Ava Benach signed up her daughter Paloma to play little league baseball when she was five years old. At the time, she made the erroneous assumption that eventually, Paloma would have to switch to softball.
Ava and her wife Mona did sign Paloma up for softball at age 9. Paloma was having none of it. The next year, Paloma participated in an all-girls baseball team sponsored by Baseball for All that won a national tournament in Chino Hills, Calif. It was a boy’s tournament and they were the only girls team.
In 2015, the Benach family started recruiting girls locally and DC Girls Baseball was formed. The organization is the only girls’ baseball program in the region and it draws girls 18 and under from across the D.C. metro area, giving them an opportunity to play baseball at the highest levels.
Ava is serving as president, board chair and head coach of DC Girls Baseball. Along with coaching her now 14-year-old daughter, she also coaches the teams of her two sons, Teddy and Alex, who play with Capitol City Little League.
“Society is telling these girls that baseball is not a sport for them. They experience extreme loneliness if they play on boys’ teams and any mistakes are blamed on their gender,” says Ava. “I have deep admiration and respect for these girls and I love watching them turn into leaders. It is tremendously beneficial for them and builds their confidence.”
Ava’s own path to baseball began in Long Island. She played soccer and little league before switching over to a club team at age 12. In high school, she swam competitively and walked onto the team at Boston College where she swam for four years.
She came to the area in 1994 to attend law school at George Washington University and work on Capitol Hill. She has been an immigration lawyer since 1998.
She began coaching little league teams as each of her three kids became eligible to play.
The Benach household experienced a change recently as Ava transitioned to female. Throughout the process, Ava maintained her visibility.
“When you transition in your 40s, you are already a known quantity. It went better than I thought, and I didn’t lose any friends or clients,” Ava says. “I have a public image in both sports and my profession. I depend upon my reputation.”
The success of DC Girls Baseball drew the attention of the Eastern Women’s Baseball Conference (EWBC), which has been providing opportunities for women to play baseball for more than 20 years. The league features four teams – Montgomery County BarnCats, Baltimore Blues, Virginia Flames and Virginia Fury. They also field a travel team, DC Thunder, for tournament play.
A relationship was formed, and the two organizations began having clinics together. A few of the adult players from EWBC began coaching for DC Girls Baseball. Several of the girls have been recruited to the adult league and the adult travel team.
Paloma Benach was recruited last year to play on the Virginia Fury team in EWBC and she also plays on their travel team, DC Thunder. Normally a pitcher when playing girls baseball, Paloma is a utility player with EWBC to rest her pitching arm. She was 13 at the time and found herself facing experienced adults.
“At first I thought it would be difficult because they know more than I know,” says Paloma. “I do well but there are games where I need assistance.”
Paloma was joined on the team this year by Ava who plays third base. Now that they have a coach and teammate relationship, it brings up a certain question. What does Paloma call Ava?
“She calls me dad which is awkward sometimes in certain parts of the country,” says Ava. “It’s an actual historical biological fact. I don’t want to compete with my wife for the title of mother after 19 years of marriage.”
Both players have something to add in regard to the dynamic of playing together.
“She ignores me,” Ava says. “I have watched her play a thousand times and am amazingly proud of her, even though I am ruining her mojo.”
“Honestly, I try not to look at her. It’s too emotional so I view her as a coach and teammate,” Paloma says. “I think it’s amazing that she has given up so much of her time for all of this.”
The remaining months of summer will be a busy time for both of them. Along with DC Girls Baseball and EWBC, Paloma is playing on the Moose Baseball travel team where she is the only girl. This fall she will try out for her school’s girls’ basketball team and the boys’ baseball team. There will also be baseball tournaments including two stops at Beyer Stadium, former home of the Rockford Peaches.
The gender barrier in baseball continues to improve and this year, Major League Baseball and USA Baseball launched the 2018 Girls Baseball Breakthrough Series to provide opportunities for girls who wish to continue playing or working in baseball.
“There are always going to be people who are not OK with girls playing baseball, but we have created a community where people can be who they are,” says Paloma. “I love this sport and am happy to be surrounded by people who support me and love me.”
“These girls are just asking for the chance to play baseball,” Ava says. “Everyone should be able to play the sport that they love.”