Malaika Underwood blends a veteran’s experience with the mindset of a visionary. The Women’s Baseball World Cup, now going on in Viera, FL is familiar ground to the San Diego native. The 37-year old is making her seventh appearance in the biennial event.
“I think (the World Cup) is huge,” she said. “it’s an aspirational event for girls who are playing at the youth level now. Something for them to work toward and that provide role models for them to look up to.
“When I was growing up I was at least fortunate enough to have the (Colorado) Silver Bullets and Ira Borders, who were doing their thing in the mid-to-late 90s when I was in high school. So, for me those were the role models. “I hope that the girls playing today see us and get that same motivation and inspiration to keep at it.”
Underwood played a lot of baseball growing up with and alongside the other kids in her neighborhood. She played Little League baseball but to this day she has never played organized softball. “As I kept playing there were fewer and fewer girls on the field,” Underwood says, “but I enjoyed the game and wanted to continue.”
As an eighth grader, she sent letters to baseball coaches at several of the high schools she was considering, asking if they would let her try out for the baseball team.
“I just said ‘Hey look, I’m a girl, I play baseball and I want to try out for your team,” Underwood recalls, ‘I’m not looking for special treatment. I just want to know that I’m going to get a fair shot.’’
“Some of the coaches replied back that they had a softball team and that they would prefer that I play softball, and some of the coaches replied that they be open to it; if I was good enough they had no problem with me playing on the team.”
Underwood enrolled at La Jolla High, where she spent two years on the junior varsity squad before spending her final two high-school seasons on the varsity.
Not that everyone in the school community was thrilled with that. “There was definitely pressure, or encouragement, if you want to call it that to switch to softball.” Underwood says. “The standard line was ‘If you want a college scholarship, you need to make the switch.’”
But Underwood, who also played volleyball and basketball, didn’t need baseball to get to college. She wound up going to North Carolina on a volleyball scholarship and one occasion was named the Most Valuable Player in the ACC tournament. During her four years in Chapel Hill she took a hiatus from playing baseball, but stayed in touch with the game by coaching a Little League team.
In 2006 she tried out for the second U.S. World Cup team (she didn’t try out for the team in 2004 only because she didn’t know the Women’s World Cup existed). That 2006 team won a gold medal and Underwood has been part of the U.S. National Team ever since. In addition to her seven World Cup appearances, she played for the U.S. team that won gold at the 2015 Pan-American Games in Toronto. In 2008 she made the Women’s World Cup All-Tournament team as a second baseman and again six years later as a first baseman.
Underwood says she’s seen the level of play in the women’s game evolve over the course of her career. “I think the biggest difference and improvement is the depth of talent,” she says. There are more and more girls playing the sport.
“We see it with tryouts. There are just more girls who are playing at a high level … and I think that’s great for the sport because I think the more girls who play and the deeper the talent pool, the better Team USA will be but also better the sport in general will be.”
The Women’s Sports and Entertainment Network spoke with Underwood roughly 14 hours after the Americans routed the Netherlands 18-0 for their second consecutive preliminary round victory.
Underwood started both games at first base. Hitting out of the third spot in the lineup, she is four-for-seven at the plate with a triple and three RBIs.
The U.S. was scheduled to face South Korea, Venezuela and Chinese Taipei before preliminary round concludes on Sunday. The 12-team field will then be cut in half for the Super Round beginning Monday before four teams move on to the final round, the medal round. The tournament concludes next Friday The U.S. is the second-seed behind five-time champion Japan; it is looking for its first title since 2006 and its third overall.
“We feel great after the two wins,” Underwood says. “It’s a great start, but we also know there’s a lot of work to be done. It’s cliché, but we’re really taking it one game at a time because in this type of tournament format, every win matters and not just every win but every inning.
“So it’s important for us to stay focused on a day-to-day basis and score runs and hold our opponent to as few runs as possible and get the win.”