Woman baseball

Could women play major league baseball? Sure. Right now, though, the deck is stacked against them.

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Jack Moore of Vice Sports has a column up today talking about the history of women in baseball. There are some stories in there that have been criminally underplayed and underexamined over the years. Specifically, the one about the woman who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. I’ll add to that the story of Toni Stone, who played in the Negro Leagues in the late 40s and early 50s. A great book about her (for which, full disclosure: I provided a blurb) was written a few years back called “Curveball.” 

As most writings, historical or otherwise, about women in baseball do, Moore’s ends with a question a lot of people ask:

The question, then, isn’t when women will earn a spot on the diamond next to men. They have been earning those spots for over 100 years. The question is when the men barring the gates will finally stand aside and let them in.

A bit of a controversy has bubbled up this afternoon about the specific way that question was put. The issue being whether there are/were people actively and with sharp purpose standing in the way of women in baseball to begin with, or is it more a matter of there simply not being women around today who actually could hack it if given the chance. My friend Rob Neyer is taking a lot of heat for his take on that, for example. I’m not going to wade into the specifics of his take vs. Moore’s take on that — you are smart and can go read them yourself — but I will offer some thoughts on the topic at large.

We’ll get to the ultimate question — could women play major league baseball? — last. Before we get there, let’s acknowledge a few things:

  • Baseball, given its history, is not entitled to the benefit of the doubt when it comes to barriers and controversial bright lines. It took sheer heroism to break the color barrier. It takes years of argument and cajoling to get it to adopt even the most basic and innocuous changes. It’s a conservative institution by nature that cannot, despite how far it has come, simply expect people to say “sure, baseball would totally do [X good thing] if the opportunity presented itself! It just hasn’t presented itself!” Baseball will, generally speaking, amble in the right direction. Occasionally it will do a good thing kind of quickly. But it almost always has to be pulled there. It does not lead on its own accord.
  • A couple of years ago when Pat Borzi of the now-defunct espnW wrote a story about women playing professional baseball, he spoke with nine current MLB scouts, executives and players and not one of them would go on record on the matter. Only three would offer comment at all. If we lived in a world where MLB would jump all over the chance to sign a woman to play professional baseball and would actually play her in a non-gimmicky way, you’d think someone would at least want to talk about it. But we don’t live in that world. At all. There is no evidence whatsoever that a major league organization has even broached the subject, let alone encouraged anyone to think about it internally. If it had, there would be talking points — even empty ones — rather than no-comments.
  • Anyone who simply says, out of hand, that there is no way a woman can play major league baseball competitively is just guessing. And, in all likelihood, voicing some level of prejudice, be it conscious or subconscious. Because the fact of the matter is we have no idea how women, in numbers, stack up. As Emma Span noted in her excellent New York Times piece back in June, girls and women are systematically steered away from playing baseball. The fact that a small handful play is neat, but it’s totally useless as a predictor for how they’d do if there was organized instruction and play for women that produced a critical mass of women baseball players from which the professional leagues could scout.

So, with that out of the way, here’s my take — or really, my guess — on whether women could play major league baseball: sure, probably.

I don’t know nearly enough about scouting and player development and physiology to say with any kind of certainty if a woman could do it. I’m pretty sure some women could if they played the game a lot, which they’re not doing now. But it would be a harder slog in general for reasons other than prejudice. There is no escaping the fact that there is some degree of sexual dimorphism among human beings and that, for a lot of things in baseball, overall strength and speed does matter. That doesn’t mean that no woman could do it, of course — there are TONS of women stronger and faster than men who play sports — it’s just that there would be some natural funneling of the talent pool based on the basic competitive requirements of the sport, making it harder for women. Some percentage of women could do it that is less than the percentage of men who could do it even if there are lots of women who could do it.

I hope that point is clear and not controversial. It shouldn’t be a controversial point. It’s merely a physiological one.

That aside, I do not think it’s silly to think that a woman could pitch relatively soon, especially if they were throwing a lot of offspeed stuff or knucklers. We’ve seen knuckleballers throwing to major leaguers before and do just fine with it. No, batting practice is not a great predictor of professional success — Japanese knuckleballer Eri Yoshida struggled in independent ball– but it’s not at all unreasonable to say that, given the reps and the training and full-time dedication to it, a woman could do it. I’m sure many could eventually, even if it’d be hard to see a woman walk right in tomorrow and do it.

