Meet the Inspiring Women Behind Major League Baseball’s Youth Baseball & Softball Programs
By Melissa Wickes
February 5, 2024
When you think “Major League Baseball,” chances are the Judges, Acunas, Betts’, Olsons, and Sotos of the world are what comes to mind. What you may not know is, MLB is doing much more than powering the major league and serving fancy hotdogs at their stadiums. They’re also running some of the more impactful youth baseball and softball programs in the country—and a lot of those programs are run by strong, inspiring women.
We’re fortunate enough to get to work with MLB on some of these programs, and in doing so we’ve gotten to know the awesome women behind them. In honor of Girls and Women in Sports Day, we’d like you to get to know them too.
Shannon Johnson, Manager of the Marlins Youth Academy, Events and Programs
Shannon Johnson is so passionate about softball that it turned her from Jersey girl into Floridian. After playing Division 2 softball at Lynn University for four years, her senior season got cut short by COVID. She couldn’t envision her softball story ending there, especially after she had fallen in love with playing in South Florida for the last four years. So that’s when she began coaching a lower income girls softball team in Miami.
“These girls came from nothing. They don’t have a home field, they don’t have a locker room. They don’t have all of the extra benefits that I had at Lynn, but they were still so grateful,” she says. Shannon and that team went on to win two World Serieses—a lesson to her that it’s not about what you have or where you come from, it’s about how hard you’re willing to work.
Shortly after, she started with the Miami Marlins as a Coordinator for their Foundation for Youth Baseball and Softball, and right from the get go it felt right.
“All my hard work had paid off, and the fact that I could take my passion for the sport, teaching the sport, being there for people, and now spread it to a larger population… It’s really important to me,” she says. “It gets to be a lot, but it’s the days that a mom reaches out and says her daughter is having the best time ever, learning a lot, and making friends that give me the energy to get up everyday and do what I do.”
Amanda Small, Manager of Cardinals Care & Commissioner of Youth Baseball and Softball for the St. Louis Cardinals
Amanda Small is a former youth softball player, turned college softball player and exercise science major—so her pursuit of making a career in youth sports always made sense to her.
She gained bountiful youth sports management skill set at her first post-college job working for a youth baseball and softball facility, who has the same owners as the Rawlings Tigers. It was there that she learned the ins and outs of league management—like creating leagues, budgeting, scheduling tournaments and games, ordering uniforms, etc. Soon enough, she ended up in her current position at the St. Louis Cardinals.
In this role, she handles virtually any MLB initiative that deals with youth baseball or softball. Amanda runs the Redbird Rookies and RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) softball and baseball leagues in accordance with the five pillars health, education, culture, arts, and mentorship & scholarship. These programs are designed for kids who may not be able to afford to play otherwise—providing them the opportunity to not only learn the game but to have off-field opportunities, too.
“My intent when I took over the Rookies and RBI leagues was to make a more inclusive environment,” she says. “We’ve been very mindful to be inclusive and recognize that it’s more than just baseball. It’s baseball, softball now.”
One of the ways Amanda and her team are working together to make the youth baseball and softball programs more inclusive of girls is by hosting an event called Girls in the Know—where girls can come in to discuss the tough topics they’re going through from childhood to their teenage years. The team brings in female licensed professionals to talk to them about topics like puberty, safe online presences, healthy body image, and more.
Cassandra Hofman, Program Senior Manager for the Giants Community Fund
Cassandra Hofman’s sports journey started in the pool, rather than on the diamond. Swimming and playing water polo in high school taught her discipline and how to keep moving forward.
“In swimming, you’re kind of on your own with your own thoughts. That intrinsic motivation started to come together for me in the pool,” she says. “If I wanted this, it was going to be up to me.”
This eventually turned into club sports in college, followed by a desire to pursue sports as a career. More specifically, however, she knew she had to do something that involved the community. She wasn’t interested in a career that didn’t have an impact beyond the ballpark presence.
15 years ago, Cassandra began working for the Giants Community Fund—a nonprofit that collaborates with the San Francisco Giants to use baseball and softball as a tool to promote health, education, and character development in underserved communities. Junior Giants baseball, the free, noncompetitive co-ed summer baseball and softball program that is the Fund’s flagship program, served 26,000 kids last year (the most they ever have). The program provides everything teams would need, and partners with local youth serving agencies for implementation.
“We’re continually trying to improve the experience for the kids and families involved, and that is to take sports, something that I love and I benefited from, and provide it without any barriers,” she says. “That is the most rewarding thing about it. It doesn’t matter what background a kid comes from or what experience they have, if they have an interest and want to be there, they’re welcome to be there.”
Being a Woman in the Professional Baseball World
It’s no secret that sports are a male dominated industry—so I was curious to know what these women are experiencing in their day-to-day as women in the sports world. The good news is, things are moving in the right direction.
“Caroline O’Connor, President of Business Operations, leads our entire front office from the business standpoint,” says Shannon. “Just seeing her walk up in front of the crowd, talk about how awesome the organization is, what the foundation does, the history of the organization, and the impact of the community we have is incredible. She holds herself and our front office to an extremely high standard.”
Shannon also explained that the entire Marlins Foundation for Youth Baseball and Softball is women-led, as well as a number of other teams. Not to mention, the Marlins had the first ever female GM in MLB history—Kim Ng.
“There have been such great progressions these last few years, and I just think everybody’s more open to women in these leadership positions,” says Amanda. “I grew up watching the Cardinals and always thinking someday I wanted to work for them. And here I am.”
From where Cassandra is standing on the community side of sports, she says you generally see a stronger ratio of female to male than in other parts of sports—so it has felt relatively normal to her. However, she recognizes that the effort to keep girls playing needs to be consistent and programs need to be designed so they’re appealing to the broader base.
Right now, she’s feeling the impact of that effort at home as she is encouraging her daughter to find the confidence to get in the pool.
“I think back on my personal experience and, in some way, you have to have the slightest bit of intrinsic motivation to want to be in the sport you’re playing,” she says. “Even the moments where you feel discouraged are gifts in themselves. If you can find the strength to muster and move past that and know it won’t be hard forever, it will serve you so well in life down the line.”