You can do it!’
So Tom says, ‘Well, that’s a respectable endeavor.” He says, “We’re going to do the threshold testing and if your body shows me you can throw 82 to 84 on a fast ball, I will help you do this. And if it doesn’t, then we’re not going to even try, ‘cause there’s no point.’
You can’t play in those leagues without at least throwing 84. We did the threshold testing and all the calculations came to 83 miles an hour. Tom said, ‘Okay, if you’re willing to put your self into this, I will help you.’
This was all very quiet. I didn’t anybody except for my roommate and my friend, Suzy at Yogaloft. I had a trainer I worked out with and I was coaching at Harvard Westlake in Studio City. The goal was this – by July 2017, have me in a position where we could start making some calls and start putting me out there to teams. My ultimate goal was to a get an affiliate contract. Affiliate Ball, Single A, Double A, Triple A – this system specifically feeds the MLB, like the Atlanta braves or the LA Dodgers. Even though this is the lowest level, it would be something for major league baseball to sign a woman. We were going to make those calls after July, after All Star season when people are usually adding to their roster, and they’re folding gaps.
The four guys I was training with, they all ended up signing up to play in a winter league in Palm Springs. I stayed in California and kept training and spent Christmas with Tom’s family. One day, when we were watching football on TV, I told Tom, ‘You know, I’m going to miss the guys when they go, we should maybe head out to the desert and catch a couple of games.
Tom just said, “Yeah, we should.”
But then after awhile, he said, “You know, I’m friends with the guy who runs the league, maybe I can get you out there for a couple of innings.”
Then a few minutes later, he says, “I think we should just put you in the league.”
This was seven months early and I’ve only been throwing overhand for three months! But I said, “Sure, let’s do it!”
I went to throw for the guy, who runs the league, and he took me in, and I ended up playing in the winter California league from mid-January to mid-February. It was 250 guys and me. I didn’t pitch well enough for anybody to sign me at that time. But I walked the lead off batter, which was terrible, but then I picked him off at first base. It was my first pick off move. I had never picked a guy off. Then Rich bought in to what I was trying do. He said, ‘I can’t offer you a place on the roster, but if you want to move where my ballpark is, I’ll hire you in the front office and you can train with my team.’
So I dropped my job, packed my car, and drove to St. Louis. I’ve been here ever since.
MY DECISION TO GO FOR THIS was polarizing. There were family, friends, bosses and co-workers who thought I was nuts and told me so. I had to embrace it. You do seem nuts compared to them because they aren’t brave enough to take the risk that you’re taking. Bravery is often confused with crazy.
My sisters and my favorite left-handed throwing partner and that one little girl on the third base line who is shouting my name at the end of the game for an autograph – those people are the ones I could count on to lift me up.
In the past seven months I have been called: ‘overly aggressive,’ ‘defensive,’ and (my favorite) ‘insatiable.’
Maybe I’m all of those things. I’m also a dreamer and a believer and, as my coach, Tom, once said, a “do-er not a try-er”.
I’m old for baseball. I started at 31 is really old compared to everybody else. But the benefit is that I pitched underhand for so many years that I don’t technically have a 31-year old shoulder. I have a 16-year old shoulder for baseball. But I’m about 10,000 reps behind everybody else who is pitching right now.
Going down a mound is a lot harder on your shoulder than flat ground so that was a challenge. It was very painful for me for a long time getting used to the added strain on your shoulder because going down a mound exacerbates everything. My knees are good. But the shoulder is the big one.
In softball at the end of a pitch, you’re standing straight up. In baseball, you have to follow through and let your back foot come off the ground so that the full creative force is going with the ball. At the end of the pitch, I’m usually standing up straight, so that’s been a hard adjustment.
Also, I have tight hips. When you’re pitching, the order of operation is this: your foot hits the ground, and your hips have to turn without your shoulders turning so that the moment of rotation and all the energy transfers up and comes through your elbows and your hands, so for me as someone who has a really tight hip, it’s hard for me to not let my hip and shoulder go at the same time. So that robs me of a lot of power too cause as it goes up your body.
Tom put me in a computer, he put all these electrodes all over me, cameras surrounding me, 360 view so now I have this like computer model of me pitching fast balls, curve balls and change up and you can see by the 1.30 second of a second, the patterning of my body. Right now, my shoulder and my hips go together so I have a ton more yoga to do to get my rotation. I have to practice a lot of twists so I can start to pattern so that my hips and my shoulders are not on the same plane.
When the foot hits the ground, it’s X
When your hip turns, it’s 2X
When your shoulder turn, it’s 3X
And by the time it gets to your hand, it’s 8X
Without that proper alignment, I’m not magnifying that force as it travels up my body.
So, that’s what I’m working on right now.
I kind of dropped yoga for the season because I was focused on lifting and arm care and throwing a lot, spending 4 hours a day doing things to get stronger and to understand the physics of the pitch. But now I’m returning to yoga. I’m focusing almost completely on mobility and rotational stuff, and doing yoga almost every day and swinging bats, heavy and light bats, to twist my hips and then my shoulders. I’m in the second and maybe last wind of training to make this happen for me. And yoga is a big part of it.