LINCOLN SQUARE — For females raised during the '60s, '70s and even '80s, the sight of pony-tailed girls playing Little League baseball is an "I am woman, hear me roar" moment.
For the girls on the field, not so much.
"The fact of the matter is, the girls were playing baseball with the boys. There were only a couple of girls on the team, and it became less fun for them," said Wendy Vasquez, whose own daughter was among the discontented.
So, four years ago, Vasquez and a group of like-minded parents put out feelers for interest in a girls fast-pitch softball league.
"There really isn't much for girls softball in this part of the city," said Vasquez, who is also co-chair of Friends of Ravenswood School. "There's a softball void here."
What started as a series of Saturday clinics offered at Warren Park in 2010, grew the next year into a two-park league between Warren and Horner parks. That has now blossomed into a full-blown conference that expanded in 2013 to teams at nearly a dozen Chicago Park District parks, from Hamlin Park on the North Side to Jackie Robinson Park on the South.
"It just exploded once the word got out," said Irv Gorman, a Rogers Park resident who ran the original fast-pitch clinics and has since graduated to District 12 softball administrator.
Each year, new age divisions are added, and the league is still recruiting players and coaches, he said.
"If girls want to play, we'll make it happen," he said.
Gorman, a self-described jock, had been coaching his daughter's baseball team when she came to him and said she didn't want to play anymore.
"When we had baseball practice, the girls participated but they seemed ... this is my subjective take ... they seemed more reserved, quiet, not joking around," he said.
Separated from boys, these same tentative youngsters have come out of their shells, their behavior less inhibited and more lively, he said.
"For kids, there is this camaraderie aspect," he said. "Maybe it shouldn't be genderized, but it is."
Vasquez, who will coach her daughter's softball team of 9- and 10-year-old girls at Warren Park this season, noticed a similar change in her child.
"Her interest skyrocketed, her skills skyrocketed. It's a sisterhood thing. She was playing with her friends and having fun," she said.
For parents who fought for their daughters' right to play baseball, segregating boys and girls may seem like a step backward.
Vasquez, who grew up thinking "I'm as good as boys," said the softball league is about giving girls greater opportunity, not less.
Baseball, she said, is ultimately a dead end for female players.
"If girls are going to continue to play in high school, college and the Olympics, you're going to play fast-pitch softball," said Vasquez, who speaks from experience, having played softball at tiny NCAA Division III Simpson College in Iowa.
The skills required for fast-pitch are vastly different from baseball, said Gorman, which is one reason it's important to work with girls on softball techniques and mechanics as early as possible.
The sport's windmill pitching motion is particularly difficult to master.
"I tried it myself. Being a fairly decent athlete my whole life, I was like, 'Whoa!'" he said.
Teenage players who've mastered the mechanics can throw a ball upwards of 60 miles per hour.
"It's much easier to develop a baseball player into a baseball pitcher than a softball pitcher," Gorman said.
To give the girls a taste of the way the game is played at the highest levels, coaches have held clinics in conjunction with DePaul University's softball team.
"They see these young, strong women doing what they do and they really light up," Gorman said of the Little Leaguers.
Outings to watch the Chicago Bandits, a professional women's fast-pitch team based in Rosemont, provides another set of role models.
"The only difference between [the Bandits] third baseman and the Cubs third baseman is muscle mass," said Gorman.
The fun part for Gorman is "watching the dads' mouths drop" at the Bandits talent on display, but the biggest benefit for the girls is knowing "this is how skilled you can be."
Still, the most popular event of the year is the league's annual mother-daughter game.
"It was real competitive," said Gorman. "Some of the moms, they could play."
One of the league's goals, in fact, is to bring more moms and other females on board as managers and coaches.
"It's good for girls to see women out there who are doing it," said Vasquez.
Adults interested in coaching should fill out the Park District's volunteer form. Players can sign up online with participating parks or at walk-in registration sessions scheduled at Warren Park, 6601 N. Western Ave., Jan. 26 and Feb. 2, noon - 2:30 p.m.