Baseball has been a part of Oz Sailors’ life for as long as she can remember.
A Southern California native, Sailors traveled across the country to the University of Maine at Presque Isle just for the chance to play college baseball, turning down a NCAA Division I softball scholarship offer in the process. She became a member of the United States Women’s Baseball Team at the tender age of 17 in 2010 and will try to make the Pan-Am Games roster next year. She became the first-ever female player for the San Rafael Pacifics, an independent league baseball team in the Bay Area, in 2015, while also playing professionally overseas.
Still in her mid-20s, she’s already proven that a woman can accomplish plenty in what has historically been a game dominated by men.
“My whole life I was the only female playing baseball. People made it a big deal, and it was a big deal 15 years ago having a woman playing a man’s game,” Sailors said. “I wasn’t naturally talented or bigger, faster or stronger, but I worked hard and I was successful and made All-Star teams. There were always coaches people telling me ‘Man, when she switches to softball, she’s going to be something else.’ I have a bit of a stubborn side, and this is America and you can do what you want if you put your mind to it. I just stuck with baseball.”
For the past seven months, Sailors has been coaching baseball in the Rogue Valley, first with the junior varsity team at Ashland High School and now with the Ashland Pilots, Ashland’s local Single-A American Legion team that has welcomed her as one of their own.
Pilots players don’t care that the person writing out the lineup card each day or giving them signs in the third-base coach’s box is female. They don’t see the gender of their head coach, rather somebody who can teach a young crop of baseball players some valuable lessons that will help score positive results now and in the future.
“I feel like we don’t care who coaches unless they don’t bring us together — and she brings us together like crazy,” first baseman Johnny Lemhouse said. “We’re always together like she wants us to be. I think she came into our family with open arms and we all love her a lot and hope she stays longer. She’s made a huge difference in this program.”
Be it during her playing days or now as a coach, Sailors has gotten the respect of her peers by proving that she’s the real deal.
She’s not just in Ashland to coach on how to field or hit a ball, she’s educating her players on the game of baseball as well, the strategies and wisdom passed down through the years.
From the get-go, the wealth of knowledge that Sailors brings to the table has garnered players’ respect.
“She’s got an incredible amount of baseball knowledge,” outfielder Traber Burns said. “Male, female, it doesn’t matter to me. I grew up with a female coach in Little League and I’ve seen a lot of female coaches out there, and she’s just as qualified as the men in this league and the state. She knows just as much as anybody else.”
“She definitely has the most knowledge I’ve ever met in a coach with every situation in baseball,” Lemhouse said. “She knows every single answer for any question I’ve ever had and she really cares about each individual player.”
The end goal is to become the first-ever woman to be a head baseball coach at an NCAA-affiliated university.
That won’t be easy, but even getting to where she is now has not always been an easy path, so she’s used to overcoming obstacles.
Once Sailors got to Maine — she can recall that she went from 65-degree weather to it being minus-11 getting off the plane for her recruiting visit — she knew that she wanted to be there. She loved the people, she loved small-town charm and, maybe most importantly, how she was embraced for trying to play college baseball.
By the end of her four years playing at UMPI, an NCAA Division III school, she was voted as one of the team captains by her teammates.
Sailors made her way to Southern Oregon thanks to a close friend, and it didn’t take long to get in contact with the Ashland High’s longtime athletic director, Karl Kemper, about the open head coaching position with the junior varsity baseball team.
“The first thing (Kemper) told me that caught my attention was that they won’t have a problem with it because they’ve been coached by women before,” Sailors recalled. “It was like, ‘That’s nice for a change!’ And I had just gotten out of professional baseball in January, had a career-ending injury, so from that to JV baseball was a bit of a shock. But it was a good trip down memory lane and it was a good opportunity to teach kids the love of the game and the fundamentals of the game.
“To be there with them in that part of their journey, they helped me more than I helped them. When you get done playing, there’s a part of you that feels like it’s missing, and just to be out here with these kids to see the love for the game in these kids filled that void for me.”
It’s no different with the Pilots now.
“The best part with her is that she complements our mental part of summer ball,” Burns said. “We both want to win, but at the same time we can be relaxed. We play the best when we’re relaxed and positive.”
Even after a one-win high school season on the varsity level this past spring, you wouldn’t know by the energy at practice.
A lot of that has to do with the players themselves wanting to be at North Mountain Park when there isn’t a game on the schedule, but it also is a reflection of Sailors’ ability to connect with the players that she has had a short time to work with this summer.
For somebody who had to work for everything that she achieved in the game of baseball at such a young age, now being on the other side of the player-coach dynamic only seems like a logical step.
“When you’re an athlete, it’s easy to be selfish,” Sailors said. “I have had so many people in my life that have spent hours and hours and hours of their lives driving me to baseball practice, throwing me batting practice, hitting me ground balls and all that — and now it’s my turn. That’s a responsibility that I feel very strongly about and it’s my chance to give back, it’s my chance to make a difference in these kids’ lives like the coaches in my life made for me.”
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.