'Fight for what you want': Nicole Vorrasi Bates breaks barriers as female coach of Little League team

Nicole Vorrasi Bates has heard it all.

Assistant coach. Team mom.

She knows those jobs are important to the makeup of a team and the assumptions don’t bother her, but neither position fully describes Bates’ role.

She is the head coach and manager of the Capitol City 12U All-Stars, a Washington, D.C.-based boys team that last week advanced to regionals, the last set of games before the Little League World Series. Bates’ team begins the double-elimination tournament Sunday against Pennsylvania in Bristol, Connecticut, as part of the Mid-Atlantic Region. The winner of the six-team region advances to Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Getting to this point has been an uphill battle, and while Bates won’t say it herself, the 49-year-old coach has become a bit of a trailblazer. Little League Baseball used to keep demographic records of its coaches, but it doesn’t anymore. A spokesperson was unable to provide concrete information about how many women are head coaches at the 12-year-old level.

Nicole Bates, head coach and manager of the Capital City 12U All-Stars, takes a swing at the ball during practice.

However, Max Eckert, founder of Wild Bill Sports and a director of development for several local baseball teams in the D.C. area, says of Bates: “She’s the first woman head coach I’ve ever come across at the 12U level.”

Eckert, who has been coaching full time for 12 years, has a woman on staff and knows the challenges she goes through. He can only imagine what Bates has overcome.

When Bates looks around the baseball side of Little League, she notices something – or rather, the lack of something. She is a rare woman in a man’s world. In seven or so years coaching, she has seen other female coaches, but they are typically in assistant roles. Even umpires have confused her role on the team and talked to her assistant coaches instead of going to Bates.

Her own assistant coach, Josh Mahan, is sure that Bates faces challenges that male coaches do not.

“I think she feels like she has to prove herself probably to some of these people,” Mahan said. “Her work ethic (sets her apart). She works very hard at it, and she cares a lot. She knows baseball, and she’s good at it. I’m sure there are challenges, but she doesn’t really complain about them.”

Bates admits there are some opposing coaches who try harder to win when they play her team. But for the most part, she lets all that roll off her back. It’s their problem, not hers, and her All-Stars have the record to prove it. Capitol City has gone 7-0 this season on its way to Bristol.

“In general, people have been pretty supportive,” Bates said. “Even people from other teams will come over afterwards and say. ‘I think you’re fantastic. It’s great that you’re out there.’ So, it’s a mixed bag.”

In fact, ask Bates what one of her biggest challenges is, and she’ll probably say it’s coaching her son, Cameron. Wrangling a group of teenage boys doesn’t faze Bates, but she leaves certain family affairs to her assistant coaches.

Bates, left, poses with son, Cameron, after the Capital City 12U All-Stars won the Little League District of Columbia Championship.

“It’s better to lean on my assistant coaches in those situations, because I do have to go home with him,” Bates says in between chuckles. “They’ve been a wonderful resource, but at the same time, it has been an absolute gift to share this with him as his mother and a gift I will never forget.”

Bates gets the honor of coaching her own son, but other parents like Peggy Bennett are happy Bates’ is their child’s coach. Bennett’s son, Bobby, plays for the All-Stars this season, and she appreciates having a coach who focuses on camaraderie and team spirit.

“I love that we have a female coach,” Bennett said. “I also think it’s nice for boys to take direction from female coaches. I think it gets rid of any inherent bias they could have because they don’t think anything of it. I think that’s what’s so important.”

The difficulties that come with being a female baseball coach pale in comparison to what Bates dealt with this past year. The coronavirus wiped out her spring and fall seasons in 2020 and clinic this winter.

“She kind of helped that league sustain itself during COVID,” Eckert said. “Her and Josh Hurvitz, who’s the current president, have done an outstanding job of finding things to do for the kids, keeping them engaged with non-on-field stuff. I’ve always respected that she’ll fight for the kids.”

During the pandemic, Bates understood that her players would need psychological and emotional support more than they would need development and training. She also knew that, at the time, baseball was about more than winning or losing, so she focused on keeping the game fun for the kids.

“She organized some sandlot games during the summer for kids just to play,” Mahan said. “I know that was helpful for kids who didn’t have any other options during COVID. They got to go to the field and play kind of pick-up baseball, so that was one of the big things I think that really helped.”

Bates (back row, second from the right) and her team celebrate with their championship banner after being named Little League District of Columbia Champions.

Keeping the joy in baseball is a priority for Bates. Sure, she has led her team to one of the highest levels in youth sports, but she knows how important it is to remember that the players are kids, after all.

“These kids are harder on themselves than anybody can be,” Bates said. “They don’t need adults piling on. If you can get the kids working together and being good teammates, thinking like a team and still having fun, they’ll be very successful. I’m so incredibly proud of these kids. They’ve worked very hard. They’ve come together as a team; they pick each other up.”

With this being her first trip to regionals, Bates and her team are focused on winning the Mid-Atlantic Region, but Bates will also represent something bigger than baseball. In Little League, baseball is open to both boys and girls. But Bates knows firsthand that there are a disproportional number of girls playing and of women coaching. She wishes that wasn’t the case.

“Gender equality is something that is very near and dear to me,” said Bates, who started a nonprofit called Shattering Glass. According to its website, Shattering Glass is dedicated to combating gender discrimination and implicit bias through advocacy, education and outreach.

“I would hope that any young girl or woman who’s interested in baseball would see this and realize that you can do it, you just have to fight for what you want,” Bates said. “It may not be smooth, but you have to keep fighting for it. The sky’s the limit, you just need to put your heart and soul into it. We’re starting to see women make inroads into baseball at the professional level. So, I’m hoping that we can keep that momentum going and get more girls involved in baseball.”

Contact Alyssa Hertel at ahertel@usatoday.com or on Twitter @AlyssaHertel.