Is baseball really so different from every other sport?

Rob Neyer

Craig Calcaterra is one of my all-time favorite people. We just sort of see most of the world in roughly the same way, I think, which makes it very easy to talk. About baseball, people, our relationships, whatever. Doesn't mean we agree about everything. Just means we can argue from some common ground, and avoid talking past one another. I do think Craig is maybe a tad more worried about offending certain sorts of people than I. Maybe it's because he runs with a younger crowd, or maybe it's because he's actually got kids and has to set a good example. Or maybe I'm just succumbing to self-righteousness. My point is really that Craig and I, given enough time, can talk anything out. I consider him a friend.

I also consider his column about women and baseball fair to me, and even-handed generally. The first time I read it, I actually mentioned on Twitter that I agreed with 99 percent of what Craig wrote.

I read it again, and I think I'm actually closer to 80 percent. This is the passage that gave me pause:

Beyond knuckleballers? That’s where the institutional barriers come in, I think. Could top woman athletes who now focus on, say, track and field, basketball, soccer, weightlifting or other sports where women can compete on elite levels make it to the bigs if they were able to play baseball against top competition from age 10 through age 18 and beyond? As of now, we can’t know, because that just doesn’t happen. At all. But even with those physiological differences mentioned above, I think it’s silly to say that no one would make it through and be able to compete. In some ways it’s like saying “no Indian people can play baseball” based on the example of Dinesh and Rinku. They were novelties in some way, sure, and they didn’t make the bigs. But does that say more about Indians or does it say more about their access to and development in a baseball culture that encourages them.

So, yes, I think women could play major league baseball. To the extent people say they couldn’t, I think that says more about the culture we have which doesn’t allow us, for various reasons, to picture it happening.

I certainly would not say they couldn't, and in fact I haven't seen anyone saying they couldn't. Not for the public record, anyway. Frankly, I have no idea. I do think it could happen while I'm alive, which would be a pretty thrilling and wonderful day.

Still, I'm intrigued by this sentence: "Could top woman athletes who now focus on, say, track and field, basketball, soccer, weightlifting or other sports where women can compete on elite levels make it to the bigs if they were able to play baseball against top competition from age 10 through age 18 and beyond? As of now, we can’t know, because that just doesn’t happen."

The implication, I think, by Craig and many others, is that if there were fewer barriers for women in baseball, they ultimately would compete at the highest levels. But look what Craig wrote about those other sports; doesn't that actually hurt his case, rather than helping it? None of those sports feature women competing against men on elite levels. And in some of them -- basketball, soccer, and distance running come to mind -- there aren't nearly the societal barriers that presumably exist in baseball.

So here's my question ... What makes baseball different, competitively, from every single other sport? Why would we expect women in Major League Baseball, absent barriers, when we've not seen women seriously competing with the best men in the NFL, the NBA, the PGA, the MLS, or in marathons?

Is it all about barriers? There have certainly been barriers to women in professional poker, and yet Annie Duke has won millions of dollars playing against top competition. There have certainly been barriers in horse-racing, and yet Julie Krone won 3,704 races (including a Triple Crown event).

And if it's not the barriers, do we think that in 10 years, there will be women in Major League Soccer? Do we think that in 10 years, women will running marathons as fast as men?

I don't know. I just think it's odd that baseball seems to be held apart from every other athletic endeavor that emphasizes speed and strength and the rest, as if the usual rules just don't apply.

p.s. I'm not going to engage in further discussion on Twitter, because there's just not enough room for complete thoughts on what seems a divisive and complicated subject. But I'm happy to discuss in the comments, civilly.