I’d like to beg your indulgence to reflect on community. Specifically, our community. Our community here at FanGraphs, sure, but the community of people who care about the rigorous analysis of baseball, too. Communities are home to all kinds of folks engaged in different bits of sin and kindness, all experiencing different stakes. We’re knit together by our sins and our kindnesses, sometimes quite uncomfortably. One such sin is the everyday kind, the sort of casual meanness and lack of care we all wade through all the time. It’s a smaller kind, but we still find ourselves altered by it. I suppose you’ll have to forgive me for worrying on such things; I know we can be suspicious of feelings around here. But don’t fret. There’s another bit of sin, too, a baseball sin.
Earlier this month, Sheryl Ring published a piece called “Can Major League Baseball Legally Exclude a Woman?” The piece considered whether the exclusion of women from baseball, both as players and umpires, was legally permissible under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Specifically, Sheryl, while acknowledging that it wouldn’t be an easy case to make, argued that being male was not a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification for playing Major League Baseball and that the failure to scout, much less hire, women could potentially violate Title VII.
The response in the comments was resoundingly negative. That isn’t in itself a bad thing. It wasn’t a perfect piece, though what piece is? We here like debate. We don’t always get things right, or express our ideas as well as we ought to. Our job as writers is to convince you or move you or both. The issue isn’t that the comments were critical. Rather, what struck me was how quickly some of the voices escalated, from skepticism to certainty to what read, at least to me, as a barely repressed anger that other commenters seemed less sure and more open, that the question had been posed at all.
Communities fight. Communities committed to finding right answers may fight more — and harder — than most. For years, we fought others, fought against bunts and batting average, but we mostly won. Now the lines are less clear; the field is muddy and murky and full of fog. We’re still a community, but we’re changing. We’re having to make room for new folks in our digital neighborhood. But as strangers, unburdened by the potential chance encounter at the corner store, we have an odd relationship with the idea of care. The literal distance between us has resulted in a high tolerance for gruffness; I never have to see my barbs land, never have to watch your face color with anger or embarrassment. I am free to forget your stakes, and you are free to forget mine.
But I wish we would remember them. The idea of a woman playing in Major League Baseball means something to me. It stirs something. I long for it, in a way that is embarrassing to talk about in my place of work, which this is, but those are my stakes. They aren’t the only stakes I have, but they’re important ones. I suspect seeing someone who looks like me play the game will make me feel that I belong in a way I don’t quite now. I want it to be real, even as I’m not sure it ever will be.
Others may not have liked the piece or found it convincing. Perhaps the post ought to have lingered longer on the institutional barriers girls and women face when playing baseball. Maybe certain readers thought it didn’t express adequate appreciation of the great distance we have to close. But they could have been nicer about it; they could have shown greater care. They could have appreciated that what means very little to them means a great deal to me and mine, and tempered not their criticism but their ire. They could have thought for a moment about what else we might worry that ire is meant to say: that we are not welcome. They could have remembered our stakes, as members of their community.
That was the everyday sin, the sin of disrespect and unfeeling. It is what makes our community less than perfect and less than perfectly welcoming. It is troubling, this lack of care. I’ve worried every day since then who we might have driven away, who might only ever lurk at the edges of the comments, blistered by those who think the only means by which to disagree is to trample. To ignore others’ stakes.
The baseball sin was the certainty.
Because of course, we don’t know if a woman can play in Major League Baseball. We don’t know! I don’t know, and neither do they, the doubters, and what struck me as odd in the reaction to the piece was all the knowing folks saw fit to do, all the sureness. We should be wary of certainty. Not because it is never earned or ever right, but because it represents a closing off: of possibility, of new discovery, of imagination. Over and over and over again, the comments filled with calls to produce a woman, just one woman, any woman, who was ready now, right now, for entry into a major-league system, into a major-league game. And of course, we can produce no such woman. If we could, we’d be writing that story.
But they should have given us a little credit; that’s a small act of care, too. We can’t produce a major leaguer. We never claimed we could. All we’ve ever claimed to be able to produce is a detailed inventory of the barriers, institutional and cultural, which make it so hard for girls to play baseball and keep playing it. In answer to the claim that women can’t play competitively against men in basketball and hockey and tennis, what we seek to point out is that baseball is importantly different than those sports. We can point out the aggressive funneling of girls into softball. We remind them that there simply has not been enough time or effort or resource devoted to girls’ and women’s baseball for us to know. We must also admit, as those affording uncertainty its proper place, that the answer may well be that us women can’t play with the boys, and that a separate league is the answer. We admit that, even though it stings. We are not unreasonable.
