In A Man’s World

Stacy Piagno looks into for the sign during the first inning of her debut. (via Justin Mason)

Stacy Piagno looks in for the sign during the first inning of her debut. (via Justin Mason)

When you become a father, your life changes and you re-prioritize the things that are important to you. Your sleep, your social life, your hobbies, they all become secondary to this tiny little blob that is given to you. I knew this would happen and I was okay with it. I grew up wanting to be a father because the one that was originally “gifted” to me wasn’t a very good one. So I grew up envisioning the time in which I would have a son and how amazing it would be to be his father. I never knew how much my life would change, almost six years ago, when the doctor announced to my wife and me, “It’s a girl!”

I was petrified. I still am.

I used to be the typical guy. I made sexist jokes. I minimized the plight of women in this country. I never thought about the disadvantages that women of all ages face. Then I had a daughter and I began to change. I wanted to give her all the advantages that I could. I’ve raised her to not fear the world, to believe that she can be anything and anyone she wants to be. I have taught her that girls can do anything that boys can. So, a few weeks ago, when my daughter asked me if she could play baseball with the San Francisco Giants one day, I lied.

I lied because I didn’t believe she could. Major league baseball is a sport for men, not women, and while she sat there continuing to watch the Giants play, my heart dropped. I thought to myself how sad it was going to be when she figured out that I had lied, when she figured out that girls don’t get to play professional baseball.

A few weeks later, news broke that our local independent baseball team, the Sonoma (Calif.) Stompers, had signed two women to play on their team. I had to go investigate. I contacted the Stompers’ general manager, Theo Fightmaster, and told him I would like to spend a couple of days covering the ladies’ debut. Then I packed my wife and daughter in the car to make the 20-minute journey to Sonoma.

The Stompers are a small, independent baseball team that has existed only since 2014. However, in spite of their limited history, they have made headlines multiple times. During the 2015 season, the Stompers allowed writers Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller to run the baseball operations department of the team. Lindbergh and Miller would go on to write a New York Times bestselling book, The Only Rule Is It Has to Work, chronicling their experience with the Stompers. And the Stompers signed Sean Conroy to pitch. Conroy would become the first openly gay player in the history of professional baseball.

At first glance, when I walked into the Stompers’ ballpark, it appeared like any other small-town baseball venue. However, as the fans and press filled up the park, you could sense the excitement. I was more anxious than excited, as this was my first time covering an event like this. I had commandeered the assignment with a 1-2 punch of proximity and “calling dibs,” and I was determined to not appear like I didn’t belong. With no designated area for the press, I slyly climbed the ladder to the top of the dugout and placed myself between the cameramen for CBS and NBC before beginning to shoot pictures and video.

Once the pregame formalities concluded, all that was left was the first pitch. Stacy Piagno, Kelsie Whitmore, and the rest of the Sonoma Stompers were about to make history as the first co-ed professional baseball team since the 1950s. After receiving the sign from her catcher, Piagno went into her windup and threw… a strike! We now had women playing with men in professional baseball.

Piagno threw a near-perfect first inning. Her only mistake was hitting the second batter of the game. However, she labored through the rest of her outing — in part to some defensive miscues behind her — before being pulled in the third inning without to recording an out. Her final line for her debut was two innings pitched, four runs allowed (two earned), five hits allowed, two walks and no strikeouts.

Whitmore, who started the game in left field, drew a walk in her first plate appearance and struck out in her second before being replaced in the top of the sixth inning. The Stompers went on to lose the game, 8-4. On this night however, their numbers were secondary to the statement that they made.

During the final few innings of the game, Piagno, Whitmore and Fightmaster answered questions from the press. After the game was over, and the other media people had left, I watched and took pictures as both women signed autographs and took pictures with every man, woman and child who wanted one, including my daughter.

Whitmore signs autographs for fans following her debut. (via Justin Mason)

Whitmore signs autographs for fans following her debut. (via Justin Mason)

Wanting to get more than his one night snapshot, I arranged to return the next day and speak with Piagno and Whitmore.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

When I returned, we spoke about why they continued to pursue baseball when society tends to push girls away from the sport, and toward softball, at a fairly young age. I wanted to know how I could help my daughter through this if she wanted to continue playing with baseball with the boys. They both partially attributed their success to support within their families and communities.

“You hit that path when you start getting older and society wants you to go to softball, and some girls will fight hard against that,” Piagno said. “I just got really lucky. I was able to play for my high school team. The coaches allowed me to try out and, just like anyone else, they decided if I was good enough or not good enough,” Piagno said. “I think it just kind of depends on who you have around you, where you are living, that kind of thing. For me, I just kind of lucked into it; I had someone who did let me try out.”

