I always look forward to the month of February for two reasons: 1) Valentine's Day is my favorite holiday. 2) Spring Training begins!
It's appropriate that these two events coincide, because my longest romance has been with baseball, in particular, with the Chicago Cubs. I don't remember a day in my life when I didn't love the Cubs (though I've had a few reasons to dislike them over the years), and I owe that to my die-hard Cubs fan grandmother, who was born in 1906, and lived a year past the 1989 Division Championships. I have reason to believe that if I ever switched loyalties, she'd bar me from Heaven.
With love, however, heartbreak is inevitable, and especially for the Cubs' faithful. For me, though, there has been one heartbreak, even bigger than October in Wrigleyville, that accompanies Spring Training every year: the knowledge that Major League Baseball is still made up entirely of men.
In 1972, the U.S. Congress passed Title IX, which declares that "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." This opened up a world unlike any other for aspiring female baseball players.
I became an equal rights activist because of my own experiences of baseball discrimination. I came of age to play T-ball just prior to the passage of Title IX, and it took another four years to implement Title IX in our local public schools. As a Cubs fan, my dream was to be Ernie Banks or Ron Santo, and I marched into my local Park District to sign up for T-ball, just like my buddy Paul (who later played pro baseball in Europe) and my brother Roger.
The woman behind the signup counter told my mother and me, "Girls play tennis. Boys play T-ball."
"Can boys play tennis, too?" we asked. "Yes, they can," she said.
Wondering, then, why such a double standard existed, we asked, "Could you make an exception? Maybe just try?"
"We don't do things like that," the woman stated, flatly and resolutely.
So, despite numerous attempts to change the rules, I ended up playing tennis for the next six years. There was nothing wrong with tennis. But my heart and soul were in the church of baseball.
At a Cubs Convention a few years ago, I found attitudes about women in baseball pretty unchanged among certain age groups. For example, I asked then-Manager Lou Pinella about the future of women in baseball. "You mean, in management?" he asked. "No, sir," I replied. "On the playing field." His face wrinkled as he shook his head. "It would be very difficult.," he said. "The game's too physical. It's too fast."
At the same convention, I talked with then-Cubs pitcher Scott Eyre, When asked how he would feel playing on the same field as a woman, Eyre had a truly refreshing answer, "I wouldn't care. If a woman has the skills, she should play ball." Eyre had the distinction of being drafted in 1993, the only year in which a woman was drafted for the major leagues.In 1993, then-White Sox Senior Vice President Ron Schueler drafted his 18-year-old daughter, Carey, as a left-handed pitcher. She was selected in the 43rd round, the 1,208th pick overall. This was the same draft that produced Alex Rodriguez, Trot Nixon, Jason Varitek, Derrek Lee, and Torii Hunter.
Schueler is believed to be the first woman ever picked in the baseball draft. Eyre, who played on both sides of town, remembered her from White Sox spring training 1994. "I thought she was a pretty good athlete."
The year 2011 is different for me, and an intrepid advocate for women in baseball is the reason: 36-year-old Justine Siegal. Who is Justine Siegal? She's in Arizona now, doing something no woman has ever done before--throwing batting practice for two major league teams. The groundbreaking event attracted worldwide media attention. Like me idolizing Ron Santo and Ernie Banks, Siegal idolized the Cleveland Indians of her time, particularly pitcher Orel Hershiser. Hershiser is a good choice. While I was working for UPI Radio network in the early 1990's, covering a Cubs-LA Dodgers series, he defended MY right to be in the locker room when a few of his teammates loudly objected. Several times. I have never forgotten his kindness and graciousness.
On Monday, Siegal threw for her hometown Cleveland Indians, and Wednesday, for the Oakland Athletics. Siegal, the founder of the group "Baseball for All," which advocates for the inclusion of girls and women in baseball (NO softball. Baseball.) Siegal's journey, according to the New York Times and other outlets, began when she made her first pitch in a letter-writing campaign to all 30 major league general managers. They whiffed the opportunity. Her second pitch, a signature fastball presentation to the GMs at the winter meetings in Florida, scored a double for Team Siegal. The Oakland A's Billy Beane was on base with Siegal's first successful pitch. Then, Cleveland's Chris Antonetti, presumably inspired by Beane and possibly influenced by the fact that Siegal's father and grandfather were still Indians season ticket holders, invited Siegal to Monday's batting practice.
How did she do? The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that Catcher Paul Phillips wanted to tell that she threw like a girl. He couldn't because she didn't. Wearing a #15 jersey in honor of her daughter's birthday, and a patch in memory of Christina Taylor-Green, the granddaughter of former Cubs General Manager Dallas Green and the only girl on her Arizona Little League team, who was killed in the attack that seriously wounded Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, threw batting practice to two groups of Indians hitters Monday during the second full-squad workout of spring training. As the Plain Dealer reported, she faced four minor leaguers at 11 a.m. and three of the Tribe's catchers in big-league camp at noon. Siegal received passing grades from both. "She would have fit right in if you hadn't seen her two pony tails," Phillips said. "When she threw a couple of balls, she stopped, gathered herself and threw a strike. That's just what you're supposed to do." It was estimated by several news organizations, including the Associated Press, that her pitches ranged from 65 to 75 mph.
Indians Manager Manny Acta told the New York Times that her work was "pretty impressive." On Wednesday, with the Oakland A's, Siegal threw B.P. for Oakland Athletics hitters Coco Crisp, Daric Barton, David DeJesus and Brandon Powell. According to the Associated Press, she attracted even more crowds and media attention. And she was less nervous. She apparently made an impression on Crisp, who told the AP that he'd "take B.P. off of her every day." When he was asked if girls belonged in baseball, he said, "Why not? If they have the right abilities and the right skills why couldn't they?"
Siegal told the gathered throng that throwing to major league hitters was a way for her to encourage girls to pursue careers in baseball.
If some of my friends and colleagues find my all-out embrace of women's abilities to play sports in a "man's world" annoying, I wonder what they would say about Siegal, who has been playing baseball since the age of 5. With boys. Until a Little League coach told her at the age of 13 told her not to. Undeterred, the Cleveland Heights native pitched and played third base on the boys high school team. She spent three years as the only female assistant coach in the country for a men's collegiate team at Springfield (Mass.) College and was the first woman to coach first base for a men's professional team on the Brockton Rox in 2009. Currently, she is working toward her doctorate in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Springfield College
"I want girls baseball across America," Siegal told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "When I throw, all of a sudden we have a dialogue, about how much girls and women love baseball and how they want to be a part of it."
The debate about women's place in the world of baseball has lasted since the 1890's with the advent of the "Bloomer Girls," barnstorming teams, to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL, aka, "A League of their Own") to the Colorado Silver Bullets professional team in the 80's...to Siegel's Baseball for All. Where do you stand in this argument? Please post your comments below.