The quest of Glitter Diesel: Katie Griffith’s goal is to become the first female professional baseball pitcher
by Mark McDermott
Katie Griffith’s mission began secretly last October.
She was living in Manhattan Beach and working as head softball coach for Harvard-Westlake School, a well-regarded private school in Studio City. She’d moved to California seven years earlier from her native Georgia, where she’d been a Division I collegiate softball pitcher at the University of Georgia. At 31, she figured her playing days were behind her.
But through mutual coaching acquaintances, she’d met Tom House, a former Major League Baseball pitcher and now the head of the National Pitching Association, an elite academy that trains pitchers to develop better biomechanics. Griffith met House in 2014, when he was also the USC pitching coach and his NPA training facility was on campus. House is considered one of the foremost gurus on the mechanics of throwing in the world, working not only with MLB Hall of Fame baseball pitchers such as Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson but also several NFL quarterbacks, including Tom Brady and Drew Brees, as well as the occasional javelin thrower. Griffith started visiting House to pick up knowledge she could share with her players at the softball training facility she’d established in El Segundo, called the K Club, and her players at Harvard-Westlake.
After House retired from USC and moved his pitching academy to Santa Ana in October 2016, Griffith continued to work with him. House, as is the case with so many gifted teachers, had found a resource in his student; Griffith, who is lean and athletic and six feet tall in cleats, possesses a superior stride, landing a full foot closer to the batter than most pitchers, which represents a 3 mile per hour increase in perceived velocity. He brought her along on some of his travels and taught her stride to baseball pitchers, who are on an eternal quest for more velocity, real or perceived.
“I was hanging out with Tom a couple of years,” Griffith said. “I adore him. He’s maybe my favorite person on the planet. I have so much respect for him as a coach, and as a person just in general.”
Souls who love God, a Sufi saying goes, know each other by smell, like horses. People who love baseball are much the same. House, who the Guardian newspaper once described as a “pitching Buddha,” is an almost mystical figure in baseball circles. He was a middling relief pitcher in the early 1970s who got by on pure guile and the fact he was left-handed. His greatest claim to fame as a player was when, as a relief pitcher for the Atlanta Braves on April 8, 1974, he was standing in the left field bullpen and caught teammate Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, the one that broke Babe Ruth’s record.
Griffith grew up in a suburb of Atlanta in the 1990s, worshipping a later generation of the Braves. She’d been a pitcher since she was seven, and soaked up all things baseball for even longer. The more time she spent with House and all the aspiring pitchers and quarterbacks — “rotational athletes” in House’s parlance, meaning anyone who uses his or her arm in an overhand motion to throw — the more an idea germinated in her mind.
“I can do this,” she thought. “I’ve done it. I can teach it — certainly I can do it.”
What she thought she could do was not only pitch overhand, but do so at a professional level. In early October, she broached the topic with House. His response was typically straightforward. He told her she had to be able to throw 82 to 84 miles per hour, throw a breaking ball “that is out of this world,” and be able to throw an offspeed pitch for a strike at any count.
“We’ll start tomorrow,” House said.
The first thing House did was put her through his threshold testing to determine if her idea was physically possible. They clocked her fastball at 70 mph, but that wasn’t the point. What House was trying to determine, through measuring her pitching mechanics with wireless sensors, was what her capacity was for velocity.
“ Tom is a no bullshit guy,” Griffith said. “He doesn’t sugarcoat. People pay him a lot of money to hear honest feedback about whether they can make it or not, and so the next day I went in. He has a lot of tests so that he can tell you specifically — [given] your body, your strength, your torque-ability — how hard your body can throw. And after all the testing — the hardest I can possibly ever throw is 84. So I hit that threshold. Once he believed that my body could do it, he was on board. We started working on it.”
Griffith didn’t tell anyone beyond House and the other players at the NPA facility, not even her parents back in Georgia. Her housemate at the time, Shelley Williams, recalled later noticing something had changed.
“I started to notice her daily rhythms change without her mentioning a word of why,” Williams said. “She started getting up a lot earlier, training twice a day once in the morning once in the evening…Between her coaching job at Harvard-Westlake, and private coaching clients, I watched her train and train. She changed her nutrition to super clean proteins, veggies, super grains. I started to see her foam rolling, icing, taking care of her body in between training sessions, more and more like a pro athlete.”
One day during this time Williams, who is a yoga teacher, was driving home to the house she shared with Griffith in the Manhattan Beach tree section when she encountered her housemate on the street. Griffith was doing sprints up a hill. Okay, Williams thought, finally it’s time to ask.
