For the love of the game

Jacqui Reynolds of Woburn, Mass., left, and Beth Greenwood of Amherst, N.H., come to Naugatuck every Sunday to play baseball with the Hackers, a men’s adult team in the Nutmeg State Baseball League. -JOE PALLADINO/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

NAUGATUCK — It is a Sunday morning ritual. They rise at dawn and are in the car and on the road by 6 a.m. for the 2 1/2 hour drive to Naugatuck. Once at Rotary Field a massive cooler is unloaded from a sport utility vehicle. It carries hydration, a bit of breakfast, and a lot of lunch for between games. Next they unload equipment bags packed with baseball gear.

Sunday is game day, and for Beth Greenwood and Jacqui Reynolds game day is the happiest day of the week.

Beth and Jacqui are doing what they thought they’d never do, play baseball, and they love it.

“I grew up just wanting to play,” said Reynolds, 25, of Woburn, Mass., “but I wasn’t allowed.”

Greenwood, 19, of Amherst, N.H. was a bit luckier.

“I never even touched a softball,” she said. “I’ve been strictly baseball. I played in town leagues, AAU baseball, on the boys middle school team, and I played all four years at Souhegan High,” where she got a little playing time “in my senior year.”

But now they play ball every week, in Naugatuck, with the Hackers, an 18-and-over wooden-bat league. It is mostly men, or, formerly all men. This season Reynolds and Greenwood are a couple of Lady Hackers in the Nutmeg State Baseball League.

“We are a place for guys that played a little college baseball, or guys that never got a sniff of college ball,” said team manager Mike Doran of Naugatuck. “Our guys play Tri-State or Twilight games during the week, and they play Sunday doubleheaders with us.”

Doran added, “We have a mix of guys who still have a shot, and guys whose shot has passed them by.”

The Hackers are also a shot for gals who never had a shot at all.

The opportunity to bring Reynolds and Greenwood onto the roster took shape last summer when the Hackers sought exhibition games to fill a scheduling gap.

“I had seen a few Facebook posts about women’s baseball teams, so I reached out to see if they wanted to scrimmage a men’s team,” Doran said. “We mixed the teams up and had a lot of fun. I noticed right away that there were three or four women who could play. They were ballplayers.”

Doran made two players an offer they could not refuse. Reynolds and Greenwood were not “softball converts,” Doran noted. “They were baseball players.”

Greenwood has just completed her freshman year at the University of Rochester where she played on the men’s club baseball team. Reynolds is an assistant baseball coach with Newton (Mass.) South High.

On Sundays, they’re Hackers.

Greenwood and Reynolds tried out for the U.S. National Women’s baseball team. They made the 40-player roster but were cut when the team selected its 20-player travel roster.

“Next year will be a different story,” vowed Greenwood, a catcher and middle infielder.

“I do this because I love it,” Greenwood said. She doesn’t see herself as a pioneer. She’s just a ball player. “Growing up, I was the only girl on all-male teams. I don’t know that we’re making history, but maybe we can pave the way for other girls.

“And the Hackers have been very welcoming,” Greenwood added. “I was nervous coming to it. I didn’t know how they’d respond. But after that first day they were super welcoming. They saw that we could play, and we’re getting good playing time.”

Doran, 39, was “pleasantly shocked” by the team’s openness to the ladies. Rob Swierbitowicz, 41, the Hacker’s elder statesman, loves the new players and said they “have been great additions to the team.”

The Doran family has always been about inclusion. Mike Doran’s father, Tom, was a longtime baseball volunteer in Naugatuck with Peter J. Foley Little League and also the town’s former Connie Mack baseball coach. He founded the Naugatuck adult men’s team but died in 2002 while doing what he loved most, playing in a baseball game.

Mike Doran reformed and rebranded the club as the Hackers, and very much in the spirit of his dad saw the team as an opportunity for all.

“This was something that I expected to fight through,” Doran said about his first mention of the ladies, “but there was no pushback or commentary. That made me proud. The guys embraced the idea, and the players around the league have been super accepting.

“They asked one question, ‘Can they play?’ I said yes,” Doran added. “They said, ‘Then’s let’s go.’”

Greenwood came in with solid baseball credentials. Reynolds, a pitcher and shortstop, had to fight for diamond opportunities.

“I played soccer,” she said, “and taekwondo. I played with the neighborhood guys and with my brother when I was younger.”

She refused to play soccer in high school. She called it a “boycott,” and she played one season of softball as a favor to the coach, when low numbers threatened to shut down the team.

Her first true baseball opportunity was at a Red Sox fantasy camp in Florida. She has also played with the New England Red Sox women’s baseball team.

Baseball opportunities for girls are still limited, and Reynolds is not happy.

“In the D.C. area and Virginia the girls are playing a lot of baseball, and in California and Canada,” she said, “but in New England the options are limited. There are still people who say, ‘She can’t play,’ or, ‘I don’t want her to get hurt.’”

And so Greenwood and Reynolds spend five-plus hours in a car every Sunday, and just as much time on a diamond in Naugatuck, for one simple reason. As Greenwood put it, “Because we love playing the game.”