Growing up, ten-time USA Baseball Women’s National Team alum Malaika Underwood always knew she wanted to play baseball.
“In my life there is no pre-baseball,” Underwood said. “I’ve always loved baseball and it was the first sport that I ever chose to play.”
So, whether it was playing in rec league games, on a playground or even just at a friend’s house, Underwood always found a way to play the game she loved. No matter what.
But as she finished middle school and realized there weren’t really any opportunities for girls to play baseball at the high school level, she had to create her own opportunity. She knew she could excel at the next level, she just needed a chance and, once again, she found a way.
Underwood wrote a letter to every high school coach in the San Diego area – not asking for a spot on the team, just for a fair shot to try out. Luckily, Coach Bob Allen at La Jolla High School gave her that shot.
Throughout tryouts, Underwood put a tremendous amount of pressure on herself to succeed.
“I didn’t want to put myself on the line and fail, but you have to take those risks if you’re going to achieve things in life,” Underwood said.
And that is exactly what she did: Underwood took a chance and it paid dividends. She excelled at tryouts, earning a spot on the team, and with a double down the right field line in a preseason game, Underwood became the first girl in San Diego to ever play baseball at the high school level.
“I remember that moment so clearly it was that sense of relief and belonging on the team,” Underwood recalled. “It was ‘Ok, I’ve got this.’”
She played baseball all four years at La Jolla High School. But since she knew her future opportunities on the diamond were once again limited, she also played basketball and volleyball, and with her incredible athleticism, she continued to excel at it all. Eventually, Underwood earned a scholarship to play volleyball at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Her time in Chapel Hill not only brought her great success on the court, but also brought her closer to Cary, North Carolina, the home of USA Baseball and her chance to get back on the base paths: the Women’s National Team.
Since reigniting her baseball career and making Team USA for the first time in 2006, Underwood has been named to a USA Baseball national team a record-10 times, which is more than any other alum – male or female. In that time, Underwood has won four gold medals, helped Team USA to a world championship in her first year with the squad in 2006, tied for the Women’s National Team single game records in at-bats (6) and hits (5), and was named the USA Baseball Sportswoman of the Year in 2015.
That’s not all Underwood has done since 2006, though; while playing baseball for her country, she has also built a successful career, gotten married and had two daughters. And now, Underwood has added children’s author to her long list of accomplishments.
Her new book “Birdie Can, Too!” was inspired by her own journey within the game of baseball – told through the eyes of her oldest daughter, Birdie.
As she began to read books to her daughter, Underwood realized that although they were fine stories, she just couldn’t shake the feeling that there had to be more. Wanting Birdie to absorb as much meaningful language as possible, she got the idea to write a story that shows you can achieve anything you set your mind to if you work hard enough.
It was the idea to write her own story.
“If you do the work you can make it happen and that’s why I wrote the book,” Underwood said. “I want it to be so engrained in [young girls] that they can achieve anything that they don’t ever question that. I really truly believe that seeing is believing. That you can accomplish something."
And for Underwood, it even goes beyond that. The mindset and confidence lie with the individual, but the progress that is happening and is still yet to be made in baseball stretches nationwide.
“The game is accessible to everyone,” Underwood said. “And some of the progress that’s being made at the grassroots level is really meaningful and will have a lasting effect on our game.”
Underwood wants to continue that progress in communities across the country so that young girls will have the same amount of opportunities as boys to get started in baseball. As more opportunities present themselves, the number of girls actively playing and pursuing the game will increase as well.
For Underwood, the goal is to empower girls to continue to play at any level. And not only just to play, but to feel accepted in the game as well. That confidence and sense of belonging is what she hopes her book instills in young girls everywhere. She wants “Birdie Can, Too!” to serve as that initial building block for girls in the game she loves.
“I hope this is the start of that message being more pervasive and I have a lot of hope in that,” Underwood said, noting the recent advancements of Miami Marlins General Manager Kim Ng, Vanderbilt football’s female kicker, Sarah Fuller, and having the first woman as Vice President of the United States in Kamala Harris.
“What I do also hope with this book is that we start to see advancements in gender equity pick up speed. The things that I went through, I hope that my daughters don’t have to go through,” she said.
Underwood’s advice to girls looking to follow in her footsteps is simple: “Do the work. You have to prove every step of the way that you belong on that baseball field.”
But while every athlete has to put in their own work to make it, Underwood also knows the importance of finding advocates and friends along the way – like Birdie. “You feel so much more empowered when you don’t feel so alone,” she said.
Approaching her 40th birthday this year with four gold medals, a full-time career with One Team Partners, two daughters and now a book that she hopes will make an impact on her own daughters and anyone out there fighting to reach a dream, Underwood has no interest in slowing down anytime soon.
This is just the start of her impact on the game she loves.