Another hardball first for Lyszczyk
NASHUA – Marika Lyszczyk is used to breaking barriers.
The former Rivier University catcher once became the first female position player to play in an NCAA Division III game with the Raiders before transferring to Sonoma State. And now she returned to Holman Stadium recently after a year away as the first ever female player in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League as a reliever with the Brockton Rox, taking on the Nashua Silver Knights.
“It’s awesome,” Lyszczyk said. “It’s so fun to be able to come back and play on the field I first committed to for a university. It’s a full-circle moment for me for sure, because when I comitted (to Riv), I toured Holman. The coach (former Rivier head man Anthony Perry) said that ‘The Futures League plays here but we don’t send anybody because no one’s at that level yet, but maybe one day you could play in this league.’
“That kind of stuck with me. I was like, ‘You know, I’ve got to play in this league, I’ve got to find a way.'”
She did. Lysczyk made news in the off-season when she signed with Brockton, and is certainly getting plenty of work, leading the team at last look in pitching appearances with 11, all n relief.
Lyszczyk’s time at Riv was greatly sabotaged by the pandemic as she went home to the Vancouver area and obviously could not make it back to the U.S. The 2020 season was wiped away, and the following season was only a handful of games to get the roster back together. But before the pandemic, when Riv made its annual trek in early March of 2020 to Florida for a week of about 10 games, she caught and pitched in the same game and felt something was wrong.
When she had to go back to Canada six days after the team returned Nashua, she felt, “Oh, I’ve had shoulder pain before, I’ll get over it.” But no.
Then after only being able to do limited baseball activities following surgery and appear in one game in the spring of 2022 for the Raiders, she entered the transfer portal because she wanted go get into media/communications and that wasn’t offered at Riv.
Lyszczyk focused on transferring to a school that was closer to home, and it was only a two hour flight from Sonoma to Vancouver. She actually reached out to the Sonoma coaches
“It was super close, my family could come down, the major was great, and the coach and team were amazing,” she said. “It takes a special program, just like Riv to be able to take someone like me. The fact they welcomed me with open arms and were so caring, and so helpful, and I just had an amazing time this year.”
But it was an uphill battle. She was moving up a division, from III to II, and also changing from catcher to pitcher.
Sonoma did not want her to catch. Lyszczyk switched to pitching because she underwent a partial reconstruction of her rotator cuff in the summer of 2021 and believe it or not, pitching was a way to control how much she would throw.
“If I pitch, I can choose how much I throw, how long I warm up, and it’s a shorter throw,” she said. “That’s how I decided to go with that.”
She lost velocity thanks to the surgery, but that’s not a concern in her mind.
“I think I’ve had more success throwing slower,” she said,noting that with a slower pitch the ball won’t fly off the bat as quickly. “It’s effectve. .. I truly want them to hit it. Guys think strikeout, strikeout, strikeout. But I throw a lot less pitches pitching to contact.”
And no walks. She had only one in 17.1 innings at a recent look, but despite an earned run average of just over 6.00, Lyszczyk is used pretty regularly out of the pen.
Still, the transition wasn’t easy. New school,new coaches, new major, new position.
“There were definitely moments when I was stressed,” she said. “And I doubted myself. But I definitely got the results I wanted. I didn’t pitch as much as I had hoped to (three scoreless innings) but I definitely can see myself in the rotation next season – three innings with three zeroes, there’s not much better you can do, I was happy with the way the season went.”
She does miss catching.
“I hope to bring it back at some point,” she said. “You never know when I could do it again. It’s a different type of game for me now, I’m used to always moving, catching bullpens, but now I’m sitting on the sidelines (in the bullpen) eating snacks. It’s such a big transition for me from one to another.”
The pandemic ripped her Rivier career apart. “It did,” she said. ” I had to go home, and then coming back it was extremely hard (after the surgery). I was extremely glad I got to pitch that one inning. It’s like I got to end the season that way.”
But before that, waiting out the entire pandemic was, in her words, “horrible.” She worked in a dental office as basically a lab technician, and it made her realize how much she missed the game.
“Although my experience was great, and I was working, baseball was my life, and I couldn’t see myself outside of it,” she said.
In Canada the restrictions were much more strict, so she couldn’t really throw or work out anywhere. Then she finally got back into it going to a gym with some players who played professionally in Canada. But there wasn’t much in terms of baseball activity. Then she had surgery.
She didn’t return to Rivier until the fall of 2021. It was different; Perry wasn’t there, but assistant Louie Bernardini had taken over as head coach so there was that familiarity. But the fear of the unknown still made her nervous.
“You never know, you took a year off, but everyone else did, too,” she said. “It was exciting to get back.”
She took psychology courses while at Riv, but that fall being around the game “was amazing.” But again she couldn’t play due to the surgery until the end of that spring 2022 season. It didn’t matter, she was around the game.
“There’s no better thing than being on a baseball field, that was exciting for me,” she said.
