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Baseball Has a Credibility Problem With Women

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The sport, and the people who watch it, need to do better

MLB: Houston Astros at Los Angeles Angels Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The World Series is going on right now, and in most years it’s a celebration of what was so fun about the season. Maybe it’s not fun for you, personally — the last three World Series winners are the Red Sox, Astros, and Cubs, and that’s a pretty potent cocktail of teams St. Louis fans dislike and teams that the nation as a whole dislikes. But it’s fun to watch postseason baseball, fun to see the pageantry and drama of the World Series, and I always enjoy it regardless of who is involved.

This year, I don’t feel that way. I’m still watching the World Series, but I’m not watching it for good baseball and high drama. I’m watching, and seething, as the Houston Astros keep doing more and more of the things I dislike about baseball and the culture of baseball, and rooting for the Nationals to vanquish them isn’t doing much to make me feel less gross about the whole thing.

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, here’s a quick overview. On Saturday night, after the Astros won the ALCS, Assistant GM Brandon Taubman wandered through the locker room and repeatedly screamed “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so f------ glad we got Osuna!” towards a group of three female reporters. The outburst was so clearly out of bounds that another Astros staffer apologized for his behavior at the time.

The context is pretty straightforward here; the Astros traded for Roberto Osuna while he was serving a suspension from baseball for an incident where he allegedly assaulted the mother of his then 3-year-old child. There was quite a fuss at the time, understandably, as the Astros simultaneously touted their zero-tolerance domestic violence policy and traded for a player currently suspended under MLB’s domestic violence policy.

As NPR reported (and boy is it a bad sign when NPR is reporting on something you did as a baseball team), Taubman was specifically targeting a reporter wearing a domestic violence awareness bracelet whom he had previously complained about. Her offense? Tweeting out domestic violence hotline telephone numbers at times that roughly coincided with when Osuna appeared.

There’s a much broader conversation to be had about how sports, and society in general, handle the discussion of domestic violence. Baseball’s extreme focus on player rehabilitation, to the exclusion of mentioning that the person who we should care about being rehabilitated is the victim, is problematic. Teams and players talking about the “growing opportunity” and the “hardships” they have overcome by being suspended (hi Addison!) are problematic. It’s a difficult issue to talk about in a responsible way, especially for someone like me who hasn’t experienced the life-altering trauma of abuse first-hand, and so beyond acknowledging how heinous the act is and how imperfect and at times tone-deaf society acts around it, I’m going to leave that aside.

What really bums me out about this entire episode (again, aside from domestic violence, which is a huge bummer) is how poorly the sport of baseball treats women. This situation should have been open and shut: a team official, in his role as a team official (not at Home Depot on an off day, which would still be odious, but literally in the clubhouse after a game) went out of his way to intimidate and harass a group of women who were there on official business as reporters. Just think about that for a second, because it gets more gross the longer you think about it.

Houston’s reaction to this incident only furthers my overall feeling of ickiness. First, the Astros literally accused Stephanie Apstein, the reporter who broke the story, of fabricating it. After multiple other reporters confirmed her reporting, the Astros backtracked to milquetoast non-apologies, from Taubman’s “I’m sorry if I offended anyone” to owner Jim Crane’s “What, me sexist? I give money to charity!” Jeff Luhnow chimed in that we couldn’t know anything without knowing Taubman’s intent, as if there’s a good reading of his intent somewhere in there. On Thursday, after days of blowback but without any statement (as of yet) from MLB, the Astros fired Taubman. Left unsaid was what had changed in the past two days to move them from linking arms to defend him into kicking him out, though further reporting will likely help on this front (I’m writing this Thursday night).

MLB has, so far, sat by and done basically nothing. They have dispatched a team to Houston to interview the people involved in the incident — who have all, aside from Taubman, already given public statements explaining what happened. They also threw in some boilerplate we’re-very-serious-about-this disclaimers in their statement: “Domestic violence is extraordinarily serious and everyone in baseball must use care to not engage in any behavior — whether intentional or not — that could be construed as minimizing the egregiousness of an act of domestic violence.”

The subtext of MLB’s statement (“Bro, chill, it’s the World Series, watch some dingers”) and lack of urgency around pressing the investigation (they don’t appear to be investigating why the Astros outright lied in impugning Apstein, and to be clear, they accused her of an offense so serious that she’d be fired immediately if she committed it) are unsurprising, because MLB isn’t in the business of making tough decisions on difficult issues. They’re in the business of praying that people forget about the unsavory parts of the sport, and delaying tactics that eventually boil down to “I hope we didn’t offend anyone with our offensive behavior” are their stock and trade.