“What’s up, Katie?”
Griffith’s answer was opaque.
“I’m working on something,” she said.
A few days later an incident occurred at the NPA facility that kicked Griffith into yet another gear. A reporter was there doing a story on House, and seeing Griffith training, asked her, “Are you an elite athlete?”
She took a long time to answer. “Yeah,” she finally said. “I guess so.”
House overheard the conversation. He wasn’t pleased with her answer. “Tom kind of wore me out about it,” Griffith said.
“Next time, Katie, when some asks you if you are an elite athlete, say yes,” House told her. “In every manner, get in that mindset. You are an elite athlete.”
She went home and wrote it on her wall: “You are an elite athlete.”
Williams was walking by her bedroom and saw the mantra on the wall.
“I also spotted a training schedule that indicated her goal for two workouts a day,” Williams said. “She was accomplishing it, and I was watching her become more and more focused, driven, and all the other little extra things that a 30-year-old girl might be into sort of fell by the wayside. She had a mission, it was obvious.”
Finally a few nights later Griffith fessed up and told her housemate what that mission was: to become a professional baseball pitcher. In fact, she and House had already devised a plan: she would pitch in the independent winter leagues out in the desert in California, to test what she’d worked on against other aspiring pro players. The long term goal was to obtain a contract with a minor league team affiliated with Major League Baseball.
“I immediately got the chills,” Williams said. “Because I knew if there was one woman who could do it, it was Katie G.”
Griffith also told a few other close friends, including Suzy Nece, who is also a yoga teacher. Griffith had trained as a yoga teacher under Williams and Nece at Yoga Loft, the vibrant little studio just south of the Manhattan Beach pier. Nece, who is also a comedian, was fully on board with helping Griffith achieve her goal. First things first, she and Griffith decided they needed to get the theme song sorted — most pitchers in pro ball have a song that is played on stadium speakers when they take the mound.
“Music plays a big part in how she gets pumped up,” Nece said. “She told me, ‘When I pitch, I am going to need that walkout song.’”
Nece realized that Griffith was about to go on a quest into a very male-centric world. She thought it was important she keep her “sense of being,” and that meant not mimicking the men around her but staking her own identity as a woman, albeit one playing a sport dominated by men.
The song they arrived at was called “Impossible” by Lion Babe. And from that song, Nece gave Griffith her new name: Glitter Diesel.
“The video is this beautiful woman, with a huge mane of hair, singing and dancing, and there is glitter everywhere, gold glitter,” Nece said. “I told her, ‘When you throw that first pitch, that is Glitter Diesel. And that is how Glitter Diesel was born.”
Griffith trained intensely for three months, on her own, with House, and with Meredith Miller of Level 10 Fitness in North Manhattan Beach. House’s focus was on improving her functional strength in order to increase her velocity, further developing her offspeed and breaking balls, and devising a pitching strategy to compensate for her still-developing velocity.
House’s sense of mission went beyond Griffith. In the beginning, hers was a personal challenge. Griffith was single-mindedly focused, driven to push herself to her limits and beyond. House was thinking about millions of little girls.
“If you think the number of little leaguers, 6.8 million, all of them boys — what would happen if we just had half of those, female, added to the equation?” House asked. “Now we’ve got a broader base in order to develop young people. The society that we live in now, that is all electronic — the chance for young females to understand it’s okay to be aggressive like guys. In other words, life lessons. Plus the fact that you are creating a broader base of fans for the game of baseball. It has to do with affiliation, it has to do with empathy, and it has to do with basically succeeding and failing in an environment that is ‘guided learning’ or ‘guided discovery,’ like little league baseball is.”
“Is she a big league baseball pitcher? Not even close,” House said. “But if she can succeed with her goals and become a professional baseball player, and the story gets out? Young girls will look at that and think, ‘You know what? I am going to play baseball.’ And one day in the future we might have a female big leaguer.”
The land of the Braves
If ever there was a Golden Age of pitching in the modern era of professional baseball, its epicenter was Atlanta in the first half of the 1990s. Mention the team to Griffith and she rattles off the names of her heroes, leading with the pitchers.
“They had Maddux, Smoltz, and Glavine on the mound… I mean the Braves were really really good and I loved the Braves and that is what we did at night,” Griffith remembered. “It wasn’t that long ago, but we watched on one of those bigass TVs that sits on the ground. I would lay on the ground with my elbows propped up and my face on my hands and watch the Braves at night. I would have come in from my neighbor’s house and would be all sweaty and eat dinner and we’d have some screen doors open. And that’s what I’d liked to do in the summer, then go catch lightning bugs. That’s summer, hot and humid, and that’s how it all started — the Braves.”
