Sunday, June 8, 2014

Our not completely all-American pastime

"You can observe a lot by just watching." — Yogi Berra

I LIKE BASEBALL. I'm not going to sit and watch a bunch of it on TV unless it's the Series, and then I'm only going to watch if there's a team I like in contention, but still I do, in fact, like baseball.

I'm quite proud, and I think justifiably so, that with only a pen and cocktail napkin at my disposal, I succeeded in explaining the game of baseball to a Brit who wanted to understand it, but had never been able to grasp it before. He was grateful and surprised that he finally achieved the aha moment because as he told me, several people had over time tried to explain it to him with no success.

There are certain advantages to not being the brightest bulb in the chandelier. A big part of my job at work is explaining things in ads, brochures, websites and direct mail pieces, sometimes very complicated things, in a clear and compelling way in order to sell whatever our clients have hired us to brand and pitch (baseball pun #1). Products, processes, ideas and services ranging from plow coulters to wind turbine housings, medical malpractice to genetic sequencing, I've had to explain things I've sometimes never even heard of before they were thrown (baseball pun #2) my way.

But . . . drum roll, please . . . I'm actually good at it. 

I think it's because I'm just smart enough to eventually grasp what I need to from engineer, scientist, doctor, financial regulator, CPA or attorney, but unsmart enough that the only way I can get there is by translating what I hear into something I can understand. If I can distill it to the point that I get it, I can explain it pretty well to you through having had to explain it to myself first!

Paul as you know is way smart, and you might assume that smarter is better as far as having to explain something goes. Sometimes, but it's a two-sided coin. Because he's extra brainy, it's instant assimilation on his part. He doesn't have to round all the bases (another baseball pun thrown in for good measure) to reach comprehension like I have to, which a lot of time actually makes me the better step-by-step explainer. I know the stumbling blocks because I've already stumbled over them.

Speaking of Paul and baseball which we sort of were, Paul is a Cubs fan. 

I know! What on earth is wrong with him?!?! Aside from being an exercise in perpetual masochism, who wants to root for a team with a wimpy, cutesy name like the Cubs?!? Echhh. Too yuppy for me. 

I, on the other hand, am a White Sox fan or a Cardinals fan. Yeah baby, working-class all the way. 

And speaking of sports teams' names, let me just say this to any team that has a name that Native Americans find offensive: GET RID OF IT. You don't get to decide what Native Americans should or shouldn't or do or don't find offensive, so shut up and change your damn name!! 

I said all that to say this: Regardless of what baseball team you root for, we all ought to be rooting for women. Am I right? They deserve to be play major league sports as much as men. C'mon boys. What are you afraid of? Being struck out by a girl like Babe Ruth was? 

Please enjoy (and be annoyed by) the below piece from the June 6 New York Times. As Paul is fond of saying, "It's all fun and games until some girl comes along and kicks your ass."

Is Softball Sexist?
JUNE 6, 2014

OVER the next three weeks, baseball players from around the country will compete in three regional tryouts for a chance to make it onto the United States baseball team. These are among the most elite, dedicated and talented athletes in their sport, and the best of them will go on to play against teams from Japan, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Venezuela and Taiwan in the World Cup tournament held in September in Miyazaki, Japan. But the team receives almost no attention, and many of its members weren’t even able to play their sport in high school. These baseball players are women.

The conventional wisdom is that baseball is for boys and men, and softball is for girls and women. But women have been playing baseball since long before they had the right to vote. As the national pastime went professional, women were forced out of it — and into softball. Title IX, the 1972 federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education, also protects equal access to and funding of sports for boys and girls at the school level, and girls have been fighting to play baseball — with lawsuits, if necessary — since the 1970s. But equal access is often interpreted to mean not baseball, but softball.

Both men and women swim, ski, snowboard and run marathons and sprints. Both play tennis and soccer and basketball. Softball, though, is a completely distinct sport, with different pitching — underhand — and different equipment, including a larger ball. It also has shorter distances from pitcher to home plate and between bases, fewer innings and a smaller outfield. Yes, Division I softball is demanding, far from the beery fun of middle-aged weekend leagues. But the women’s version of baseball is not softball. It’s baseball.

Baseball evolved from the British game rounders, played by both girls and boys. Softball was invented in 1887 by men, though it came to be seen as an easier, “safer” and more modest game — more suitable, that is, to ladies.

The sporting-goods magnate A. G. Spalding, determined to turn baseball into a patriotic pastime, created the origin story of its invention in 1839 by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, N.Y. Spalding proclaimed baseball to be not just all-American but also all-male: “A woman may take part in the grandstand, with applause for the brilliant play, with waving kerchief to the hero,” he wrote in his 1911 book “America’s National Game,” but she couldn’t actually play: “Base Ball is too strenuous for womankind.”

Yet the history of women playing baseball goes as far back as the 1830s. They played on barnstorming “Bloomer Girls” teams, on amateur teams and at colleges.

In 1931, a 17-year-old girl named Jackie Mitchell of the Chattanooga Lookouts struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig consecutively in an exhibition game. Mamie “Peanut” Johnson pitched against male players in the Negro Leagues for several seasons. Women’s teams played one another during World War II, as depicted in the movie “A League of Their Own.” But in 1952, Major League Baseball officially banned women’s contracts.

The flimsiness of arguments against women’s participation was on display in the desperate legal efforts of Little League to bar girls after a string of lawsuits in 1973. Officials claimed that baseball was “a contact sport”; that boys would quit if girls were allowed; that girls’ bones were weaker than boys’; that facial injuries could ruin a girl’s looks and therefore prospects in life; and, most outlandishly, that girls struck in the chest by a ball might later develop breast cancer. One Little League vice president expressed his concern that coaches would not be able to “pat girls on the rear end the way they naturally do to boys.”

Girls are now allowed in Little League. And they have the legal right under Title IX to play baseball on a school-sponsored boys’ team if there is no girls’ team available, which there usually is not (and no, softball doesn’t count): “The law is very clear,” says Nancy Hogshead-Makar, senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Nevertheless, teams often balk when girls want to play hardball. Last year, 14-year-old Jasmine Miles was barred from the boys’ team at her Arizona middle school. She had played on the team in seventh grade. “The coach thought I was pretty good,” she said over the phone, adding that he often had her play with the more advanced eighth-grade team. But when she wanted to try out for the team this year, “They said I couldn’t play because I was a girl.”

She was told to play softball, with the school district claiming that it was equivalent to baseball and thus complied with Title IX. Instead, she played baseball on a mixed-gender team in the local youth baseball league — which she will age out of when she turns 15.

Even where no official rules keep them out of baseball, girls face enormous pressure to switch to softball. “They get chased right out of middle-school baseball,” said Jennifer Ring, the author of “Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball,” whose daughter fought to play in high school and played a season on Vassar College’s Division III men’s team. When a girl persists in playing, Ms. Ring said, “you can’t count on it being a good experience, because you have to explain why you’re even there.”

Last year, 474,791 American boys played high school baseball, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations; 1,259 girls did. In some cases these girls were the only ones in their entire state. No college scholarships lie ahead, as they do in softball. Without the development of skills and talent at the high school and college level, a national women’s baseball team that plays in a World Cup will be treated as little more than a curiosity, struggling to find the attention it deserves.

What if we just admitted that softball and baseball are not, in fact, “separate but equal” but entirely different sports? There is no rational basis to claim that girls can’t throw overhand, run 90 feet between bases or handle a hardball. And there is no reason but sexism to prevent them from doing so.

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