High school knuckleballer tosses batting practice to Rays

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Chelsea Baker eyed the three-time All-Star before her, excitement and fear running through her right arm. This experience, throwing to Evan Longoria and other Tampa Bay Rays players in batting practice Monday at Tropicana Field, was beyond anything she imagined.

It was a thrill. It was also intimidating.

Baker, 17, had beaten fear of the unknown so many times before. At age 5, the resident of Plant City, Florida, switched from softball to baseball. At age 12, the right-hander threw two perfect games against Little League boys teams. Now the knuckleball thrower, invited by Rays manager Joe Maddon to toss BP before his team faced the Pittsburgh Pirates, wanted to shake her nerves by throwing heat with purpose.

Baker dipped her right arm a few feet before the mound. A laser of a throw zipped toward the batting cage … and plunked Longoria by the side of home plate.

"Sorry," Baker said from behind a screen.

Baker drew a large gathering for the 10-minute session, about three hours before the first pitch between the Rays and Pirates. Maddon, watching from behind the cage, extended the invitation when the Durant High School pitcher was honored at the Tampa Bay Sports Commission’s Sneaker Soiree last Wednesday for her achievements as the first female prep baseball player in Hillsborough County.

"It was an amazing feeling," Baker told FOXSportsFlorida.com afterward. "This is something I never dreamed of, just because I’ve done interviews … but actually being able to come out here and play with a professional team, it was awesome. I loved it."

Baker faced off against Longoria, catcher Jose Molina and left-hander David Price. Early in her sequence against Price, the 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner turned toward the young pitcher and asked about her approach.

"How many fingers do you throw?" he asked, still in the cage. "Two?"

"That’s how pros do it," Longoria said, standing nearby.

"Scary. It was scary," Baker said later, laughing, when recounting her session. "I took one out on Longo. But I didn’t hurt him, so it was fine."

Baker’s reputation has grown in recent years. Universal Studios has shown interest in producing a movie about her life story. She’ll be a finalist in August to try out for the USA Baseball women’s national team. She has an offer to join a women’s professional league in Japan.

The spotlight has become part of life.

"I can say it’s a helluva ride," said Rod Mason, Baker’s stepfather. "I don’t hope to get off any time soon. Just to be around her and see how she handles stuff like this, it’s amazing."

"We never thought it would come up being like it is," said Missy Mason, Baker’s mother. "But I knew from the time she was 3 years old she could throw a ball. She used to throw it in the house."

Baker’s signature pitch is proof of how much she values her background in the game. She learned the knuckleball from former major-league right-hander Joe Niekro, a one-time All-Star and a World Series champion in 1987 as part of the Minnesota Twins. She was on a Little League team with Niekro’s son, and Niekro sometimes slipped in the knuckleball during batting practice.

"When I was playing baseball, I didn’t realize how important the knuckleball would be for me," said Baker, who also threw out the first pitch Monday. "And so whenever he passed away when I was 10 years old (in 2006), that’s when I decided I wanted to keep playing baseball. I wanted to be a knuckleball pitcher just so I could live through his name."

Now she has a life-long memory to go with her growing stardom.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.