Paloma Benach (first year) said she has been watching and playing baseball all her life. Now, she is the first woman-identifying player to play baseball for Occidental, a career that started when her parents introduced her to the game — they watched Yankees games together, and Benach started playing in summer camps when she was five.
“[My parents] grew up loving the game — I inherited that love from them,” Benach said. “And they always supported me with whatever I wanted to do, [like] when I wanted to keep playing even when they knew it was a much more difficult route than other things.”
Benach said that her parents also helped her bring girls’ baseball to Washington, D.C. Specifically, D.C. Girls Baseball was started after she played on an all-girls team that won a predominantly male tournament in Orange County.
“We just started gathering girls slowly to create teams and just play wherever we could. And now it’s a full organization that is fostering four or five teams,” Benach said.
While continuing to play with the organization throughout her career, Benach also played on the men’s varsity baseball team her junior and senior year of high school.
“I went into high school thinking, ‘this might not turn out the way I want it to be, I might have to switch to softball at some point,'” said Benach. “But I was lucky enough to get a really solid group of coaches and a really good group of teammates and I just kept playing.”
According to Benach, her high school team turned out to be a supportive environment that did not harbor judgments by her coaches or her teammates who just wanted to win.
“So, they didn’t care whether you were a guy or a girl if you could help contribute to the team in some way,” Benach said.
Benach said she was terrified of playing baseball in college as she was unsure if the team and community would support a woman playing baseball.
“But I reached out to the coach and toured before I got to Oxy and told him I want to try out for the team, and he was 100 percent supportive of that,” Benach said. “I got in touch with the team at school as soon as I got here, and they were all super welcoming, and super open, and I couldn’t appreciate that more. And being around the guys every day is an awesome feeling. I’m very thankful about that community.”
This year Benach is officially rostered on the men’s team and is practicing with them this season. The key to her success on the mound? Timing, according to Benach.
“I know how to mess with hitters and runners so that they’re never really prepared for something or they’re always kind of thrown off,” Benach said.
Benach, a lefty pitcher, said she has a go-to change-up that gets a lot of movement, and loves a first-pitch curveball that forces half swings up at the plate. According to Coach Luke Wetmore, this knowledge for the game and love for the sport shapes Benach as a player and makes her spot on the team well-earned.
“She worked hard, she’s shown up early. Anecdotally, I’d see her out in the cages on her own time, before practice, after practice, even out of season,” Wetmore said. “I’m out there mowing the infield and she’s hitting or playing catch.”
Benach said she has a big goal in mind: Team USA. Benach said she will be trying out for the team this summer in hopes of joining them in Canada for a qualifying match for the 2024 World Cup.
“The U.S. Women’s National Team, it’s considered one of the highest levels of baseball a woman can play. Obviously, that itself is being proven wrong every day that there are women in major league jobs and playing major league baseball,” Benach said. “And every time I go out there, I just tell myself, I’m out there for a reason. The coach put me out here for a reason, I’ve proven over and over again that I deserve to be out here, so let’s just go for it,” Benach said.
Teammate Tom Stoodt (senior) sees that passion and said Benach has brought a positive energy to the team.
“I remember all the way back in August we got together to meet the new players and Paloma and I had a conversation about the MLB that revealed to me how passionate she is about baseball,” Stoodt said. “In my eyes Paloma has been a part of the team since day one and has also been great to work with in practices.”
Wetmore said it is important to realize that Benach is not on the team because she is female, but because she can play.
“I think it’s really important that we acknowledge we’re creating space for Paloma,” Wetmore said. “She wants to be part of the game, and honestly, I want her to be part of our program because of what she brings. Not because she’s a woman, but because she throws left-handed. We need a left-handed BP thrower. She’s great in terms of baseball culture, and she works hard. She wants to be a part of it and I want to be part of her baseball career.”
Paloma said her gender is not important when it comes to working hard for her team.
“I think just continuing to show up and continuing to work hard goes a long way in terms of them not seeing gender anymore,” Benach said. “The guys don’t see me as a girl that they’re playing with. They see me as the person that goes to weights with them or the person that’s at practice with them.”
Wetmore said Benach knows the challenges that players face both inside and outside the game, but that she can handle them.
“Baseball is a fun sport because it’s very challenging. She ribs the guys on the team, and she can handle getting coached hard,” said Wetmore. “She’s a baseball player, through and through.”
Contact Sarah Jageler at firstname.lastname@example.org.