clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why 2017 was a great season: social progress

There’s still a ways to go, but 2017 was a banner year for baseball as a vehicle for positive social change.

Texas Rangers v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Now that the 2017 regular season has come to a close, we can look back on it and appreciate it fully. While we wait for the playoffs, some of our writers will be breaking down their favorite things from this year, and telling you why they made 2017 a great season.

The baseball community and the country at large have undergone incredibly challenging situations recently, situations that have revealed some dark truths about who we are as a people. Injustices have flooded the surface of this country with a voracity not seen in decades, and it has become more evident than perhaps ever before that baseball is not the respite from politics many want it to be. But it is also true that the most trying times reveal the best elements of humanity, and baseball is no exception. This season has seen a concerted effort to begin the process of including women in the sport and becoming the beacon for social change baseball should be.

Several teams have led the charge, demonstrating to their female fans that they view them as legitimate, passionate, knowledgeable fans in their own right. First, the Tigers kicked things off with their fourth annual “Women in Sports” panel, featuring women involved with all four professional Detroit sports teams. Representing the Tigers was Vice President of Public Affairs and Strategic Planning Elaine Lewis, who has been with the club since 1999. The Mariners then topped the Tigers in August, when they held an exclusively baseball-focused panel, titled “Women in Baseball Night.” The panel featured luminaries like: beat writer Shannon Drayer; Baltimore Orioles Director of Analytics Sarah Gelles; scout Amanda Hopkins; and Manager of Baseball Information Kelly Munro. Finally, to close the season, the White Sox hosted "GameChangers: Women in Baseball,” a panel featuring: Director of Marketing Beth Grabowski; Octagon Baseball Marketing and Client Coordinator Jennifer Masuda; White Sox Vice President of Community Relations Christine O’Reilly; and MLB Team Physicians Association president Dr. Kathleen Weber.

Each of these women talked poignantly about their positions and the difficulty of being a woman in a male-dominated field. But they also spoke about the necessity of having women in baseball and the places women can go when they push their way through doors. This overwhelming message of dedication and positivity was most poignantly put by Kelly Munro: “If there are doors that are open for you, go through them. And if the door is closed, knock. Keep knocking. And if it doesn’t open, find a key. Whatever you have to do, if that’s your dream and you love it, keep at it. Don’t ever give up on your dreams.”

There are many girls and young women eager to follow Munro’s advice, and this year, MLB started making it a little bit easier for them to do so. In partnership with USA Baseball, MLB launched in April the first annual Trailblazer Series, which drew almost 100 girls to California to participate in this three-day tournament. The girls learned from the best, including several members of the All-American Girls Pro Baseball League, and displayed their passion for the game to the world.

While these girls no longer have Ginny Baker (lead character of TV series “Pitch”) as a role model, they can look to Sonoma Stompers pitcher Stacy Piagno. On July 15th, Piagno made her first start for the Stompers, throwing seven innings of one-run ball to pick up her first win, just the third time a woman has recorded a victory in men’s professional baseball. More remarkably, she did so with another woman serving as her right fielder, Kelsie Whitmore, who collected her first professional hit in this same game, a single to right field. The two have gone on to compete for the US Women’s National Team, which has done a marvelous job of demonstrating that professional baseball is not just a game for men.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Texas Rangers Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

The increased inclusion of a diverse array of women was not the only instance of social progress in Major League Baseball this season. On September 23rd, Oakland A’s rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell kneeled during the national anthem, drawing baseball into the fight for Black lives—and against police brutality—that had permeated sports over the past year. Maxwell’s action alone would have been noteworthy and a remarkable instance of human courage, but the response to his kneeling is what made it truly spectacular. In the instance of kneeling, Maxwell received support from his white teammate, Mark Cahana, who placed his hand on the catcher’s shoulder. From there, Maxwell has received support from his organization, from the fanbase (which gave him a standing ovation the following game), and even from a few players outside the A’s organization like the ever-socially conscious Sean Doolittle.

Unfortunately, it’s clear that MLB still has a ways to go in this regard: other players and teams have yet to follow suit, and Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer spoke about the lack of support from his team should he ever decided to kneel, saying “from the feedback that I've gotten from my teammates I don't think it would be the best thing to do for me at this time.” The conservative world of baseball continues to be dedicated to portraying itself as apolitical. But Bruce Maxwell’s actions, and the support he has received, have increased the possibility of breaking through this façade and utilizing baseball to create positive social change, pushing it to be the inclusive sport it was in its beginning stages.

In this perpetual fight against injustice, it is crucial to highlight the problems that exist, but it is equally necessary to give thanks to those working tirelessly to combat these issues. And so as the 2017 season draws to a close, it is imperative that we once again take time to salute Stacy Piagno, Kelsie Whitmore, Bruce Maxwell, Mark Cahana, Sean Doolittle, and the organizations that support them and progress more generally, the Tigers, Mariners, White Sox, and Stompers. Each of them has set a benchmark this season for baseball’s social progress, and we can only hope the same is said of the following seasons.

Mary Craig is a baseball history enthusiast who writes about the sport’s relation to America’s political history. You can follow her on Twitter at @marymcraig.