Beyond knuckleballers? That’s where the institutional barriers come in, I think. Could top woman athletes who now focus on, say, track and field, basketball, soccer, weightlifting or other sports where women can compete on elite levels make it to the bigs if they were able to play baseball against top competition from age 10 through age 18 and beyond? As of now, we can’t know, because that just doesn’t happen. At all. But even with those physiological differences mentioned above, I think it’s silly to say that no one would make it through and be able to compete. In some ways it’s like saying “no Indian people can play baseball” based on the example of Dinesh and Rinku. They were novelties in some way, sure, and they didn’t make the bigs. But does that say more about Indians or does it say more about their access to and development in a baseball culture that encourages them.

So, yes, I think women could play major league baseball. To the extent people say they couldn’t, I think that says more about the culture we have which doesn’t allow us, for various reasons, to picture it happening.

Mets owners get some breathing room on their Bernie Madoff settlement payments

New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon stands on the field before baseball's Game 3 of the National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Monday, Oct. 12, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Associated Press
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For years the central fact of life of the New York Mets has been that their owners, the Wilpon family and Saul Katz, lost a ton of money after investing it with friend and business partner Bernard Madoff, perpetrator of the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. It has hampered their payroll and led to huge amounts of borrowing and restructuring that, before last year’s pennant run, seemed like it’d be a millstone on the Mets competitive prospects for years to come.

In addition to losing money, it was later determined that Katz and the Wilpons unfairly gained in some other respects and thus they ended up having their phony earnings clawed back via a settlement with the trustee managing the fallout of the Madoff scandal.  The upshot: the Wilpons and Katz, in addition to their losses, were ordered to pay nearly $60 million dollars back, half payable this week, half payable next year. That’s a lot of money for anyone to fork over and this week’s payment loomed large.

Now, however, Adam Rubin of ESPN New York reports that the Wilpons and Katz will get some breathing room. Specifically, they have modified their agreement with the trustee and some of the owed money has been deferred. Instead of some $29 million payable this week, they will only have to pay $16 million. The remainder will be paid in four installments — from 2017 through 2020 — with an interest rate of 3.5 percent on the unpaid balance, Rubin says.

Now, there obviously was no promise that the $13 million saved this week be invested in the baseball team, but it’s probably a good thing overall for the Mets if their owners’ debt payments are reduced a bit.

Mike Napoli hit a homer for a fan with cancer

CLEVELAND, OH -  MAY 30: Mike Napoli #26 of the Cleveland Indians rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run during the sixth inning against the Texas Rangers at Progressive Field on May 30, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Last night a fan named Kathi Heintzelman showed up at Progressive Field in Cleveland with a sign asking Indians first baseman Mike Napoli to hit a home run for her and to give her a hug. But there was a reason beyond her love for Mike Napoli. She’s starting chemotherapy today and the hug and homer would be a nice thing.  Hard to disagree with that, even if everyone knows that ballplayers can’t hit homers on demand.

Well, most players can’t. Mike Napoli did the easy part before the game, giving her a hug. Then in the sixth inning, he went yard:

 

Whether you believe that such things can be fated or if you merely acknowledge that Heintzelman asked Napoli for a homer at a good time — he’s on a hot streak right now and has hit bombs in four of his last 11 games — it’s a great story.

 

The Twins recall Byron Buxton

Byron Buxton
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Byron Buxton has been recalled from Triple-A Rochester by the Twins.

Buxton will replace Danny Santana, who was placed on the disabled list following a hamstring injury. But the bigger picture here is that Buxton will get a fresh go-around to show that he is the future of the Twins like so many assume he will be. The 22-year-old hasn’t hit so far in the majors, but he batted .336/.403/.603 with six homers, four steals, and a 26/11 K/BB ratio over 129 plate appearances after his demotion to Triple-A last month.

At this point the Twins, who stink on ice, need to just put their top young player in the game and let him learn to swim at the big league level rather than try to squeak out a few extra relatively meaningless wins with guys who won’t be part of the next contending Twins team.

92-year-old World War II vet throws a nifty ceremonial first pitch

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Think of how many bad ceremonial first pitches you’ve seen. From the worm burners from local business owners and pillars of the community at minor league games to ex-big leaguers who obviously haven’t picked up a ball since they retired to the famous celebrity ones that go viral the next day, there are probably a lot more bad first pitches out there than good ones.

But when the good ones come, they’re really enjoyable. And few are more enjoyable than the one which preceded yesterday’s Padres-Mariners game in Seattle. The pitcher: Burke Waldron, a 92-year-old veteran of World War II. He did it in his dress whites. He ran out onto the field beforehand. And though his catcher didn’t set up the full 60 feet, six inches away from where Waldron threw it, it was still a spiffy pitch. Way better than most: