Take me out to the new ball game

Picture this: A cool summer breeze wanders in off the Cape Cod coast as I walk across the grass-for-bleachers baseball field in a small town called Orleans.
This is not a fancy new stadium and there are no multi-millionaire players here. But it is the game of all time: boys vs. girls.
Behind my shades I watch the two teams warm up before 7,000 fans, most of them from the small town. For days, local townsfolk and sports writers have talked endlessly about the lopsided matchup. Boys, of course, are favored to win.
Here’s a sketch of the lineup. The boys’ team is a group of elite college baseball players from across the nation who normally compete in Cape Cod’s summer league. The girls’ team is Colorado’s Silver Bullets, the first professional female baseball team since World War II.
I go buy a 50-cent coffee and sit my rear down on a blanket, ready to enjoy the game. I’m surrounded by skepticism of the Bullets, most of it coming from some of the other college players who are sitting this game out.
I cheer loudly every time a gal gets a hit and grumble every time I hear a man laugh. Those around me admit these women on the team are respectable athletes, but even I realize that the growing gap on the scoreboard is getting painfully large.
Then, it happens. A Silver Bullets player, Kim Braatz, hits one out — going, going, gone — 10 feet over the fence; she was the first player to hit a homer for the Bullets.
The crowd breaks into a loud cheer and the Bullets go crazy because they know Braatz has just made a history. (Not to mention she won herself a Lexus, the prize for the first Bullets’ player to accomplish the feat.) But amid the cheers, I hear condolences for the pitcher.
Pitcher Pete Princi will forever be known in Cape Cod as the guy who gave up a home run to a girl.
Ooh, it felt good.
It was one of those moments when you stop and think about how our society has come so far, but yet, not very far at all. After all, this was only last summer.
It angers me to hear people say that women will never be the athletic equal of men, either in terms of ability or entertainment value. It only seems this assumption is true because women are just getting their foot in the door.
One of the door-stoppers is supposed to be Title IX, the national law prohibiting gender discrimination by schools that get federal funding. The problem is that virtually every school has either ignored it or moved like a turtle to comply with it.
That’s why a group of women at the University of Minnesota-Duluth are suing for a lack of scholarships. The Duluth campus spent 16 percent of its athletic scholarship money for women’s teams in 1995, despite the fact that women make up 33 percent of the schools’ varsity athletes.
Nationally, the University of Minnesota campuses are ahead of the game. We should be proud that our Twin Cities campus is about where it should be — 55-45 percent breakdown of men and women athletes for next year.
But at other campuses, you’d never know Title IX has been in place for 25 years. While the number of women college athletes rose 16 percent during the last five years, the percentage of money going into men’s and women’s programs hasn’t changed.
According to statistics, inequality is rampant, but unfortunately it takes a lawsuit these days to make things happen.
Women can excel as athletes. But you’ll never know how good they can be until girls are given a chance to play with the same support as boys.
Consider Kim Braatz and the rest of the Silver Bullets. It amazes me these women are so talented, considering how many of them had to start out on a Bobby Sox softball team. How many little girls do you think play on Little League baseball teams across the nation? These women have overcome huge obstacles in just gaining access.
And women are not just playing baseball. Women’s basketball is making daring leaps and bounds, with two professional leagues starting up, including the Women’s NBA (now with our former coach Linda Hill-McDonald).
Another first this year is the opening season of professional women’s fast-pitch softball. And last week, the St. Paul Saints announced they’re giving pitcher Ila Borders the opportunity to try out for the team. If she makes a deal, she’ll be the first female baseball player to play in a professional men’s league.
Women, it seems, are breaking out of the mold and proving that they can be good competitors, even outside the realm of traditional “feminine” sports like figure skating and tennis.
Even in the Olympics, women are arguably much more visible than men. Think of how many female gymnasts you can name and how many male gymnasts. How many female swimmers and divers? How many female track competitors? OK, you’re getting the idea now — women are exciting to watch.
So why are we so slow to allow women to play?
Some say women’s sports don’t generate enough income, so they don’t deserve as much scholarship money. They argue it’s capitalism, as explained by supply and demand.
Well, let’s see; if we played by those rules, than basically we’d have a men’s football, basketball, and hockey program.
Is that all we need at this University?
Consider John Roethlisberger, gymnastics, and Brandon Paulson, wrestling — both competed in non-revenue-generating sports at the University before going on to successful Olympic competition last summer.
The purpose of college athletics is not solely to make money — that’s what sets it apart from professional sports. College athletics is about producing winning teams and giving athletes a chance to train for a professional career.
For women, training for a professional career usually ends here, on this campus. While Gophers baseball players may work hard all season, looking forward to the draft, Gophers softball players don’t have those options — at least, until now.
As long as campuses keep their doors — and their money — open to women’s athletics, we can anticipate seeing just how good women can be on the real playing field.
The future of women’s access to sports hinges, as it always has, on the gatekeepers.
Who are they? One gatekeeper may be the coach of your local Little League team who doesn’t think girls should play baseball with boys. Another may be the administrator on campus who is slow to comply with Title IX. Another is a financial backer like Coors, who decides to sponsor an all-female baseball team.
There are informal gatekeepers, like parents, who don’t think of enlisting their daughters in anything but piano and ballet lessons. There are people like me, members of media organizations, who devote 15 seconds of a 5-minute TV sports segment to women’s competitions.
Across the nation, in Little League, in the expansion of college women’s athletics and in the creation of women’s professional sports, women are fighting for the right to play.
And what can I do about it? I’ll be cheering people on like Kim Braatz and Ila Borders, and I’ll be watching these gatekeepers — impatiently.

Sara Goo’s column appears every Tuesday. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected]
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