The long, cold weather is breaking at last and soon the bats will take the diamond.
My reporters are looking forward to the spring season. But talking about it this past week, we stumbled on a question: Why don’t our high schools have co-ed baseball teams, or for that matter why are co-ed softball teams unthinkable under the current varsity model?
We see girls rise up each summer through area tee ball and flag football leagues. Once they hit junior high, the girls are expected to slide into gender-segregated teams. Sure, from time to time a girl will convince coaches to let them break into token spots on “boys” teams — think Kiah Fields on the Phoenix football team or Kaitlin Vough on the Oberlin wrestling squad.
I’m baffled as to why crossovers are non-existent when it comes to running the bases. Baseball and softball are non-contact sports characterized by individual performances. They are pitchers’ battles and runner showdowns. They pit one batter at a time against the field. There is nothing in the mix that strikes me as being gender-limited. I have no doubts that Amherst’s Madison O’Berg could keep pace with the guys, or that Wellington’s Brooklinn Damiano would have trouble keeping up her average against boys.
Softball was invented in 1887 to be played indoors. It wasn’t intended to be a kinder, gentler game for ladies, yet that’s how it skewed in an age of sexist social roles.
There’s no physiological reason for the gender split that I can think of. Girls pitch underhand out of tradition, not because they lack muscle. If you think “throwing like a girl” is a bad thing, you clearly haven’t been clocking our local fastpitch stars. And you certainly weren’t watching Keystone’s Sammie Stefan play — she graduated last year after knocking in nine homers, 53 RBIs and 47 runs for the Wildcats.
The Keystone girls are legendary in Ohio. They‘re praised in a feature article written several years back for the OHSAA website by author Timothy Hudak. At the time of the article’s publication, the ‘Cats had the winningest softball team in the state, largely due to Dave Leffew, who coached the team from 1980 to 1999 and elevated top-rate pitchers. Since his departure, the program has not waned. It’s produced All-Ohio pitchers Brittany Robinson and Kristie Malinkey, for example — in 2006, Malinkey was the first girl to pitch a perfect game in a state championship final.
So why are girls held apart from boys? Is the baseball/softball divide sexist?
Of course it is. In 1972, the federal government’s Title IX demanded that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” But rather than integrated teams, the law was interpreted to mean high school sports could be divided into “separate but equal” rosters.
Today we have separate but equal high school basketball, soccer, track, tennis, golf, cross country, and swimming teams. We have male-gendered football, wrestling, volleyball, and hockey teams with no female counterparts. On the other side, many schools offer only girls volleyball. And for some reason no one has been able to explain to me, we have separate boys and girls bowling teams. There has been some crossover in the areas of gymnastics and cheerleading as boys become more involved.
Many of our local female stars go on to play in college, but we still don’t see much in the way of professional women’s sports. Sure, we’re seeing amazing athletes right now in the Winter Olympics: Who would say U.S. skier Mikaela Shiffrin, hockey player Meghan Agosta, or snowboarder Chloe Kim lack talent? Every two years, we tune in to the Olympics to see amazing female athletes, then allow them to fade into obscurity (unless they score a modeling contract or acting gig). There’s still no Major League Softball or National Women’s Football League in prime time. And the WNBA, still limping along, never found popularity rivaling the NBA.
I like watching the Cleveland Indians as much as anyone (I’ve given up on the Browns, but that’s a different story). Yet I’ll admit I probably wouldn’t spend big cash to attend a pro softball game, which makes me part of the problem, too.
So what can we do? I don’t see the high school athletics system changing anytime soon, not without a major shift in attitudes. From where I sit, the reasons we split up the boys and girls is all in our heads.