2011 Little League Baseball World Series
Williamsport, Pennsylvania - August 18 - 28

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La Mujer Maravilla

Nancy Prieto, the 2011 Little League Baseball World Series’s only female umpire, is rewriting the boundaries for women in sports around the world

Author: Allie Weinberger

Source: South Williamsport, Pa.

Date/Time: Thursday, August 25, 2011

Nancy Prieto is a pioneer.

And, like most pioneers throughout history, she has something to prove.

Prieto – who has quickly become one of the most beloved among a crew of volunteers often forgotten about when it comes to the Little League Baseball World Series – is a woman among men. Lots and lots of blue-clad men.

Prieto is a Little League umpire, just the fourth woman to ever grace the grounds of the Little League Baseball World Series in that capacity.

“It’s an honor for me,” said Prieto, “but a lot of responsibility as well.”

Prieto feels a bit of a weight on her shoulders this Series, but it’s not pressure to live up to her male counterparts – she, and they, already know she does. It’s also not a pressure to live up to the women who came before her – heading into the International and U.S. Championship games, she has already spent two games behind the plate and is generally regarded as one of the best not just here, but it the world.

The feeling Prieto has, rather, is the hope that she lives up to the reputations of a bunch of 12-year-old boys.
“Every year, the team from Mexico [that gets to the World Series] is a very good team,” she said. “I have to show everyone that we have not just good players, but we have good umpires, too.”

Surprisingly, Prieto is not just the first female umpire from Mexico to officiate a Little League Baseball World Series, she is also the first and only umpire from Mexico to ever be rewarded a trip to South Williamsport for the final days of August.

“It’s an honor for me to be the first Mexican umpire here, female or male,” she said.

And it seems to be an honor for those around her, too. She is constantly surrounded by choruses of “congratulations”, “nice job” or “another great game, Nance”, testaments to both her skill and good nature. Prieto – the only female umpire in her home state of Nuevo Leon – is the first female blue at this tournament since 2006, when Hong Kong’s Lo Mei Yan was behind the plate at the 60th Little League Baseball Championship Game. She is just the second international female to get the job in the organization’s history.
Prieto feels pressure here in other ways, too.

“I was nervous in the first game, but not for the game itself,” said Prieto. “I know what I can do [as an umpire], I’ve been doing this for 23 years. I’m nervous because [things happen here] that never happen in Mexico.”

For instance, the presence of constant television media coverage and the change in routine it causes.

“Wait for the sign to start, wait for the kids to come out, wait the replay on the camera – these are a lot of things that never happen in Mexico,” she said. “I usually also talk a lot with the coach. They give me the changes – the lineup, the numbers – and here they are going to the table. I understand, because a lot of [umpires and coaches] here don’t speak English, but this is weird for me.”

Where she doesn’t feel pressure is when it comes to her chromosomes and their minority presence on the diamond. She knows that, when it comes to umpiring, she’s got the goods. She’s been all over the world umpiring baseball and softball games at all age and skill levels, including two different Little League World Series, eight Latin America regional tournaments and more than 30 Mexico regionals.

Prieto lives her life surrounded by baseball in one way or another. She eats, sleeps and breathes it.

She is employed by the state government back home, coaching the state softball team that represents Nuevo Leon at national tournaments throughout Mexico. She works in her government’s sports department. In the city where she lives, Santa Catarina, she works for the Institute of the Sports of Santa Catarina. She is the Region 1 umpire coordinator for all Little League tournaments in Mexico and Latin America and is the coordinator for the different softball tournaments throughout Santa Catarina. She is also the coach (or trainer, as she calls it) of the softball team at the University of Nuevo Leon.

When she umpires within her state, she has called the balls and strikes for any and all of Nuevo Leon’s 52 different little leagues, and she doesn’t stop there.

“I work for all of Region 1, and I also work for all of Mexico,” she said.

But do the boys she umpires for react any differently when they see a woman behind the plate?