Added Whitmore, “My family was always supportive. They wanted me to go out and do those things. To go out and play with those guys and to do what I love and that’s what I love and they let me do that. Girls aren’t given the opportunities, so they don’t try and pursue it.”

My daughter has that kind of support. My wife and I have attempted to instill in her that the fact she is a girl does not preclude her from doing or being good at any particular activity. However, we make up only a percentage of the influences in our daughter’s life.

Kids are mean. The world is mean. As a parent I have tried to shield my daughter from the vicious nature of sexism that is inherent in our world, but my daughter has still been taught that boys can do things that girls can’t. She has come home from kindergarten and day care and said things like “girls can’t do that” or “that is a boy game.” It is something that is ingrained in children at a young age. Boys play sports, play with action figures, and have adventures. Girls play with dolls and  makeup, and have tea parties or play house. When these conventions are challenged, there is resistance, no matter how progressive we believe society has become.

Both Whitmore and Piagno acknowledged that there have been obstacles for them to succeed in baseball.

“I have had lots of controversy with playing baseball, being the only girl on the team,” said Whitmore. “Growing up, I was usually the only girl or the first girl to play there. People say things behind my back. Friends that I thought would never say things behind my back go behind and talk trash…. Yeah it does suck and it is hard to deal with sometimes, but I kind of just let it go and just deal with it and know it happens and it is going to happen and I expect it. I have gotten used to it. That is just how it is…but I am putting myself in a man’s world, so it is going to be expected.”

“You definitely expect it going into things,” added Piagno, “but for all of the controversy that we do have, and for all of the negative people, there is so many more people that are positive and so many that support. So, really, you just have to focus on the supportive things. People ask me ‘what have people been saying?’ and I say ‘I don’t know’ because I don’t pay attention. Focus on the positive things and the rest isn’t going to matter.”

We talked for a while longer. I asked them the typical sports journalist questions about how they felt their debuts went and how it has been with the guys on the team. Both women talked about how supportive their teammates had been — how they treated them like ballplayers by joking around with them and helping them with their game.

“They respect me and I respect them,” said Whitmore, who had been with the team for the previous 10  days. “They kind of treat me like I am a younger sister in a way, and they like to mess and joke with me, but at the end of the day, they are still helping me with my game on and off the field. I love having them around because they are really helpful and they actually care.”

Piagno, who had flown in from her home state of Florida at about 4 a.m. on the day of her debut, was still getting to know her new teammates, but her first impressions were good: “The guys seemed very supportive and I right away got a family vibe. Of course, there was joking and bantering back and forth, but that is good and I felt comfortable with that because growing up that is what I am used to. That made me feel more comfortable.”

Their teammates were impressed by them as well, according to first baseman Daniel Baptista. “At first, I didn’t know how to react, but when she [Whitmore] came, she was definitely a pro about it. It was all straight business, which made it easier for us as a team,” said Baptista. “Now she is just one of the guys.” Baptista had a look of sincerity in his eyes. He didn’t pretend that it wasn’t awkward at first, but once the initial shock wore off, the team accepted her as one of their own.

The time for the real question was upon us. I needed to know if what I had told my daughter was true or not. Could a woman play in the major leagues?

Whitmore thinks so. “I do see it potentially happening,” said said. “I believe it can happen. I think there is a major league coach out there. He just has to see them and see what they are like. It is going to take a lot. You have to work every day. I believe it is possible.”

I did too. My perspective had changed. Watching those women compete side-by-side with men made me believe that it was possible. That one day we would see a woman in the major leagues. However, it was Piagno’s response that made me think that there might be another option that I hadn’t considered.

“I definitely think there is a possibility and I think that it probably will happen in time,” she said. “I think that what would be amazing is if we can have our own women’s major league baseball. You’ve got the WNBA…. I think that that could be a stepping stone or not, but really we need our own league. I think what the problem is is that girls growing up are funneled into softball and you think that is the only thing that you can do. I think if they know that there is an outlet for us to play baseball then they would continue playing longer and therefore we would have more girls to choose from.”

It was a simple, yet innovative idea — create a professional baseball league for women. Show girls they have something to aspire to. Give girls like my daughter the opportunity to have role models in baseball who aren’t men. Give these women a platform to change the culture.

As we continued chatting about the game and the team, I couldn’t help but think two things. First, that these two young women (Whitmore is 17 and Piagno is 25) were incredibly mature. They handled their debuts and the circus created by all the press with grace and class. Secondly, Whitmore saying, “I am putting myself in a man’s world, so it is going to be expected.” That stuck with me for a while.