But Lyszczyk felt she had to make the move, and transferred this time last year.
But the desire to play in the FCBL stuck with her. Sonoma didn’t make the connection, as the coaches wanted her to stay in California and play in a league there.
“But I was determined,” she said, noting both of her FCBL desire or, if that couldn’t happen, the chance to play in Canada. “I researched a lot of places and I reached out to Brockton. It’s funny because I told them I wanted to play close to home. So when they got the call that I was going to go to Boston (general area), they said, ‘You know the team is in Boston, right?'”
“For me it was more comfortable,” she said. “All my friends from Riv are around the (Boston) area. I’d rather go somewhere where there’s people around I know to support me.”
Two of her former Raider teammates came to Holman a couple of weeks ago when Brockton was last here. And she’s visited and hung out with others. Perry also attended a game at Brockton’s Campanelli Stadium.
But walking back into Holman, she said, was special, as got “a crazy feeling” when the Rox bus first pulled into the Stadium parking lot.
“I never thought I would be back, playing on that field again,” she said. “It was really a special moment for me, the first time since my surgery. Overall it was just so special for me, and a lot of people there know I played for Riv and said, ‘Oh, we wanted to cheer for you too, but we’re Nashua fans. But we want to cheer for you.'”
Even the dugout side was familiar, as Rivier took the third base side and used the left field bullpen.
THE GENDER FACTOR
Lyszczyk will always have the gender related “first female player” attached to any story, press release, social media post, etc., but does it get tired for her? She said “It’s exciting to make history, but in some ways it’s no longer like that, so it’s a lot easier for other girls coming up. We hope that a lot of gitls who want to play in college we paved the way for them to make it easier, so it’s not so difficult.” There were eight female players according the website baseballforall.com currently playing college baseball. Of course, this area also had Souehgan High School’s Beth Greenwood play, and she played college ball at the University of Rochester in 2021-22. The site says that while over 100,000 girls play youth baseball, only 1,000 continue to play in the high school ranks.
“It’s not strange anymore, the boundry’s been broken,” Lyszczyk said. “Hopefully it’s going to be the new normal for girls to get a spot on a team and it’s not going to be a huge problem.
“It’s what I do everything for, to make it easier on these younger girls to do what they want to do, for the love of baseball.”
So with that in mind, how has it worked out with Brockton?
“I don’t know if they knew about me ahead of time,” Lyszczyk said. “It was on social media but nobody really said anything. All my teammates have been so supportive here. Something that’s so important to me on any team I’ve been on is having a good relationship with my teammates, being able to hang with them, so it’s not weird. Slowly but surely they get used to me, they’ve now played with a girl. I think there’s kind of a stigma around it, but once that’s broken they see I’m just here to play.
“On the field I’m one of the boys, one of the boys. We can joke back and forth, I can take it. It’s been awesome.”
“She’s the perfect example of trusting your stuff,” Brockton coach Steve Larkin, a former Nashua Pride standout, said. “She doesn’t throw very hard, but she’s a freakin’ strike thrower. She lets the hitters get themselves out. She’s one of the guys.”
Lyszczyk has a great relationship with both coaches, Larkin and manager Joe Logan.
“They give me the opportunity to go out there and play, so every time I give them everything I have,” she said. “Joe believes in me, he gives me a lot of reins to hold leads, etc. It’s nice to take on a role that has responsibility with the the pitching staff, I’m called on pretty frequently, That makes me feel really good about myself. It feels really good to be wanted and people want you to pitch. That gives me a lot of confidence when I pitch, knowing that they believe in me.”
The fans around the league have embraced her. She feels it’s important to interact with the fans, especially the kids like those who attend Silver Knights games, even as a visitor. The FCBL is big on fan interaction – there’s a lot more of it than most of its players experience it at their schools – and Lyszczyk is fully on board with that.
“We all know statistically baseball is said to be a dying sport,” she said. “So it’s so important that young kids fall in love with the game, play the game, so we don’t dry out with older generations. It’s super fun to be able to talk to everybody, young, old, sign baseballs and interact with the fans.
What does Lyszczyk eventually want to do in baseball? She has two or three years, she said, of eligibility left.
“Everything’s up in the air right now,” she said.
“I may make a big change in the fall. You’ll have to see.”
It will be baseball related, she said, but can’t say anything yet. She does want to keep playing for awhile, and eventually her goal is to do “on field commentating.” In other words, she wants to be in the media.
Meanwhile her playing career continues. She is inspired by Jackie Robinson, “who broke a lot of barriers.”
“I shape my game sort of after him, that keeps me going,” she said. “And my family keeps me going, they’re so supportive. They’re starting to get into it now. It’s an exciting thing.”
There were a couple of women during one of her appearences sitting behind home plate and realized that Lyszczyk had just entered the game.
“Go girl,” they shouted, and then said, “Yeah, we want the Silver Knights to win, but we don’t care. She’s tremendous.”