Interview with Shari Reiniger

Shari Reiniger (photo supplied)

At the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2021, history is going to be made. For the first time ever, a woman will be the international technical official for the Olympic baseball tournament. Even though Canada did not qualify for the Olympic Games in baseball, they will be strongly represented from a technical standpoint. I am honoured to have known this iconic Canadian trailblazer for over a quarter of a century. Here is my interview with Shari Reiniger of Sherwood Park, Alberta.

Q: How did you get involved with baseball?

A: “Let’s go back to when I met a Canadian baseball player (future husband Kirk Reiniger) when I played college softball in California. I moved to Canada and got married at home plate at Legion Park in St. Albert. I then helped out the St. Albert Tigers with their fundraising initiatives over the years. I was the head groundskeeper for a couple of summers at Legion Park, which hosted the National Bantam Championship. That was my college summer job, which was pretty cool.”

“Then when our son (David) first started playing for Sherwood Park, Kirk recommended we coach a House League team for Sherwood Park Minor Baseball. So Kirk and I coached together for a season. He then got picked up to coach at the Pee Wee AAA level. We then got involved in protest committees for provincial tournaments, and the tournament committees within Sherwood Park Minor Baseball. I then ran the coaches selection committee for a few years, and sat on the board. I then got a little bit more involved in the coaching side of baseball as well, and I was coaching competitive softball at the same time. I was then asked to coach one of the first Pee Wee girls teams for baseball. That was a cool honour to be the on-field manager for Team Alberta for two seasons. At that time, we actually moved to Calgary, and I became the off-field manager for our Pee Wee AAA and our Bantam AAA programs. I sat on that board as well. We helped to relaunch Baseball Calgary. That was pretty cool. We went to nationals three years in a row. In David’s second year of Bantam, the team went undefeated. At that time, I was invited to be a guest coach with the Canadian Women’s National Baseball Team on a trip to Australia. Kirk said to me, ‘if you are going to go, and you are going to love it. But you are not going to see your kid play baseball.’ I actually turned down that offer, which was crazy. At the time I was coaching the girls, I was running camps and clinics. You could not do everything. I have one child, and I really wanted to see him play. I got more involved on the administrative, organizational side. I was asked to chair the playoff committee for Baseball Alberta. I helped them move from a provincial qualifying tournament approach to a full-provincial tier league format. I literally designed that and launched that, and then sat on the Baseball Alberta board.”

“Then in 2004, Edmonton was hosting the inaugural Baseball Women’s World Cup at Telus Field. Edmonton Councilor Ron Hayter was the chair of the Edmonton International Baseball Foundation. He and Baseball Canada Executive Director Jim Baba had a conversation and decided that there should be a female technical commissioner, and I asked to be the first international female technical commissioner for an international world event. I got to work with great people. I was around people who loved the game. When Kirk was scouting, I was able to hang out with a lot of Major League Baseball scouts. I was also able to form connections with great Alberta baseball minds such as Orv Franchuk (former Major League Baseball scout and minor league hitting coach), and Blair Kubicek (Prairie Baseball Academy coach in Lethbridge), who always offered their time. They were always able to talk baseball.”

“When people ask, ‘what does a technical commissioner do?’, I respond that we are a game day field director. We oversee the protocols and the rules. We check passports, and make sure the players are eligible to play for their country. We then make sure if the field is ready. If it is not, we are the ones that deal with all of that. We work with both the field crews and with the teams. We make sure the pre-game goes on schedule, and we are ready for game time. If there is a question about the rules, that is beyond the umpire, that falls to us. If there is a protest, it comes to us, and it gets ruled on at the moment.”

“At this time we are building a training program because right now there really isn’t one for what we do. I can look back at all of those experiences, in doing tournament organizing, and managing teams, coaching teams, off-field duties, and being a collegiate athlete. All of those pieces really have given me that perspective, which helps me in my role now, which is going to the Olympics, which is pretty darn awesome.”

Q: How meaningful is it that you are making baseball history at the Olympics this year?

A:”It is one that I do not think about a lot. To have both sports in the Olympics and on the field is a huge undertaking, and what a great honour. Especially, in Japan, a baseball-loving country, whose people are so passionate about the game. It is a bit overwhelming to think I am making history here. To be part of the Olympic Games is a dream I could never have imagined, especially as an off-field official. Even as I worked many events over the years and two U-18 World Cups, I could never have imagined being the one to be tapped on the shoulder, and being asked to go to the Olympics. It is an amazing honour, and it is extremely humbling to represent the game.”