It stuck with me because one of my biggest fears is that my daughter would have to change because she lives in a “man’s world.” That she could be denied the same opportunities and freedoms I enjoyed growing up because she is a girl. I want her to grow up in a world where I don’t have to feel like I am lying when I tell her she can do whatever she wants or be whoever she wants to be. I want her to be like Whitmore and Piagno, who have put themselves in a man’s world, but are making it their own.

So, what do I tell my daughter when she wants to play baseball or do anything else?

“If you really want to do it, don’t give up on it,” said Whitmore. “That is always how I have seen it. I want it so bad that, why give up on something that I want? I would tell her to keep going with it and do what makes you happy. Go out there and do the best at the things that you love.”

I hope she does.


Justin is the co-host on The Sleeper and The Bust Podcast and writes for Rotographs covering the Roto Riteup as well as random topics that float into his juvenile brain. In addition to his work at Rotographs, Justin is the lead fantasy writer/analyst and co-owner for FriendswithFantasyBenefits.com, owner of The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational, and a fantasy football and baseball writer for Fantasy Alarm. He is also a certified addiction treatment counselor. Follow Justin on Twitter @JustinMasonFWFB.
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Yergecheffe
5 years ago

Excellent story. Thanks Justin.

Marc Schneider
5 years ago

I think having a women’s league is a much better idea. It would give opportunities to far more women than the major leagues would. Are there women that could conceivably compete in the majors? Perhaps, but most can’t. No one suggests that women pro tennis players should play men; no one thinks that Serena Williams could beat Novak Djokovic. There is a difference in size and strength that, in the vast majority of cases, will make a difference. But you have a vibrant women’s tour in both tennis and golf. Admittedly, however, the WNBA has struggled.

I totally agree, though, that it is a shame that girls are funneled into softball. My daughter played baseball with boys when she was seven and then was forced into softball. Nothing wrong with softball but I don’t see why girls can’t play baseball. I would like to see options for girls other than being forced into softball.

Mike T.
5 years ago

the world is whatever you decide it is

if you want it to be a ‘man’s world’, it will be

it can also be anything else

the Universe is limitless

Kevin Rusch
5 years ago

So I think a women’s league is a great idea. There are some legitimate, but solvable, hurdles there. 1) suppose you had a substantial subsidy from MLB. Would you put teams primarily in big(ish) cities where there would be more fans to draw? If so, do you take the cost hit on flying the teams from NYC to SF for games? Or do you try a regional league where they can take a bus? (If you’re going to play a full schedule, the travel really adds up)
2) do you try to organize several semi-pro leagues and one full-pro league to feed each other?
3) do you try to piggy-back them with MLB or MILB teams to leverage existing things like trainers, parks, media, other resources?

Anyway, I’d sure love to get involved if something like that ever happened.

Paul G.
5 years ago

Women used to play baseball. There’s no reason they should not be able to play that instead of softball. However, it would take some effort to transition high school and college sports to a new reality. I doubt that schools would want both women’s softball and baseball.

As to the professional league, I don’t see it to be viable. The WNBA, which has a strong college system and Olympic recognition to prop it up, would be out of business in short order if not for the NBA subsidizing it. There simply is not much of an audience for what is, essentially, inferior basketball to the men’s game. Without that support structure women’s baseball would, most likely, be a worse product than the WNBA and I do not see that working. If it were to work, it almost would certainly have to follow the minor league baseball template which is half spectacle.

Kevin Rusch
5 years ago

Well, you could make a case for MLB subsidizing women’s baseball; the number of suburban families that bring their kids (IN DROVES!) to those games can’t hurt the long-term future fan base, both for the men’s and women’s sports.

As for softball and baseball together, that’s a valid point, but it could be mitigated somewhat by the Title IX requirement of equal funding — most colleges now have more womens’ programs than mens’ to make up for the imbalance of $ going to football and men’s basketball. (Cheerleading is a scholarship sport, mostly to funnel scholarship money to women to make up for football.)

Adam C
5 years ago

I agree with the posters here, I’d love to see a WMLB. For that to happen girls need to start playing baseball instead of softball. Would it be that hard for high schools and colleges to switch over women’s baseball? There is currently a women’s professional baseball league in Japan.

