The Peoria Chiefs’ Christina Whitlock is the first female coach in the entire St. Louis Cardinals organization
Christina Whitlock made history when she walked onto the field at Dozer Stadium on April 7, opening day for the Peoria Chiefs.
The 48-year-old is not only the first woman coach for the Class High-A Chiefs, but the first uniformed female coach in the history of the St. Louis Cardinals organization.
“It’s a great honor and opportunity to have a positive impact on these dedicated athletes,” Whitlock said.
Gary LaRocque, assistant general manager and director of player development for the Cardinals, said Whitlock brings a lot to the field.
“Christina spent the 2022 season as a technology fellow with our Florida Complex League team, and is looking forward to the 2023 season now as a Peoria coach,” LaRocque said. “Her experiences and dedication to the game will be valued by the staff and players.”
A former two-time softball All-American catcher at the University of South Carolina, Whitlock helped lead the team to the Southeastern Conference (SEC) championship and the Women’s College World Series in 1997. She also was a member of the U.S. national team.
She has nearly 20 years of softball coaching experience at the high school, college and international levels, in addition to a stint as the head baseball coach for Stars & Stripes Sports from 2017 to 2020.
But her first love was baseball.
Competing with the boys
“I started out in baseball, playing Little League with the boys when I was 8,” Whitlock said.
Her family moved around a lot with the Navy, living in San Diego, Salt Lake City, Texas and Washington, D.C. She was 6 when she joined co-ed Pee Wee baseball and then Little League two years later.
Her father, Scott Plew, a retired Navy master sergeant, recalls his oldest child’s natural athletic ability.
“She absolutely loved the game,” Plew said. “Tina just didn’t start walking at 7 months old; she started running and never stopped. I started working with her on hitting and defense, and she was extremely athletic, very, very fast and very quick with her hands. For her size” — Whitlock stands at 5-foot-3 today — “she had tremendous bat speed and leg strength.”
Moving to a bigger ball
Whitlock continued playing baseball until she was 14. She used her time on the high school boy’s baseball team as a training ground for her transition to fast-pitch softball, with sights on a college scholarship.
The 18-under fast-pitch softball team she was invited to play on with young women much older than her won nationals, with Whitlock as the starting catcher, Plew said.
“She had a cannon for an arm. Kids didn’t run on her. Very accurate. She just had a lot of natural ability and was very good defensively,” he said.
She was recruited by softball powerhouses UCLA and Fresno, as well as South Carolina, where she would land.
It was in college that Plew said Whitlock “didn’t just learn the game, she learned to coach. As a catcher you need to know what everyone on the field is doing and anticipate what’s going to happen.”
The Cardinals connection
The late Charles Peterson, a veteran scout for the Cardinals, introduced Whitlock to the organization and its programs in diversity and inclusion.
“I met him at a facility in South Carolina that I was working out of. He quickly became a dear friend,” she said. “I started doing some birddog scouting for him. He mentored me. I miss him.” Peterson died in September 2020 from COVID-19.
Whitlock was hired as a fourth coach by the Cardinals in 2020, but could not take the position when the season was canceled due to the pandemic. She took 2021 off and spent the time with her two sons, but still dreamed of the day she would coach in the big leagues.
She spent the 2022 season as a video and technology fellow at the Cardinals’ Jupiter, Florida complex. The position involved coaching, scouting, technology and player performance analytics.
Next stop, Peoria
Whitlock still hoped for the opportunity to be an on-the-field coach. That opportunity came in a phone call from LaRoque as she and her dad waited at a hospital in Idaho during a medical appointment for her brother.
“It was a nice surprise. I had a little bit of a breakdown and probably cried a little too much,” she said. “I was with my father and it was great to be able to share that with him.”
It was like a dream come true for her, Plew said.
“I think it was a huge relief to her,” he said. “I knew she had the ability. I was proud. I was definitely proud.”
With the Chiefs, Whitlock is responsible for setting up the practice field and assisting in hitting, base running, outfield defense and coaching first base.
“I’m still learning about the athletes. I’ve seen it from the scouting side, the data side, the spring training. Now it’s about what it’s going to look like being on the road,” she said. “I’m taking the time to learn about our athletes and what will be best and most helpful to get them to the next level.”
When it comes to her coaching philosophy, it’s about “the whole athlete,” she said. “It’s important to understand there’s a mindset, skillset and humanness that goes with practicing and performing day in and day out. Also, my understanding of being a professional athlete helps me understand where they’re coming from.”
Of course, beyond the coach/player dynamic is the gender one, with many if not most of these male players accustomed to working almost exclusively with male coaches as they moved up through the ranks. Any concerns?
“I know many of them (the players) from last year, so I have some relationships that developed, so that’s nice,” said Whitlock. “Now it’s getting to know them and how they work. It’s a different perspective … The Cardinals do a great job in drafting quality young men. No matter who comes in, it’ll be a respectful environment.”
While looking forward to a great season, she also has an eye on the future. Other positions that may interest her include pitching instructor, manager and front office or player development roles.
Family and faith
Whitlock became a single mother in 2002 when her husband, Brian, died unexpectedly of an undiagnosed heart ailment. Nine days later, she gave birth to the couple’s second son.
Today, the sons are grown — Aaron is 22, Brian 20 — and live together in a house they purchased in South Carolina. They spent their youth at ballfields with their mom, but turned their attention to other sports such as soccer, football and lacrosse.
“I’m really proud of them. They’re doing well,” Whitlock said. “It’s been a challenge with my coaching career, but my faith … has led me.
“For me, I know that we have a Maker and we have a Savior, and He has given us absolute love, and part of that is to persevere and protect the things you love and not fail. When you do face something challenging, I just try to go back to if you persevere, you won’t fail.”
Making history with the Cardinals hasn’t been a solo journey, said Whitlock.
“I’m thankful for the confidence John Mozeliak (president of baseball operations) and Gary LaRoque have demonstrated in offering me this opportunity,” she said. “I feel like every draftee, Golden Glove winner, batting champion and Hall of Fame inductee — grateful, blessed and honored to represent a great organization such as the St. Louis Cardinals.”
Plew said his daughter is “just happy to be a coach there, and so am I … It’s an honor to be part of the Cardinals.”
Whitlock acknowledges that she’s still growing.
“I trust that I will learn much from the many veteran coaches and staff members who impact and support our athletes and their dream of playing at Busch Stadium.”