I am glad that we know so much more about baseball now than we did when Bill James and his ilk were getting their start. But I sometimes envy them their era. With all that testing and invention, they had to sit with their uncertainty, unable to rush to the end. I wonder if they weren’t more comfortable with that uncertainty than we seem to be now. It’s a shame, because settling into the unknown, holding it close, requires you to exercise your imagination. We don’t say enough about what a kindness imagination is, the room it gives to those who haven’t had it before. It animates all the data collection, all that testing. And isn’t that what this community used, in the beginning of all its fighting? Wasn’t that the inspiration behind our rigor, animating statistics and strategies that hadn’t been invented yet? That spark! It let them see beyond what they knew for sure.
I started by begging your indulgence. I like when writers ask favors of their audience; if used to proper effect, it makes a text feel a bit more lived in, as if you and I are sitting next to one another at a bar, enjoying a drink together, and I am about to tell you a long story. To beg your indulgence is to give you a sense that we are about to depart from our usually scheduled programming; perhaps things are about to get a little messy, or complicated. Perhaps I am about to ask you to be momentarily uncomfortable.
The problem with asking is it assumes that you are willing to accept your companion’s answer. I suppose I am, on some level. After all, whether it is explicitly stated or not, every act of writing carries with it the question of, “Will you please read this?”, a question we alter (“Will you please keep reading this?”) then repeat over and over, paragraph to paragraph, until you, the reader, get to the end, or turn your attention to something else.
Except sometimes, it just won’t do to ask. Before, I begged your indulgence, or at least your forgiveness, and I meant it, but I won’t ask now. A third person has joined our party, a regular not content with shouting from across the room. He sidles up to the bar, full of false certainty, and refuses us the generosity of exercising his imagination. He talks over me. But I will not quiver.
In light of this rude guest, I will not ask a question. Rather, I will grab this interloper’s beer right out of his hand, a bit rude myself I suppose, and make a statement: we aren’t going anywhere. We women, us not-men for whom the idea of a woman in Major League Baseball means so much. There’s no turning us out of the community. We’ve been let in; we’ve forced our way here. We watch this game, spend our time and treasure and summers on it, teach our daughters and nieces and friends its moves and details. We catalogue its faces. We study it and analyze it and quantify it. We report on it. We sometimes announce it, and we always love it.
What’s more, we are playing it. Some of us are getting pretty good. And when we see little girls throw a ball around, when we see one more steely-eyed pip, another little one who doesn’t yet know what to do with her limbs, but does know that whatever it will be, it will be baseball, baseball over all other games, when we see that, we can imagine a great many things. We’re back at the beginning, holding close our uncertainty. And somewhere between what we know, and what we’ve yet to prove impossible, we can see her. The first one.
We can see that day she’ll make the majors. We hear the PA crackle. The details shift, as the details in dreams often do. One day, her hair is pulled back in a ponytail; the next day, it’s a short bob, tucked behind her ears. Her nose, her lips, her cheekbones, they move, scaffolding that holds up skin of variable hues, offset by different colored eyes. She could come from anywhere, from all sorts of people. But we can see her.
And that’s what he’s discounted, this rude fellow at the bar, now eating my fries without asking. In his haste to fill comment box after comment box and assert expertise I doubt he has, he’s forgotten that spark. Perhaps it ought to make him a little nervous. Along with hard work and education, support and kindness, guile and patience and dumb luck, along with all those things, we’ve gotten through our whole lives on imagination. It’s what we’ve survived on. Not just in baseball, but everywhere in the world. In moments and stretches of years that are good, fine, and terrible. The imagination to think we might be seen, might be thought serious, might be thought of at all. That we might one day be safe, be something.
Our minds have lifted us into rooms and conversations we’ve been told aren’t for us. We make statements now. Not with the rising sing-song of a false question, not with a desire to avoid bothering anyone, but with a purpose. With demands. We’ve imagined it until parts have come true, emboldening us to imagine more. We did all that because of our smarts, and our friends, and an increasingly not-bad world, but animating it all has been imagination. Imagination that lets us see her. Imagination that will always outlast that rude fellow.
Our community is a weird, happy little place much of the time. It’s so nice to rest a bit after fighting for so long. We’ve had great, demanding, exacting debates. We’ve made room in the neighborhood; we’ve exchanged waves at the corner store. But we still commit our sins; someone rushes in from across the bar. We forget each other’s stakes, don’t respect them. We’ve assumed those stakes are the same all the time, for everyone; we’ve failed to practice care, to embrace our uncertainty.
It’ll be work. It’ll mean letting in a bit of sentiment. Not in the way of RBI or bunting, but as feeling for each other. I’d like to ask us to try, in this community of ours. I suspect trying is part of care, too.
Meg is the managing editor of FanGraphs and the host of FanGraphs Audio. Her work has appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Lookout Landing and Just A Bit Outside.