Ryleigh Buck doesn’t have a favorite major league baseball team because she doesn’t pay much attention to the sport.
The Wellington junior is all about softball. She’s a standout shortstop for the Crusaders and spends her summers traveling around the country with the Wichita Mustangs academy.
“Being close to Kansas City, my dad is a Royals fan,” Buck said. “I kind of watch them and keep up, but it’s nothing I’m really interested in.”
But baseball has taken on a new meaning for Buck. She’s trying to make the United States’ women’s baseball team that will compete in the Pan Am Games in Toronto in July.
Buck had never picked up a baseball until December, shortly after Mustangs director Mark Griggs suggested her as someone who could make the transition.
When Griggs was in Las Vegas for the National Fastpitch Coaches Association convention in December, he was asked by Ashley Butcher, the director of the USA’s women’s team, if he had any softball players who might readily adapt to baseball.
“A light bulb went off in my head,” Griggs said. “We presented the idea to Ryleigh, she liked it and we had a little less than four weeks to get her ready to play baseball.”
Being a softball player obviously made the task easier.
But it’s probably more difficult to go from softball to baseball than the other way around. So learning to play baseball has been challenging for Buck, one of 18 hand-picked players who in March represented the U.S. in a tournament in the Dominican Republic.
Buck has been working extensively with Wichita Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper. His two daughters, Lucy and Laney, play with the Mustangs and he is the organization’s infield coach.
“I’m doing pretty good,” said Buck, a shortstop. “It was a little bit of a struggle at the beginning.”
Getting used to the size of the ball and the resulting change in grip was a big hurdle, Buck said. She’s still adapting to wrapping two fingers around a baseball instead of her entire hand around a softball.
“It was hard in the beginning just getting the baseball out of my glove,” Buck said. “And then gripping the baseball right.
“And there were other things like holding a runner on second base from the shortstop position and how to lead off a base. I started pitching a little bit, so I had to learn all of that.”
Buck doesn’t pitch in softball. She plays mostly shortstop and some third base for Wellington and her summer league team.
Going back and forth from softball to baseball is something she never imagined.
But now that she’s a baseball player, she’s determined to be the best baseball player she can be. And she wants to make the final cut for the Pan Am Games. The women’s roster will be trimmed to 18 during Memorial Day weekend.
“Another thing Ryleigh had to work through was the hitting angle in baseball,” said T.D. Buck, her father and high school coach. “In softball, the pitch comes in at the same level it was delivered from. But in baseball (the arc) of the baseball is downward. But the swing is the same and fielding a ground ball is the same.”
Ryleigh Buck has committed to play college softball at Central Florida. That is, of course, if the professional baseball scouts don’t snag her first.
“I’m always going to like softball more than baseball,” she said. “It’s the game I’ve grown up with. But I’m also hoping to make the Pan Am baseball team. We had our very first tryout in Houston and it was such a new experience. And now that I’ve gone through all of this, I’m really excited to get the opportunity.”
Griggs said Buck, one of the three youngest players still on the Pan Am roster, has the talent and mental approach to make this happen.
“She’s an exceptional kid and not just as an athlete,” Griggs said. “She’s probably one of the biggest pleasers I’ve ever met in my life. I don’t think there’s a challenge you could give Ryleigh that she wouldn’t take on head first. She embraces coaching. I’ve been doing this now for 14 years and Coach Hooper has been coaching since he got of professional baseball. Ryleigh is such a coachable kid and we knew something like this wouldn’t ruin her or make her big-headed.”
Quite the opposite, in fact. Trying to learn baseball on the fly has filled Buck’s head with everything but ego.
“Baseball isn’t exactly like softball,” she said. “But it’s still fun.”