Evanston RoundTable, July 6, 2023
Somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.
Ava Bellis struck out too, and for a few minutes there was no joy on the Evanston Orange Cats. The team was participating last month in the annual All-Star Village tournament in Cooperstown, New York, for 12-year-olds from around the country.
The Cats, part of the Lake Shore Feeder Baseball League, are currently 8-1 against North Shore teams with seven more games to play. But they were winless in six tournament appearances leading up to their final game on Sunday, June 18, against a team from Hudson, Ohio. They were behind by one run with two outs in the last inning and the tying run on third base when Ava, like Casey in the famous poem, strode to the plate.
One of only two girls out of more than 750 tournament players from 64 teams, Ava admitted she was “a little nervous” in the batter’s box, especially after the ump called what she thought was an outside pitch a strike, forcing the count to 3-2. The next pitch seemed low, but the ump called it a strike too, ending the game.
Needless to say, Ava was upset. But the team’s assistant coach, Tommy Van Treeck, said, “She came back to the dugout with her head held high. She took it better than a lot of the rest of the players did.”
Head coach Andy Vye concurred. “She shook her head, as if to say, ‘We just gotta move on.’ We tell the kids it’s not about the wins and losses. It’s about the learning, the community and the experience. You go out there to grow.”
Despite the setback, the week-long experience was huge for the Cats – and for Ava. All week long, girls as young as five who were in Cooperstown to root for their older brothers were asking Ava for her picture, her autograph and her collectible baseball pin – mom and daughter handed out around 250 of them – and to tell her how great it was to see her.
“I thought it was cool I could inspire them,” Ava said. “I told them I was glad they could watch me play. And I said, ‘I hope someday you can play too.’”
Baseball runs deep in the Bellis family DNA. Ava’s mom, Jennifer Bellis, said her grandfather pitched and played first base on a Hamilton, Ontario, baseball team, and played softball through his 70s. Her husband Ed Bellis’ grandfather, known as “Blackie” Bellis, played minor league ball in the Boston Red Sox farm system.
Jennifer herself played softball through eighth grade in Temperance, Michigan.
A rising seventh-grader at Haven Elementary School, Ava first started playing as a kid after watching her brothers Thayer, now 17, and Holden, 16, play at Cooperstown. Both attend Evanston Township High School. “I liked watching my brothers and trying to do what they did,” Ava explained.
And despite the fact she’s been the only girl playing local hardball since she was in first grade, “I was never tempted to quit. I’ve always felt included.”
Van Treeck said Ava, currently batting almost .400 as well as pitching, catching and playing infield, is “one of the best players on the team. It’s really nice to have her with us.”
“She’s a leader,” said Vye. “Not just in breaking boundaries, but in backing it up with good baseball.”
At Cooperstown, when she wasn’t on the playing field, she hung out with her teammates in the dining hall and the players’ bunkhouse. At night she and the other girl in the tournament stayed in the infirmary.
The first full day there, Thursday, June 15, the players attended the Opening Ceremony, followed by a number of competitions including a traditional home run derby.
Next morning was their first game, against one of the top teams from the Central Valley of California. The ‘Cats got clobbered, 34-1. West coast teams have the advantage of being able to play year-round, Vye said. “Their season starts in January, so they’re primed when they get to the tournament.”
Ava observed that the other players looked a little intimidating. “But we knew we had a chance against anyone. The coach said, as long as we play our best and have fun, it would be fine.”
“We improved every single game we played,” Vye noted. Indeed, when the Cats played the Central Valley team later in the week, they scored the first four runs. And when they returned home, they won three games in a row in what is now an eight-game winning streak.
Looking back on the week at Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Ava enthused, “It was really fun – spending time with the team, playing a lot of games and meeting all the girls” who wanted to see her.
“I’m super proud of her,” said her mom, Jennifer. “She’s just so humble about it. She has no idea the impact she had on those little girls.”
As for her future on the diamond, Ava plans to continue playing travel ball until she’s 14, then decide whether she should try out for Evanston Township High School’s freshman team or join the girls softball team at school.
Does she fantasize about playing in the bigs, as the Major Leagues are called? Ava, who wears number 44 for her hero, former Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, replied with a smile, “That would be cool.”