Featuring a historic panel of influential women in baseball, Polar Park hosted the second annual UniBank Women in Sports Day on Saturday, July 29, to recognize the ever-growing number of women working in the sports industry today.
NESN show host Jayme Parker moderated conversation among panelists renowned ballpark designer Janet Marie Smith; Naomi Silver, CEO of the Rochester Red Wings; Maybelle Blair, a former All-American Girls Professional Baseball League player; and Marti Sementelli, a player on the United States Women’s National Baseball Team. In front of a packed audience in Polar Park’s DCU Club, each panelist spoke about how baseball has impacted their lives, what challenges they have faced in a male-dominated industry, and what advice they would offer professionals looking to break into the field.
Naomi Silver, the first-ever female CEO in Minor League Baseball, said her mother “paved the way” for her, motivated by the thought of Naomi’s father, Morrie Silver, who served as president of the club in 1957, 1962, 1963, and 1965.
“For me and probably for all of us up here, baseball is more than just our job,” she said. “It’s also impactful.”
In regard to the fan experience, Silver said baseball is a “feel-good business” and there is always “a lesson to be learned” from feedback, whether it is positive or negative.
“We know that we can make the difference between someone having a wonderful experience and just a fair one,” she said. “I look at the kind of organization that is the WooSox, and it is about as impressive as it gets, and I know it’s because these wonderful people that I’ve known for many years really care about the fans. That is something that is deep within us all. We wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing otherwise.”
Silver’s admiration for the WooSox was immensely mirrored within the WooSox Front Office. As an executive at the highest level of Minor League Baseball, Silver held every eye in the room when it was her turn to speak on the panel. She even took the time to praise her fellow panelists and acknowledge all they have contributed to the game. Each time she held the microphone, Silver shared a knowledgeable perspective that made it clear why she holds the position that she does. For a leader of her stature to offer such high praise to another ballclub—the rival ballclub of the evening, at that—speaks as much to her strong, capable personality as it does to her unique professional leadership qualities.
As the designer of Camden Yards, Petco Park, and Polar Park, to name a few projects—and also a contributor to the renovations of Fenway Park—Janet Marie Smith said each individual project is “very special,” particularly how each one comes together for the fans and their communities.
“[Each ballpark] is very different,” she said. “I think that’s of course one of the things I really love about baseball is that there are not set field dimensions and that the ballpark itself responds to the community and the city. It’s not just about the architecture. The way the national anthem is sung, the foods that are served, all are such a reflection of the community.”
Smith even took a second when talking about the confidence and skills required in the sports industry to acknowledge the WooSox organization specifically and a few female employees among the many in attendance who make space for such wonderful experiences.
“It is a real joy to see how many more women there are in the workplace,” she said. “I love working with the WooSox in particular because there’s so many good, strong women here, many that I see today. Kim [Miner], Brooke [Cooper], Sammy [Saccoia-Beggs], Sabriya [Chaudhry]. It’s been a joy.”
When Parker asked her to share how she got started in ballpark design, Smith said she had contacted current WooSox Chairman and Principal Owner Larry Lucchino and landed an interview at which they first spoke about the design of Camden Yards. She said that initial meeting gave her and Lucchino a chance to talk about what it would mean to put a ballpark in an urban setting and revitalize Baltimore’s Warehouse District. Camden Yards opened just a few years later.
“If there’s a lesson in all that, it’s to set your sights on what it is you want to do and then just go after it,” Smith said. “It wasn’t like there was a job posting. It was just an opportunity that I thought would be a good place where I could add something.”
Long before Camden Yards opened its doors, Maybelle “All the Way Mae” Blair stepped out on the baseball diamond in 1948 as part of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Portrayed by Madonna in the hit film A League of Their Own, Blair now travels across the country advocating for women’s baseball, while also serving as an ambassador for both the International Women’s Baseball Center and the Boston Red Sox' Women’s Fantasy Camp, which had players present in the front row of the event.
At the official Red Sox Spring Training Complex in Fort Myers, Florida, the Boston Red Sox’ Women’s Fantasy Camp gives women the chance to live out their dreams and play on big league fields with coaching from Red Sox greats like Bill Mueller, Victor Rodriguez, and Red Sox Hall of Famer and WooSox hitting coach Rich Gedman.
Also in attendance for the panel were WooSox Season Ticket Members, local youth softball teams, local student-athletes, and the Pawtucket Slaterettes—the oldest running all-female baseball league in the country.
Looking out at the DCU Club filled with women from all different sides of baseball, Blair noted several times how proud she was to see more women playing and working in the game as time goes on.
“I am so thrilled that these women are carrying on and doing the work,” she said. I just get so excited when I get to see them because they’re doing the job that I want more women to get into and more women be involved [in].”
Blair said her current project involves creating a women’s baseball facility in Rockford, Illinois, the “cradle of women’s baseball.” According to Blair, she wants to include a women’s baseball museum and Hall of Fame at the facility, as well.
Almost 70 years after Blair played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, fellow panelist Marti Sementelli took the field as part of the U.S. Women’s National Baseball Team. Learning the game from her father, Sementelli started playing baseball as a child and continued to play as the only girl on her high school and college teams. She said that even though there were challenges associated with being the only girl on her teams, she had to train herself to block everything out—especially as a pitcher.
“You just have to zone in and believe in yourself,” Sementelli said. “And honestly, it’s probably a really good thing that people doubted me, because it made me want to work harder and prove everybody wrong, because they thought that I wasn’t good enough or ‘you’re never going to make it to the next level.’ Every time they said that, I was like okay, I’ll just keep doing it and proving people wrong.”
A gold medalist in the Pan American Games in 2015, Sementelli said “things are changing” pertaining to women in the sports industry, which is “great” to see.
“I know the world is changing and it’s good to see more women playing and more women playing in college, because at the time, I was like, one of five people to ever do it, and now I look at it and now five girls, 10 girls are playing each year in college and I’m like, let’s keep it rolling.”
NESN aired the hour-long UniBank Women in Sports panel 7 times over the course of 2 months, reaching hundreds of thousands of people throughout New England.
According to UniBank CEO Michael Welch, the UniBank Women in Sports program is special because of the incredible women highlighted on the panel and the outreach efforts by the WooSox to educate young women on opportunities for them in sports where they can and are currently thriving.
“When community assets like UniBank, the Worcester Red Sox, and NESN team up, we further the goodness that exists not only in our institutions, but mostly in the community,” Welch said.
The event received lively comments on WooSox social media accounts, spurring excitement and intrigue even before it occurred. Specifically excited to hear from panelist Janet Marie Smith, one Facebook user commented, “Sign me up! Janet Marie Smith is an MLB heavyweight and we are so lucky to have her involved in the development of Polar Park, in the City of Worcester! Her vast and impressive resume has led to changes in the way we experience baseball across the USA. It will eventually lead her to the Hall of Fame!” This fan’s comment is one of several that commends the WooSox for gathering perhaps the most iconic panel of women in baseball ever in one room and on one stage.
For those who participated in the UniBank Women in Sports Day at Polar Park or just watched along at home, the entire day was full of inspirational remarks and meaningful sentiments that truly captured the essence of what it means to be a woman in the sports industry, and also what it means to support and uplift women in a male-centric field. The air in the DCU Club in late July was that of allegiance and unity as people from all walks of life took in every word that each of the historic panelists had to share.
On the DCU Club stage, the WooSox brought together five woman who have each made an incredible impact in baseball and the sports industry as a whole. Guiding conversation and asking thoughtful questions, Jayme Parker served as a portrayal of dominant women in the sports business, and the success she has garnered as a NESN personality speaks to that.
Janet Marie Smith brought her experience in ballpark design, having personally contributed to some of the most famous ballparks in the entire country. As the first ever female CEO in Minor League Baseball, Naomi Silver showed how being a trailblazer is something to strive for in this field, and uplifting others is sometimes a leader’s greatest strength. Maybelle “All the Way Mae” Blair shared exhilarating and hilarious stories that had the audience in tears and made an entire room feel like they were her best friend. As a representation of where women in baseball are today, Marti Sementelli’s formative challenges and Olympic-level accomplishments left the group feeling like society has made progress, but we still have a long way to go.
One day to celebrate women in sports is not enough to encapsulate the importance of representation and progression, but the essence of the UniBank Women in Sports Day event at Polar Park instilled an impression of solidarity that will last much longer than that.