“That was before,” said Nancy, who began umpiring in her early 20s and now has 23 years of Little League experience under her belt. “It used to be, ‘You’re gonna be the umpire?’ and a confused look. But now they know me, and I’m very proud that a lot of teams will now ask for me in tournaments.”

How Prieto wound up in South Williamsport in 2011 is a story in itself, too. Her baseball career began as a girl playing for Independencia Little League in Nuevo Leon. There, again she was a pioneer.

“I played there when I was 12, and I was the first female in the program in Region 1,” Prieto remembers. “My father was a volunteer with the program for 43 years.

“We are just three sisters and I,” she continued. “My father doesn’t have a son, so I would always go with him to the games and all the events for the little leagues. Then, I started to play softball.”

She took her softball career all the way to the Mexican National Team, where she played for five years through her early 20s.

“And then one of my trainers said, ‘Let’s make a group for female umpires to just work softball.’” Prieto said. “He asked me to be in the group and I said OK. We were eight females, but soon everyone else dropped out and only I stayed.”

And soon after, that same trainer called on her to begin umpiring baseball games, as well.

Now, Prieto primarily officiates baseball, working less with softball due to her own connections to the sport as a coach, consciously avoiding any possible conflicts of interest. But Prieto will be umpiring in next October’s Pan American Games in Guadalajara, where she is also the coach for Team Mexico softball.
So which does she prefer? Umpiring the boys, or coaching the girls?

“Uh oh, this is a hard question,” she said. “That’s two things I enjoy a lot and that give me different satisfaction. I hope I can always have time for both.”

This is not Prieto’s first Little League rodeo. She umpired in the 1997 Junior League Baseball World Series in Taylor, Mich., and was selected to umpire the 2000 Big League Softball tournament in Kalamazoo, Mich.
And since she did both of those, Prieto thought she was done with World Series events due to Little League International’s two-tournament maximum. That is, until the ruled changed in 2010.

“I called Nancy and told her ‘Everything’s OK now, you can come,’” said Pagan. “And she was delighted. She thought I was kidding, she didn’t know the rules changed.”

Still, Prieto was left behind for the 2010 Series. Then, in November of 2010, Latin America Region Director Carlos Pagan gave Prieto the news of a lifetime.

“[They called to tell me I was selected], but I said nothing,” she recalled, flashing a grin as big today as it was when she first heard the news. “I ask for my national director and I said, ‘Tell Carlos to send [the letter] by mail or something. I want something tangible. I don’t want to just hear it on the phone.’

“I was excited, but my father was more excited,” she continued. “He is very, very proud of me and very excited that I am here. It’s an honor, but this is also a very, very big responsibility.”

Prieto is as popular now as ever.

“In Mexico, I can tell you how many people are [at every game], but now, I check my email and my Facebook and I have a lot of writing on it, you know, ‘congratulations’, ‘I see you [on TV]’ from a lot of people,” she said. “People I haven’t seen in a long time now are writing to me. Friends, umpires from Taylor and Kalamazoo, now are writing me, ‘Hey, I saw you!’ I am so very, very happy. I don’t have words to say how I feel.”

“I’m very happy [she was selected], because she demonstrates that a woman can do a good job at anything,” said Pagan.

But, if Mexico – who is through to Saturday’s International Championship (12 p.m.) – ends up advancing to the Little League Baseball World Series title game, Prieto would be taken out of consideration to be part of the blue crew in arguably the biggest game in her storied umpiring career. Series umpires are not allowed to participate in games involving a team from his or her region.

“Obviously, I’m from Mexico, and I feel the flag and I feel the anthem,” she said, after some deliberation. “I feel it inside, my skin tingles when the song plays. I don’t want to be selfish – this is the first and only time for them [to be here], too. There’s only one time in his life that he’s going to be 12, so if Mexico can go to the final, it’s good, it’s good. I’m happy, and it’s still an experience I will never forget.”