But honestly, that’s only part of my problem with the whole thing. I’m not even sure that my biggest problem is with the Astros (though they’re reprehensible), or MLB’s reaction in this situation (though it too is reprehensible). The thing that bothers me is that it’s another way that baseball treats women poorly, and the more those stack up, the more I get upset with myself for liking this sport that seems so hellbent on alienating half the population.

I’m probably not the right person to talk about this. It’s hard to understand privilege when you have it, and there’s no better poster boy for that than me. I’m a white man who grew up middle class; no one has tried to exclude me from baseball or made me feel unwelcome, because I’m baseball’s demographic. So everything I’m going to say here today comes from a place of privilege, and there’s no getting around that. These are merely things I’ve observed, and I know that’s imperfect, but I still feel the need to say something.

Baseball sucks when it comes to women. That’s all there is to it. You can’t sugarcoat this or downplay it: between the league and the people who follow it, the sport is downright inhospitable.

I’ll start with an anecdote that comes close to being personal for me: my wife is a huge baseball fan, and she wanted to buy a Curtis Granderson Player’s Weekend jersey to wear to Mets games (we had a partial season ticket package at the time). We checked at the stadium store and couldn’t find any women’s jerseys, not just for Granderson but for any player. That seemed weird but not impossibly so; it wasn’t a huge store, and it was pretty picked over when it came to jerseys.

No problem: she decided to order one online. There was just one problem: MLB didn’t offer Player’s Weekend jerseys in women’s sizes. An entire marketing gimmick around selling a few extra jerseys and hats, and they didn’t make them for half the population. We tried contacting customer service to see if it was just a bug in the website, but of course it wasn’t. She won’t admit it, but I think my wife likes the Mets a little less because of that incident, and I don’t blame her. It’s an active choice to support a team, and it doesn’t feel nearly as good when the team seems not to want you as a supporter.

That isn’t the end of it, not by a longshot. That’s something that MLB did; the patrons were nearly as bad. We got to know the sales representative who had sold us our tickets reasonably well during the year; we went to a lot of games, and I was very curious about what it felt like to work for a team in a role that wasn’t about the product on the field but rather the product off of it. Unsurprisingly (because baseball really doesn’t pay all that well), she was a Mets fan, and working for her childhood team was a real draw.

Then we went to a Fan Appreciation night. The Mets kind of sucked that year, so in an attempt to get ticket holders to re-up, they had a few free events where season ticket holders could take in a game from an unused luxury box, complete with food and drinks. Sales representatives were there, because the whole point of the event was to sell next year’s tickets, and we saw our representative (let’s call her Kate) and walked over to talk to her.

Kate was hemmed in by two middle-aged men, and looked pretty happy to see us. It wasn’t hard to see why — as we approached, I could hear the two men loudly telling her they’d like to sit down with her and tell her how baseball worked. There were a fair number of “honey”s and “darling”s involved, even after we butted in and started making small talk, and the implication that Kate couldn’t know anything about baseball, what with being a woman and all, was pretty clear. The implication of “let me show you a good time” was more veiled, but still there.

I’m not sure what I would do if this situation happened again, but at the time I took the coward’s way out. I tried to deflect the conversation, changed the topic towards current Mets, and generally hoped the guys would stop being so patronizing. And of course they didn’t, and eventually Kate managed to tear herself away from the conversation with my wife’s help, and i felt kind of crappy and complicit and like I could have done more the whole night.

Go to a game, and you’ll see small mirrors of that happening. It doesn’t really matter where the game is; that’s just how men at baseball games writ large behave towards women. My mother-in-law is a huge baseball fan, has been since she was a kid, and when we went to a Brewers game with her, some joker in our row tried to explain the infield fly rule (incorrectly, naturally) when it came up. She knew the rule, but she didn’t speak up because she’s polite. She wanted to watch the game, and this guy, who surely thought he was being helpful, just kept going on and on telling her all these “neat” baseball facts in a patronizing tone while she tried fruitlessly to get out of the conversation. The whole situation just felt kind of crappy to me.

The general “women don’t know baseball so let me explain it to them” view is pervasive in the baseball community. When Meg Rowley, the literal managing editor of FanGraphs, writes an article or mentions a player in a chat, men invariably chime in to tell her how little she knows about the subject at hand, how she’s getting it all wrong and just “doesn’t understand baseball.” It’s like clockwork; no matter what her opinion is, someone will tell her it’s ill-considered and the kind of opinion someone who has never played would have.

I, too, write for FanGraphs. I write a lot of nonsense there, mostly well-thought-out but sometimes off the cuff. Not once has someone come after me for “not understanding baseball,” told me how little I knew about the sport and how terrible my opinions were. People debate me on the merits of my argument, sure, but the ad hominem nonsense doesn’t happen. Of course, I haven’t played baseball since Little League. But I’m a man, and my name makes me sound like someone who might have played baseball growing up, and so people just arbitrarily give me credit.

The same stuff happens here, too. It happens all across the internet when it comes to sports. Jessica Mendoza is without a doubt the best part of the Sunday Night Baseball booth, and when they broadcast a game Twitter lights up with a bunch of rock-headed morons telling her she doesn’t get it. Nevermind that she has a keen mind for the game, nevermind that her points tend to be incisive while A-Rod tells people even leads are better than odd leads, nevermind that she played softball at the highest level. She’s a woman, and men’s views of her vis a vis baseball are strongly prejudiced by that simple fact.

I haven’t gotten into men being physically threatening to women in the context of baseball, largely because I haven’t experienced it. Most of my experience comes either from what people say on the internet or from attending games with my wife, and it’s not like someone would come up and harass my wife while I was standing right beside her. It happens, though: men take liberties in inappropriately touching women a lot, and being in public is no defense against that. That’s beyond the scope of this screed, but it’s despicable.

What I guess I’m saying, with all this meaningless rambling, is that it’s hard to reconcile baseball, as a game I love that has provided endless hours of happiness throughout my life, with the way that baseball and those who love it treat women, which is abysmal. I like to think I’m a good guy. I like to think that I do the right thing as much as I can. I like to think that I stick up for others. And in this situation, I don’t know what to do. Should I scream about it on the internet? It certainly feels good, though I don’t know if it will help. Should I boycott baseball? Doesn’t really seem like what I’m trying to accomplish. Am I complicit? I hope not, but I just don’t know.

But let me say this: if you’re a man reading this, stop and think about your behavior. I don’t even mean don’t exclude women, though obviously don’t do that. Don’t let others exclude women, or patronize them, or make women feel like they don’t belong. Don’t be complicit. People don’t do this in a vacuum. If society didn’t accept men talking down to women for no reason, people would do it far less. If the voices of dissent weren’t a scattered few, but instead a massive majority, it wouldn’t take long for people to get the message that they were being jerks.

It stacks, too, I think. Those small things add up. I don’t know Brandon Taubman, but I can tell you, merely by what he said, that he’s an asshole. But you know what? I’ve worked with assholes before, known them from school. And they’re not immune to correction, to the feeling of everyone disapproving of what they’re doing.

Brandon Taubman, clearly, has been an asshole to women before. He didn’t wake up last Saturday and think, well now it’s time to do this thing for the first time in my life. And earlier in his life, when he was more impressionable, maybe someone chastising him would have changed his course. Not now, of course. Now he’s spent years working for a soulless death star that exults in breaking rules, that is loudly contemptuous of morality, that brazenly and shamelessly makes baseless accusations about reporters rather than admit even an ounce of fault, and he’s probably at home cursing the social justice warriors who stopped him from doing the noble job of squeezing a few extra wins of surplus value out of people like Roberto Osuna. The Astros have their own problems, more than I can recount here, and they deserve a harsh punishment from baseball on this, above and beyond firing a jerk who they seem to think is good at math.

But just punishing Taubman and the Astros doesn’t fix everything. The fault lies in all of us, for letting this environment persist. I won’t claim I’ve always been good about it, or even above average. But I’m trying my hardest to be better, to not let these little slights go, to correct people when I see them, knowingly or unknowingly, exclude others from their little club. I hope that you’ll all do the same, because a world that accepts more people is one I absolutely want to live in.

And to be clear, in closing: I don’t know that I have the right answers on this. I don’t think I’m being too sensitive, reading too much into things, but I’m an outsider. I’m not a woman, I haven’t been in these situations. Maybe what I’m saying isn’t helpful to women! I can’t claim to speak for them, only for my own experiences. If I’m wrong, please let me know. But I think what I’m saying is helpful, and I think that men, myself included, should be doing better.