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Hunter Felt blogs about baseball, basketball and assorted U.S. sports for the The Guardian. He has contributed to Pop Matters and Et tu, Mr. Destructo? He also is occasionally (not) Terry Francona on Twitter in the guise of @NotCoachTito. You can follow him as himself as @HunterFelt where he mainly just makes really snarky jokes about life in Somerville, MA and raves about his kickass girlfriend.
On August 28th, St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina was involved in a home plate collision with Josh Harrison of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Although Molina was knocked out of the game with back, shoulder, and neck injuries, he did manage to hold on to the ball and record the out at the plate. The official Twitter account of Major League Baseball celebrated the accomplishment with this tweet:
Yadier Molina was forced to exit after this devastating collision, but he held onto the ball because he's a man: atmlb.com/Pqs8tr
— MLB (@MLB) August 28, 2012
If the writers had come up with something like "Molina held onto the ball because he's THE man," there probably wouldn't have been too much outcry. But they didn’t, and there was. Immediately following the "Yadier Molina is a man" tweet, many expressed shock that the official Twitter feed of a major entertainment industry would publish something with such a blatantly sexist subtext. Not long after that—because we are talking about Twitter here—came the series of tweets making fun of @MLB. (As a devoted fan of press conference meltdowns, my favorite joking response was Dan Wade's "Yadier Molina can't be a man, he's not 40! #MikeGundy!) As those familiar with the Twitter News Cycle have probably guessed, the joke tweets were followed by the inevitable backlash from those who thought the initial response was unwarranted. These tweets claimed that while the Yadier Molina tweet was dumb, it was pushing it to claim that there was anything sexist about the statement. Instead, the counter-argument went, the MLB account was trying to express something closer to the idea that Yadier Molina was more like a "man among boys" for clinging to the baseball during the collision.
Now, there's an argument to be made that the sexist undertones of this particular "Yadier Molina is a man!" tweet were unintended. But if people were being "too sensitive" about this particular tweet and its unspoken implications, it's because they’ve become attuned to the fact that overtly and covertly sexist language and beliefs permeate baseball culture. Plus, for whatever reason, home plate collisions in particular have long been seen as tests of masculinity, like the sporting equivalent of a game of “chicken.”
I'm not here to talk about whether home plate collisions should be allowed in baseball, or about whether teams should tell their catchers to stop blocking the plate. For one thing, that's beyond the scope of what I'm really interested in discussing. For another, it's not a topic I spend much time debating, unlike more important and pressing concerns like what is to be done with fans who throw home runs hit by the opposing team back on the playing field. (My answer: extended jail sentences with no possibility of parole.) What I find interesting is the discussion itself and how it tends to descend into sexist trash talk.
A few examples are in order. One of the first comments from a Bleacher Report opinion piece proposing that MLB do away with catchers blocking the plate:
Dan Kelley. Hello. Please do me a favor. Take your hand and grab your head. Then repeatedly bang your face into the closest thing available. I.E. a wall. A desk. An on coming vehicle. You are a soccer mom at best. Your wife is ashamed of you for writing this. I hope she beats you tonight. Stop writing about sports. It doesn't suit you well. Maybe write about the best tampon brand out there. I don't care. But, please. Until you find any shred of manliness in your bones stay as far away from sports as possible.
'The ridiculous display of aggression—in an exhibition game, no less' Its a shame most MLB players don't play in games that actually matter with as much intensity as Pete Rose does in an exhibition game. Put your purse down Nancy.
Similar comments were made after the San Francisco Giants told catcher Buster Posey to stop blocking the plate at the start of this year's spring training. The comments on the related ESPN article—a news article, it should be noted, not an opinion piece—were of a similar nature.
The first reactions to any proposal to change the game to make it less violent often involve the proposal’s opponents attempting to feminize the people making the suggestion. For them, the essence of the game is inherently "manly" (which in this context means "full of aggression and physical contact"), and any attempts to change that are "effeminate." From this perspective, any attempts to temper baseball’s more violent aspects weaken the sport by making it more feminized. This is the underlying sexist message behind even comments that seem as innocuous as "Yadier Molina is a man."
It's amusing that commenters would bring up Pete Rose running over catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game as a prime example of the correct, "masculine" way of playing the game. In most other contexts, Rose choosing to violently collide with Fosse (who suffered a separated shoulder that hampered his career) in a mostly meaningless exhibition would hardly be considered a proper instructional example. For these commenters, whose views on masculinity seemingly involve praising the ill-advised and near-criminal, Rose's actions were commendable because they portrayed him as a fierce competitor who was determined to win a meaningless game at any cost.
Rose’s notorious play presents a sharp contrast with another famous home plate collision, this one occurring in fiction rather than reality. One of the most notable films documenting the involvement of women in baseball, A League of Their Own, reaches its climax when the ball slips out of catcher Dottie’s glove—possibly on purpose—in a collision at the plate that the filmmakers deliberately leave ambiguous. The scene can be read as suggesting that a version of "sisterhood" has trumped the win-it-all pursuit of glory. As the MLB Twitter account might say, Dottie is definitely not a man.
The concept of home plate collisions as some sort of proving ground for one's gender should be offensive to men and women alike. The idea that masculinity is defined by mindless acts of violence should be as offensive to men as the beer-swilling neanderthal portrayal of male behavior that still permeates pop culture. On the other hand, the de facto use of feminine terms as the quickest and easiest way to insult anyone within the context of sports, and the thoughtless association of "female" with "weaker" or "lesser," is not only hurtful to women, but bad for the game.
Maybe the "he's a man" tweet reflects Major League Baseball struggle to adjust to the fact that a rapidly growing percentage of its audience is, in fact, female. Since I spent part of this diatribe quoting relentlessly stupid blog comments, I'd like to end it by citing a thoughtful comment from "RememberthePhitans" on Liz Roscher's brilliant and self-explanatory post, "I Hate the MLB Twitter Account":
Baseball tickets, corporate advertising dollars, and the like are increasingly going to be in the hands of women. Pissing them off by talking down to them or simply ignoring them is bad for business.
So yes, there may be an increasing amount of "sensitivity" to sexism in baseball coverage, but this is a positive development.
At least the controversy made me feel a little bit better about being a Boston Red Sox fan. After years of hearing Sox supporters calls bandwagon fans "Pink Hats" (because GIRLS wear Pink Hats, and girls don't know sports) or delight in calling right fielder J.D. Drew "Nancy" (because he didn't dive for balls that he could catch on the run, took pitches that were out of the strike zone, and spent a lot of time on the disabled list), I had started to convince myself that Sox fans had a monopoly on thoughtless sexism. Unfortunately, no fan base is entirely free from it. The Molina tweet was a reminder that much of the way we think and talk about baseball and other sports is colored by sexist assumptions. That’s not going to change if we let it slide without comment, for fear of people thinking we're being "too sensitive" or "making too much of it." If we don't call out overtly sexist behavior, we're guilty of dropping the—
Well, you know.
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