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November 30, 2009
When Justine Siegal was hired by the independent-league Brockton Rox last May, she became the first woman to coach for a men's professional baseball team. It was a pioneering moment, but to say that a glass ceiling had been shattered might be little more than wishful thinking. Employed as the Rox' first-base coach, Siegal encountered her fair share of stereotypes, not to mention limitations, before being let go for what were called "financial reasons." Currently studying for her PhD in sports psychology at Springfield (MA) College, where she is the only woman coaching men's baseball at the collegiate level, Siegal has played and coached in numerous countries around the world. She is the founder of Baseball for All.
David Laurila: How did you come to work for the Brockton Rox?
Justine Siegal: I went up to Mike Veeck at a conference and told him that I wanted to work for him, and he got me an interview with the Rox. I then had three interviews with them before they hired me. They wanted to know that I knew baseball, and because I had coached before, there were a lot of questions about how I'd deal with the guys. That was everything from what I'd do if someone started flirting, to whether I could throw BP, to how the guys responded to me at the college-level. I'd say that most of it revolved around whether the environment would be right for me.
DL: Did those discussions primarily address the socio-cultural dynamic, or was your knowledge of the game also an important factor?
JS: There was definitely baseball. When I met with Brian Voelkel, the general manager, we kind of just discussed logistics, but when I met with Chris Carminucci, the manager, he asked me more specific baseball questions. One of the discussions was that I'm not just a woman, I'm a mother, and there were logistics issues like that, which I wanted to be upfront about. But there were definitely baseball conversations with Chris Carminucci.
DL: You've worked a lot with pitchers. Was that part of what you talked about?
JS: That's what I have the most experience with, but in general it was more about my overall knowledge of baseball. I knew that I wasn't ready to be a minor league pitching coach, so that was never a part of the equation.
DL: I understand that the Rox set limits on your communication with the players. Given the importance of communication, that seems somewhat counterproductive.
JS: Well, there are two kinds of communication. There is getting to know the players, and there is instructional communication. What I can say is that I wasn't able to give much instructional communication.
DL: If you saw that one of the pitchers was tipping his pitches, or that his delivery was out of sync, you weren't allowed to communicate that?
JS: No, I learned not to communicate what I was thinking.
DL: Did you see that as a problem?
JS: Part of the reason that I coach is that I want to make players better, and that's not always easy when you think that you can help someone and your only choice is not to say anything, even if it's only in discussion. A lot of my coaching style is to instruct in a casual manner. It might just be via a conversation while we're picking up the baseballs, and when you don't have that same informality to discuss, and just sort of shoot the breeze about baseball things, I think you miss a lot in the coach-player dynamic.
DL: Is it not difficult for a coach to earn the respect of his, or her, players without that type of communication?
JS: I think that it's a double-edged sword. Once you receive the player's respect, then they're willing to take in information. You can't effectively give out information until you get that respect. That I know. Even at the college level, you have to gain respect before you start correcting a 19-year-old kid. Overall, I think that my biggest frustration was not being able to be as open with the players as I would have liked.
DL: How respected were you?
JS: I don't know, but I can tell you that the players all treated me with respect. They were always kind to me. A funny story is that one of our players was hitting, and he hit a ball off the wall. When he got to first base, I said to him, "Once again, it's warning-track power." I kind of made fun of him, telling him that he couldn't hit a home run, and that he should have eaten his Wheaties, and so on. He said, "You don't think I can hit a home run?" I said, "No." Later in the game, maybe his next at-bat, he nailed one over the fence, a nice line drive. After the inning, when he was running onto the field, and I was running off, I said, "Nice hit," and smiled at him. He goes, "Thanks, babe," and kept running to his position. It was a funny moment, because first it took me a moment to register what he said, and he didn't even realize that he had said it when I went back to him. It was a total coach-player dynamic, where we were just having a casual exchange with each other, and at the same time it was a moment where you recognize that you're still a female. I didn't consider it derogatory, but it was a very familiar moment.
DL: Whom do you think would be more accepted in a coaching role in professional baseball, a woman or an openly gay male?
JS: I think that if it was an openly gay male who had played in the major leagues, then I would say it would be the man. But it would be so difficult to be openly gay in professional baseball. It would be such a… I don't know if homophobic is the right word, but if something goes wrong, it's because the other person is a fag. You expect that in the environment. The words 'fag' and 'gay' are always used as a negative, and they're always used when you're losing, or if they don't like the other person. Then again, if someone like Derek Jeter announced that he was gay, and then became a coach, everyone would get over it.
DL: Eventually, players will begin to come out. What do you think will happen when they do?
JS: I obviously don't have any experience to answer the question, but I think it would be much easier for a coach than a player. That's if they're openly gay. But I do think that it would get easier over time, just like it would if a woman joined a pro team. First it's kind of a shock, but then you get used to it.
DL: If we ever do see a woman in organized ball, which position will she play?
JS: I think it would be a pitcher, possibly a knuckleball pitcher, and preferably left-handed. For one thing, I think it's just more likely from a physiological standpoint. I'm not sure that if Serena Williams would have played baseball, just how fast she'd be able to throw a baseball, but we know that, unless you're a lefty, you better be throwing high 80s to even be considered. A knuckleball makes for more options regarding the shape of the pitcher, what the pitcher looks like.
DL: In the 1970s, Charlie Finley signed Herb Washington, a world-class sprinter with limited baseball experience, to be a pinch-runner. What do you think the reaction would be if someone signed a Florence Griffith Joyner or a Marion Jones, and sent her to either the Gulf Coast League or to a short-season league?
JS: Well, it's still illegal. Major League Baseball has a ban against women playing. It wouldn't be upheld in court, obviously, but I believe that bylaw has never been removed. It was put in place by Kenesaw Mountain Landis when Jackie Mitchell struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He made a law saying that baseball was too difficult, and too taxing, for a woman. Beyond that, if they were to bring someone up, it would likely be part publicity stunt and part a belief that it might work. Even with me, it was part publicity stunt, but I did need to know what I was doing. It had to be the right woman to hire.
JS: I would say Jackie Robinson. I know that sounds weird, but I say it because of the way that my players treated me. And when I wasn't always treated… when I had barriers, I had players come up to me and say that it must not be easy being the first. They'd come over and say, "I don't agree with this." So, I knew that some of the players understood the challenges that I was going through. They saw me as someone who loved baseball and was trying to help them get better. Not all of them, but some of them. Still, I think that almost everyone in the park thought that it was a promotional thing, and a promotional thing only, but some of the players actually believed in my mission. I know that they did, and so did Chris Carminucci. He was a huge proponent of me being hired. He believed in the idea of teaching his daughters that they can do anything. Practice and theory aren't always a smooth connection, but you have to believe that you can accomplish anything.
DL: Kim Ng has already interviewed for general manager positions, and many feel she will one day become the first woman to run a big league organization. What would that mean for women in baseball?
JS: I think that she would serve as a role model, and it will be a big triumph, because more people will recognize that a woman knows what she's doing. It's obviously already happening with assistant general managers, because that's what she is now, but it's a big step for the male world to say, "Yes, we'll put a female in this position, and we'll listen to what she says." It's the same trouble that women had in the military. Like I was saying earlier, at first it's a shock, but then people get used to it.
DL: You've played and promoted baseball throughout the world. How does the acceptance of women in the game, outside of the United States, compared to here?
JS: Well, women's baseball isn't an option in all cultures. It's only kind of an option in the US, and it's strongest in Japan, and to a lesser extent in Australia. But those are two questions. There is women's baseball, and there is women in baseball. Women's baseball is still building, but we know that there are women in baseball. We know that half the fans in Major League Baseball are women, so we know that women enjoy baseball and that they want to be a part of it. I think there's more potential in America, with this being our national pastime and all of the legal rights that help us to attain positions, but that still doesn't make it easy. There is a lot of tradition in baseball, and that tradition mostly doesn't include women. There are barriers.