If he can play, she can play

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I’ve been thinking a lot more about feminism and sports ever since I first read Shai Goodman’s column about the role that sexism played in her little league experience. It’s a topic we’ve been writing about frequently here at The Weekly, and for good reason. Female participation in high school and collegiate sports is at an all-time high and continues to grow. Roughly 3.2 million women are now playing high school sports in the U.S., marking the 25th year in a row that participation has increased since the implementation of Title IX in 1972. Unsettling disparities between the sexes remain at all levels of play regarding participation, revenue sharing and coaching opportunities, but over the last 10 years, performance and funding gaps continue to close. As training and appreciation for female athletes slowly develop, it seems to be only a matter of time before a woman pops the bubble of male professional sports.

I’ve played baseball my entire life and I see no reason that Major League Baseball couldn’t play host to this development. Fox’s TV show ‘Pitch’ has yet to be renewed for a second season, but its fictional representation of the MLB’s first female pitcher paints a picture that is closer to reality than most think. The show’s protagonist, Ginny Baker, has an arsenal virtually identical to retired 5’6” journeyman reliever, Daniel Herrera. Baker’s (and Herrera’s) pitch mix features a mid-80’s fastball and a unique screwball that bamboozles opposing hitters with its sharp arm-side movement. The existence of a screwball is likely insufficient for a pitcher to break into major league ranks like ‘Pitch’ suggests (opposing batters hit .297 against Hector Santiago’s screwball over the last three years).  Nonetheless, the show represents a realistic intersection of an athlete with Baker’s physical capabilities and their potential outcomes in the major league environment.

The average MLB fastball velocity was 93 MPH in 2016 and that number is rising. Pitching velocity is a product of peak power output based off of a combination of linear force and rotational torque. These are elements that are influenced by the muscle gap that exists between sexes but are no means defined by it, just ask flame-throwing stick figures like Tim Collins (160 lbs), Tim Lincecum (170 lbs) or Edwin Diaz (165 lbs). Though the focus on velocity is growing, it is certainly not a prerequisite for success, last year there were 10 MLB pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched averaging no more than 87 MPH with their fastball. Those pitchers relied on pitch sequencing, location, movement and deception for their success. If there has been a study showing a gender gap relating to these qualities, I’d love to see it.

Sarah Hudek made headlines last year as the first female college baseball player to be awarded an athletic scholarship. A lefty featuring an 82 MPH fastball may not be anything to write home about, but Hudek’s measurables compare favorably with MLB knuckleballers Steven Wright (83.2 MPH) and R.A. Dickey (82.3 MPH). Knuckleball pitchers are admittedly atypical because of their ability to rely on a single enigmatic pitch type, but that doesn’t make their physical abilities dissimilar from any other pitcher in the MLB. When it comes down to it, the only difference between these players is a pitch grip and several thousand pitches worth of practice— Not size, not linear strength and certainly not the presence of male genitalia.

If we can set aside the socially constructed hierarchy between gendered sports, there are still many barriers to entry for women athletes in male sports, but we need to stop pretending that physical talent is one of them. There are over 1,000 female baseball players in high school right now. The odds that any of them play in college, let alone any level of pro ball are slim to none. Still, if it’s just a numbers game, it is time for coaches, parents and league organizers take strides to bring those numbers up. All it takes is one girl’s hard work and stubborn refusal to accept archaic gender norms to force scouts and executives to accept elite talent, regardless of what body it is packaged in.

Nolan Watson is a senior economics major, a pitcher on the Occidental baseball team and a sports section editor for the Weekly. He can be reached at nwatson@oxy.edu.