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.

Breaking Down the Today’s Game Hall of Fame Ballot: Lou Piniella

TORONTO - JULY 9:  Manager Lou Pinella of the Cincinnati Reds looks on during batting practice prior to the1991 All-Star Game at the Toronto Sky Dome on July 9, 1991 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
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On Monday, December 5, the Today’s Game committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame — the replacement for the Veterans Committee which covers the years 1988-2016 — will vote on candidates for the 2017 induction class. This week we are looking at the ten candidates, one-by-one, to assess their Hall worthiness. Next up: Lou Piniella

The case for his induction:

He notched 1,835 wins, made seven postseason appearances, a won a World Series as a manager. That win total is good for 14th all time. Of the 13 men ahead of him, 12 are already in the Hall. The only who isn’t is Gene Mauch, who was under .500 for his career. Connie Mack and Bucky Harris are in that crowd and they were under .500 too, but Mack is kind of a special case as the all-time wins leader and Harris, well, I dunno, he hung around forever and the Veterans Committee was a different beast back in the 1970s. Point is, if you have Piniella’s win total and you’re over .500, as Piniella is, you’re probably getting in, at least eventually.

A lot of those wins came in some good places and at some good times, adding some psychological weight to that record. Taking the 1990 Reds to the World Series and beating the heavily favored A’s was a great story and, as the Reds’ last title for 26 years and counting, stands as a more memorable accomplishment than doing it someplace else. Likewise, his next job, in Seattle, coincided with the franchise’s best seasons thanks to the emergence of Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez under Piniella’s command. Mariners’ history fundamentally changed during the Piniella era and he will always be associated with that. Oh, and his 2001 team set the single season record for wins with 116. He made two playoff appearances with the Cubs too. That’s been eclipsed by the 2016 team’s exploits, but it was a pretty big deal at the time.

It’s also worth noting that Piniella likewise had a very fine playing career, with 18 seasons of 109 OPS+ hitting, a Rookie of the Year Award and a couple of World Series rings on his resume. That’s not enough by itself to get him in the Hall, but he presents a nice total package as a Baseball Man Supreme who has been thought highly of for close to 50 years now.

Oh, one other thing: he was colorful. He had a temper and a repuatation as kind of a red ass, with a good number of on-the-field incidents which stick in people’s minds. That sort of thing doesn’t necessarily make someone a good manager or a good person, but Piniella has been seen as a guy who mellowed with age and, at various times in his career, showed that he had a sense of humor about all of that stuff which makes it play a heck of a lot better. For Hall of Fame purposes, it certainly plays a heck of a lot more memorably.

The case against his induction:

His years in Tampa Bay weren’t all that great and, by the time his days in Chicago were over there was a sense that he was sort of running on fumes and padding that win total to get him into that top 14. In both places Joe Maddon eventually came along and did better things and, in some cases, undoing some bad things Piniella did. Some believe he should’ve won another pennant or two and, yes, some of those Mariners teams disappointed in the postseason. Some people look less amusingly on his temper tantrums over the years and, I suppose, one could characterize them a bit more sinisterly than I did above without being too dramatic.

Would I vote for him?

I think so. As I mentioned in the George Steinbrenner entry, when it comes to managers and executives, I put a lot of weight on whether one could tell the story of baseball in a guy’s era without mentioning his name. Piniella is no Joe Torre, Bobby Cox of Tony La Russa in that regard, but he’s pretty close to that group in terms of the figure he cut in the game and, as I mentioned, he’s critical to the story of a couple of franchises. Certainly the Mariners but also the 1970s Yankees as a player and, possibly, the 1990 Reds. I tend to be a softer Hall of Fame touch than a lot of people, so I get that people may disagree, but I’d put him in.

Will the Committee vote for him?

Hard to say. On the one hand, Piniella feels like the sort of baseball man that gets rewarded by the Veterans Committee. On the other hand, the Veterans Committee took ages to vote in some other notable managers such as Whitey Herzog, suggesting that maybe Piniella will have to wait. This is the first year for the new composition of the Veterans Committe, however, so it’s hard to say if they’ll be tougher or easier graders. He may be the hardest call of all of the guys on this year’s ballot.

Twins hire James Rowson as their hitting coach

BOSTON, MA - June 4: The Minnesota Twins logo is seen during the fifth inning of the game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on June 4, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)
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The Minnesota Twins have announced that they have hired James Rowson as their hitting coach.

Rowson was the minor league hitting coordinator for the New York Yankees for seven of the last nine seasons, interrupted by a short stint with the Chicago Cubs as minor league hitting coordinator. He also worked at the minor league levels with the Los Angeles Angels. He played in the minors for the Seattle Mariners and Yankees.

Rowson replacesTom Brunansky, who was hitting coach for the past four seasons.