Between 1990 and 1996, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine combined to win six Cy Young Awards, the most coveted award in pitching. Maddux, in particular, is a pitcher who Griffith still thinks about almost daily. He didn’t throw hard — by the end of his career, he subsisted on an 86 mph fastball — but he threw with an exactitude, poise, and trickery that has rarely been matched in the sport.
Griffith started T-ball when she was six. A year later, her dad took her to her first fastpitch softball pitching coach. She was immediately hooked. She had a natural aptitude for pitching, perhaps borne out of her outright passion for it and the fact that she was always tall for her age.
“I just fell in love with everything about it and knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “And I was good at it. It is really helpful when you are good at something you love for development. It helps lead you in the right direction.”
By the time she was eight, her father Steve was training her to throw overhand. Their hometown, Conyers, a community of 15,000 people about 24 miles southeast of Atlanta, was a spacious place. Every house in their neighborhood was on about three-quarters of an acre. And so her dad came up with a game to strengthen Griffith’s throwing arm: she’d stand by the family’s mailbox, and he’d back up to the neighbors’ and make her throw. Once she did that successfully, he’d back up to the next box, and so on.
Everything about the sport, and especially the act of pitching thrilled her: the feel of the ball in hand, the smell of the glove leather, the intense confrontation between herself and a hitter.
“I do love that it’s a team sport but you also are responsible for your individual job,” she said. “Like in soccer, everybody is kind of running up and down the field together — I know that’s a simplification —
but when you are a pitcher, you are standing on the middle of the field and everyone is looking at you. The game does not start until you decide to make that pitch, and there’s a lot that goes into that. When things go bad, they look at the pitcher. When things go well, the pitcher gets praise. You are the center of the field and you an individual leading a team in a very specific way, and I always liked that.”
“Obviously I’ve never had a problem being the center of attention,” she added. “And I don’t mean that in a catty way — I mean, I’m not seeking attention, but no one is a pitcher who doesn’t like to be in the middle of the field with all eyes on them with all that pressure on your shoulders.”
She also loved basketball and by middle school was nearly 6 ft. tall and played point guard — again drawn to the unique leadership role and pressure the position entailed. She considered quitting softball for it, but her father counseled against it — pitching was her gift, and she knew it, so she agreed.
She pitched for the Heritage High School Patriots. Though she graduated a year early, her team won two state titles out of the three years she was a Patriot. She pitched, and won, the state championship game her final year. Her ERA that year was below 1.00.
Griffith was recruited by major colleges, and visited LSU, Stanford, Florida, and of course her home state school, the Georgia Bulldogs. She went to Georgia, played all four years and was a core member of their pitching rotation the entire time. One of her teammates was from El Segundo. Griffith took a liking to Southern California while visiting there during school vacations. After college, she put everything she owned in a car and drove across the country.
Little did she know her hardball adventure was just beginning.
Brave in braids
“The baserunner steps off of first base. He just roped a leadoff single, and he’s threatening to steal. The pitcher comes to the set position, checks the runner, and fires one home. The batter pops it up to third base. He’s frustrated, not being able to move the runner along. The guys in his dugout give him some words of encouragement as he gives way to the third and fourth men up in the inning. After five pitches, they too are retired. A fly out for the first guy, a pop out for the second guy. Inning over. The pitcher trots off the mound, adjusts her ponytail from one side to the other, and calmly heads to the dugout.
The ponytail is the giveaway.
If it wasn’t for that ponytail, you might not know that a bit of history is being made in the desert right now on the baseball diamonds of the California Winter League.
For 31-year-old Katie Griffith, being the only woman to ever play in the CWL — an instructional baseball league for players hoping to catch the eye of a coach or scout so they can land an affiliated or independent pro contract — is something she’s proud of and something she’s quickly getting comfortable with.”
Shad Powers, The Desert Sun newspaper, Feb. 2 2017
Harvard evolutionary biologist Neil Thomas Roach published a paper in the journal Nature, a few years ago, titled, “How Throwing Made Us Human.” What he’d discovered what that throwing overhand evolved two million years ago and was part of what set our species apart. It gave early humans, among primates, an unparalleled ability to hunt big game.
“We think that throwing was probably most important early on in terms of hunting behavior, enabling our ancestors to effectively and safely kill big game,” Dr. Roach wrote. “Eating more calorie-rich meat and fat would have allowed our ancestors to grow larger brains and bodies and expand into new regions of the world — all of which helped make us who we are today.”
“Chimpanzees are incredibly strong and athletic, yet adult male chimps can only throw about 20 miles per hour — one-third the speed of a 12-year-old little league pitcher,” Roach wrote.
So how did the whole notion “throws like a girl” evolve?
“Throwing like a girl is basically because young females usually don’t have either the strength or the neurological programming to throw correctly,” House said. “So throwing like a girl was [meant] they squish the elbow and they square up and they just lean into the throw. But there absolutely no reason that a young girl can’t be taught biomechanically, literally, the patterning required in the nervous system to throw it just like a guy.”
If you visualize how most girls throw, House said, they drop their elbow low, square up at the target, and just sort of push the ball. “Well, all you have to do to eliminate that is have them understand hips and shoulders,” House said. “You are sideways to the target, hips and shoulder literally disassociate or create torque, and then you just turn your thumb under to keep your elbow up. And you throw just like a guy.”
If Griffith throws like a girl, it’s a different kind of girl than the world has thus far seen. She arrived at Winter League in Palm Springs throwing 74 to 75 mph. She was still working to get up over 80 mph, but as House realized from the time he first started working with her, part of her delivery was elite when she arrived in his pitching laboratory.
“Her softball delivery, the length of her stride — she had an elite pitcher’s stride,” House said. “We just have to be able to get whatever she created with her legs into her torso and her arms. And then she can compete with the big boys.”
“Katie showed up with part of the puzzle. Her bottom half as a fast pitch softball gal, biomechanically, were as good or better than anybody in baseball….but as soon as the energy got into her hips, shoulders, and arms, that is where the new wiring and the new strength had to be programmed. Stride and momentum create ground force production, force equals mass times acceleration. And that energy that is created with ground force production is what goes up the kinetic chain and out into the baseball. So basically if we can get her upper body to do what her lower body is already doing, then she could probably play without any issue at all, as a professional baseball player. That’s what we are working on now, and that’s science — not an opinion, just pure science.”
This was proven true in the Winter League, where Griffith showed she could compete with the men. She and House also devised a strategy to help compensate for her lower velocity. Most professional baseball pitchers, out of 100 pitches, throw roughly 60 fastballs, 25 breaking balls, and 15 changeups. Griffith, whose curveball has an above-average break, throws 60 to 65 curves, with 20 or 25 fastballs and a few offspeed pitches thrown in to keep hitters off balance (House said pitchers should have at least a 12 mph difference between their fastest and slowest pitches).
“So I’m playing a different game then everybody else on the field, just because I don’t throw 90 or 96 and am never going to,” Griffith said. “I have to figure out a different way to get people out. I am constantly trying to get better as a pitcher, but I am also trying to figure out the craftiest way I can be successful. And I know I’ll get pushback on that no matter how far I make it, ‘Oh, she’s not throwing hard enough. That’s not real pitching.’ Or whatever they want to say. And it’s like, ‘No. I’m here to get outs, so whatever I need to do to get outs — I’ll pitch backwards, I’ll learn a knuckleball, whatever. ‘ I want the three pitch inning. I don’t want strikeouts; I want three weak groundballs to my first baseman. We’ll call that an inning.”
Beyond the biomechanics, beyond the fine art of deception that is pitching, there are other qualities essential for an elite athlete — a strong will and fierce heart. Griffith appears to have both in spades.
A handful of women have made it to independent league baseball. But none have gotten a contract with a team affiliated with a Major League Baseball team. This summer, Griffith is traveling and working out with the Gateway Grizzlies, outside St. Louis. She’s listed on their development roster, but has yet to see live action, and will have to jump a different sort of hurdle to do so — a 28 year old age limit in the Grizzlies’ league. If she doesn’t get an exemption, her intention is to sign a contract elsewhere. She intends to go pro.
Suzy Nece’s 10 year old daughter, Izzy, perhaps understood the meaning of Griffith’s quest best. She created a social media hashtag for Griffith’s journey: #BraveInBraids.
“Izzy gave her the hashtag because she doesn’t know any different,” Nece said. “She doesn’t know women don’t play baseball. And thank god, because I don’t want her to feel those limits. She can do anything. That is just out of the gate. Why go back?”
Next, in Beach this fall: The boys of summer, the yoga of the mound, and the continuing adventures of Glitter Diesel. Also, see BraveInBraids.com to follow Katie Griffith’s journey.