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In a league of her own

Justine Siegal, the nation’s first woman to coach a professional baseball team, does not possess the athletic ability of an Olympic gold medalist or the unfettered imagination of a hall of fame manager.

“There is nothing special about me,” said Siegal, who for the last 15 years has been one of the most prominent advocates for women in baseball. “I’m only 5-foot-7, with decent athletic ability and average smarts,” she added, “but I have passion and determination.”

Siegal is the director of sports partnerships for Sport in Society, a Northeastern University center. In November, she recounted her rise to sports-world prominence at the TEDxBeaconStreet conference, a local subsidiary of the TED lecture series.

Siegal’s humanitarian mission is to expand women’s baseball in every corner of the globe. In the late 90s, she founded the nonprofit organization Baseball For All, and today serves as the chair of the Women’s Baseball Development Commission at the International Baseball Federation.

Siegal noted that eight countries currently compete in the Women’s Baseball World Cup, which was held for the first time in 2004. “That didn’t exist when I was growing up,” said Siegal, who developed a sharp curve and 75-mile-per-hour fastball while playing ball with the boys in high school. “If a girl wants to play, now she can.”

History follows this sports pioneer. In the spring of 2009, for example, Siegal signed a contract to coach first base for the Brockton Rox of the independent Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball.

She had previous coaching experience as an assistant for Springfield College, but noted that a few players on the Rox treated her with much disrespect and petitioned to kick her off the team. She countered the hate with outsize kindness. “I knew if I let the anger consume me, then I wouldn’t be able to move forward and find my own peace,” she explained. “When they tried to kick me out of the locker room, my daughter and I made the team brownies.”

In February of 2011, Siegal became the first woman to throw batting practice to Major League players, and garnered international fame for the feat following a front-page story in a Japanese newspaper. USA Today, for its part, chronicled her one-of-a-kind story, and talk-show host David Letterman even mentioned her in one of his monologues.

“It was a dream come true and so humbling to touch so many lives,” said Siegal, a Cleveland native and lifelong fan of the Indians, the first of six teams for whom she tossed batting practice. “So many girls and mothers were sending me emails saying I was living their dream and inspiring them.”

Siegal closed her TED talk by imparting keen advice to her youngest audience members. “It’s OK to be who you want to be and not let others tell you who you are,” she said. “It’s important to go after your dreams and know that they can come true.”