“One thing I can say about whether it is Baseball Alberta or Baseball Canada, and sitting on the long-term Athletes’ Development Committee many years ago, and being part of the World Baseball/Softball Confederation, and the IBAF, people have asked, ‘what is it like being a woman?’ I reply, ‘I don’t know. I am just a technical commissioner.’ I have never been treated differently. We go out. We do what we do. We try and create a level-playing field for everybody. We make sure we are running a fair system, and to serve the game at the highest level is a complete honour.”

Q: What is your reaction when people say you are a role model for women in sport worldwide?

A: “I just feel like a person who is doing a job. It is completely humbling. I was part of a Women in Baseball Podcast for WBSC, and I was asked to moderate the panel. I was surrounded by women who got to do some pretty cool things in the game. It is an honour. I love seeing women step up. Baseball is for everyone. If you love a game, it does not matter what sport it is. If you love it, get involved in it. Not everybody can reach the highest level in anything that we choose to do. It takes a lot of passion, and a lot of work. Sometimes it takes being in the right place at the right time with the right people around you. I am very blessed to be in this position. I want to make sure I do a good job, for the game number one. If I can inspire a young girl to follow their dream, and be the first of whatever down the road, or that kid which breaks a barrier to whatever they are doing, it is a pretty cool feeling to have.”

Q: Baseball and softball are making their return to the Olympic stage for the first time since 2008. How meaningful is it for you to be part of baseball’s return?

A: “I was at the 2008 Women’s Baseball World Cup in Matsuyama, Japan. It was immediately after the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Knowing that baseball was no longer part of the Olympics was a bitter-sweet time. Questions were raised if they (baseball and softball) would ever be back in. I know people have worked so hard to get back in. To bring baseball and softball back for Tokyo is incredible. I think it will help us grow the sports again.”

“One of my favourite experiences was being in Fukishima, Japan, two years ago, at the World Baseball Children’s Fair as a coach. There were kids there from Ghana, and Thailand. These countries were just starting baseball programs. These boys and girls were excited. It was pretty cool to see them planting seeds for the future. Anytime an athlete can wear their country’s flag on their chest, that is the ultimate. You hear Major League Baseball players state how competing in the World Baseball Classic was the best experience in their life. They do not get to represent their country very often, especially on the Olympic stage. It is the penultimate. The only sad thing is that the Japanese fans do not get a chance to come into the stadium. It is a different time. The pandemic has shown us we are all fragile, and that we are going to have to work really hard to make sure the health and safety of the Japanese people, and the Olympic participants. In the end, that is what comes first. It is a great honour, and also a great responsibility, to bring baseball and softball into Japan. We are really cognizant of that, and we are really looking forward to doing everything we can to maintaining those bubble protocols, and making sure that everyone is able to participate safely, and return safely, and not make it a negative impact. We need to honour and respect our hosts. I have got to work in Japan twice before. The Japanese people are just the most amazing hosts. They are incredible organizers. They have had to go over and above. It is pretty cool, and I am pretty excited to put on the mask, and wear it on the Olympic field.”

Q: What would it take for men’s and women’s baseball, and men’s and women’s softball to be part of the Olympic program, maybe as early as 2028 in Los Angeles?

A: “That would be a dream. To me, that is the ultimate Olympic dream to have both genders participate in each sport. I know the WBSC has worked hard on building the women’s game. It is still a young game. Sometimes we forget that. Baseball did not grow to where it is. The first Women’s World Cup of Baseball was only 17 years ago. Women’s baseball is still in its infancy. I would think we would need to build more programs around the world, especially in Africa. Japan leads the way in women’s baseball, and the United States and Australia are also strong. Step by step, and hopefully it becomes a consideration. Being able to be a part of women’s baseball at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto was an incredible experience. Unfortunately, women’s baseball was not part of the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, and will not be at the 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile. These things take time. It is a process. We would love the chance to snap our fingers. We would love nothing more than to have men’s and women’s baseball, and men’s and women’s softball in the Olympic Games. It is an exciting time to be part of baseball, and softball, as there is so much growth.”

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