Malaika Underwood is her name, and the former Viking has been in the news lately as leader of the USA women’s baseball team, which took the gold medal in the Pan Am Games in July in Toronto. This is the first Pan Am Games in which women’s baseball has been included.
Underwood, named the Female Prep Athlete of the Year in San Diego during her senior year at La Jolla High in 1999, has a unique story to tell – a story of of the game coach Bob Allen batted her leadoff against her boyfriend, who was pitching for Patrick Henry High.
“It really rattled (him),” the 34-year-old smiles in recollection. “He walked me on four straight pitches outside and then gave up a couple of runs. He said I was crowding the plate.”
This was during her junior year, which is a story in itself. Underwood played girls volleyball in the fall and girls basketball in the winter and would be named All-CIF in both a year later. The basketball team went deep into the CIF playoffs, so Underwood wasn’t able to join the varsity baseball team until the squad was already playing spring tournament games.
Allen still hadn’t said she was a lock for making the team despite the fact she had pitched and played second base for the junior varsity during her freshman and sophomore years at La Jolla. With the overlap of sports seasons, she hadn’t had a chance to try out for the varsity.
According to Vikings head baseball coach Gary frank, an assistant coach in 1998, Allen decided to throw Underwood into a game to see how she responded.
“Bob put her in at second base in the bottom of the sixth inning at Oceanside High School,” recounts Frank, who still has Underwood come to his team’s home field when she’s in town to work out with his players. “The first out of the inning was a pop up to her, which she handled fine. After a runner got on first, the next batter hit a slow grounder to third base. He threw to second base, and Malaika turned a great double play while getting taken out by an aggressive slide by the baserunner. She just got up, dusted herself off and came back into the dugout like it was no big deal.
“She came up to bat in the top of the seventh and quickly fell behind in the count 0-2. Then she ripped a fastball down the right field line for a double. When she advanced to third base later in the inning, Bob told her, ‘Congratulations; you just made varsity.’”
As an eighth-grader at O’Farrell Middle School, she sent out letters to several area coaches to inquire if she would get the opportunity to play baseball for their high school teams.
“I wanted to make sure I was going to get a fair shot,” she recalls. “Some coaches said they had softball teams at their schools and preferred that I play softball. I obviously wasn’t going to get a fair shot at those schools. Coach Allen said, ‘If you’re good enough, you’ll make the team.’ So I decided to bus it to La Jolla.” (The family lived near San Diego State University.)
Playing sparingly her junior year at La Jolla following her trial by fire and leading off to rattle her boyfriend, Underwood was the starting second baseman as a senior, hit well and fielded her position well. She became so proficient in volleyball, however, that she accepted a full-ride athletic scholarship to play at the University of North Carolina, where she started all four years of college and was named Most Valuable Player in the ACC tournament.
She works in sports marketing and resides in Atlanta. She is a vice president of licensing for a start-up company, which she recently joined after several years at IMG.
Frank grew up in coaching with Underwood’s career at La Jolla: During her freshman year, in 1995-1996, he served as a volunteer while playing minor league baseball. He himself was a La Jolla grad and (now) LJHS Hall of Famer for his play at second base for the Vikings. He became a paid assistant to the junior varsity in the 1997 season, Underwood’s sophomore year playing on the JVs. Then he moved up to the varsity in 1998 to be Allen’s assistant, witnessing Underwood’s entry onto the team.
“As good of an athlete as she was on the field, she was an even better person off it,” says Frank, who considers her a close friend to this day. “She never wanted any attention for being ‘the girl on the field.’ She just wanted to be a ballplayer who was part of the team.”
“I grew up in a neighborhood full of boys,” Underwood says, “so being the only girl on the boys baseball team was never an issue for me. I really never dwelled on it much. If anything, I felt a little additional pressure to prove I could play and play well. But I'm a very competitive person, so that was just fuel to the fire. As far as I remember, every one of my teammates was cool about me being on the team.”
Underwood, Frank relates, kept an “insane schedule” while at LJHS. “After baseball practice, the two of us would work extra in the batting cage for about an hour on most days. She would then drive across town and go straight to club volleyball practice before heading home to get all of her homework done. Very few high school athletes would be able to survive the workload she took on, let alone thrive at the level she was able to, both on the field and in the classroom. She was a leader in every sense of the word.”
Says Underwood, “There’s no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be where I am today without such a positive experience at LJHS. And even now, when I visit San Diego, coach Frank never hesitates to open the field or throw batting practice to help me train for upcoming USA baseball events (of which she has been a team member for the past decade).”