Not to start a controversy I do not believe that women can play in the major leagues. The huge difference in physical prowess (size, strength, speed, etc) between men and women is simply too great. I’ve read the counter arguments for years that baseball is different from other sports. I simply don’t buy that. Bill James once said that baseball is closer to golf than a decathlon. And this probably true. But even in golf, women can’t compete with the men. In 2003 Annika Sörenstam played in a PGA event. She was the first woman to play in a PGA event since 1945. At this point in time Sörenstam was at the height of her powers, the greatest female golfer in the world. She is generally considered the greatest female golfer ever. And she go crushed in the PGA event, finishing 96th out of 111 golfers.

Paul G.
5 years ago
Reply to  Adam C

We’ve discussed this topic before. If women played baseball from childhood and the best of them were allowed to play with the boys as to benefit from the higher caliber of play, I am fairly certain that there would be a few women in the minors. If there was an extraordinary athlete among them I could see a major leaguer. Whether she would be a regular I don’t know. My guess is she would have to be really good at something like a defense first infielder or an Ichiro like singles hitter, or have some special talent like a really good knuckleball. The problem is the number of women who would pursue this sort of career may be very limited given the unlikelihood of success. An all-women league would help in that regard.

As to the switchover, you have an entire generation of girls and women who have played mostly softball and then suddenly switch them to baseball? The sports are similar but not the same. There would need to be a transition. It would also require getting new equipment, a different field, etc. These are not trivial concerns.

Cami
5 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

Exactly! Thank you!

Cliff Blau
5 years ago
Reply to  Adam C

If a woman was the 96th best baseball player in the country, she’d be good enough to start in MLB. So, who’s to say some couldn’t.

AJ Richard
5 years ago

Good story. The San Francisco Bay Sox are teams of all girl players in the Bay Area. Check out Baseball For All. BFA is hosting an all girls Nationals tourney July 23-28 in San Francisco. Phenomenal to see the talent, dedication, and love of the game these girls share. Also check out Women Belong in Baseball, the Attagirl podcast, and Baseball Sisters blog if you want to know more about what girls and women are doing in baseball and have done throughout history. It may surprise you and give your daughter some inspiration!

Matt
5 years ago

Here is a list of the women, including the two in Sonoma, who have either played, coached, guest managed or umpired in the independent professional baseball leagues since the 1993 inception of the independent leagues.

http://www.independentbaseball.net/independent-baseball-leagues/women-independent-professional-baseball-1993/

If you know of other names to be added then contact me. Hope that this resource is helpful in some way.

Cami
5 years ago
Reply to  Matt

Jen Pawol just started umpiring professionally last month. Did you have Julie Croteau on your list? She was the first player, I believe. Eri Yoshida as well.

Thank you for creating this resource. I posted a call for it on my film’s FB page. Throw Like A Girl.

John Hager
5 years ago

Good reading post. Long but good writing skill. Men is a half of world 🙂

Liam
5 years ago

It would be interesting, but not important, for me to see a women in an MLB game. The odds are certainly against them.

In most sports, from a purely statistical standpoint, the world class elite women perform slightly below the standard set by the elite high school men.

Take for example track and field:
100m Women’s WR- 10.49 Men’s WR- 9.58 2016 Nat’l High School Champ- 10.28
Mile Women’s WR- 4:12 Men’s WR- 3:43 2016 Nat’l High School Champ- 4:06
High Jump Women’s WR- 2.08m Men’s WR- 2.43 2016 Nat’l High School Champ- 2.18

Or Powerlifting (according to http://www.powerlifting-ipf.com/championships/records.html):
Women’s Squat: 310kg Men’s: 500kg Junior: 475kg
Women’s BP: 227kg Men’s: 401kg Junior: 357kg

Granted, baseball is probably more skill based than athletic based, and strength is not as important in baseball as in other sports, but there is definitely a huge component there. Testosterone really is a huge advantage.

In my mind, once you get to the top of the game, like the top 0.0001% of all players, the subtlest difference could end up having a huge effect on the outcome of a game. Everyone in the MLB already works their butts off and do just about all they can to compete at that level. They all have been playing the game for as long as they’ve been able. They are all genetic freaks (even undersized players). And the game isn’t trending downward toward less athletic individuals. Velocities are increasing for pitchers, 60 times are going down for base runners, balls are flying further out of the yard than ever before, and guys are bigger than ever. Even if you put the ideal women in ideal circumstances, the absence of testosterone might still hinder her ability to play at that level.

I do believe it’s possible though. Take the female high school knuckle-ball pitcher you might have heard about. If given the right opportunities, I think that a specialized role (like a pinch runner, or knuckle ball pitcher, where your contributions are based more on skill than pure athleticism) could be within reach for that once in a generation women.

If it ever happens it will be a great story.

Thanks for the article
-LAF

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