Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Women, Education, And Baseball

There is much going on in the US right now, from the oil spill in Louisiana (horrible, devastating, especially to such a sensitive area that has been fighting to come back), the floods in Tennessee, which damaged the Grand Ole Opry, and more importantly, took lives, as well as floods in Kentucky, to the failed attack in New York.

But I am not writing about any of those issues today, except to say my heart goes out to those in the Gulf States, as well as Tennessee and Kentucky. I might add, kudos to those in New York for their quick action.

Rather, I want to mention a recent report that is a good news/bad news report that came out in April. The report, taken from Census results, claims that women are now on a par with men in advanced degrees. Wow - that is quite a step! That's the good news. Ready for the bad news? I am sure you can guess: we still don't get paid the same. Nope, different day, same result:
Women are now just as likely as men to have completed college and to hold an advanced degree, part of an accelerating trend of educational gains that have shielded women from recent job losses. Yet they continue to lag behind men in pay.

Among adults 25 and older, 29 percent of women in the U.S. have at least a bachelor's degree, compared with 30 percent of men, according to 2009 census figures released Tuesday. Measured by raw numbers, women already surpass men in undergraduate degrees by roughly 1.2 million.

Women also have drawn even with men in holding advanced degrees. Women represented roughly half of those in the U.S. with a master's degree or higher, due largely to years of steady increases in women opting to pursue a medical or law degree.

At current rates, women could pass men in total advanced degrees this year, even though they still trail significantly in several categories such as business, science and engineering.

"It won't be long before women dominate higher education and every degree level up to Ph.D.," said Mark Perry, an economics professor at the University of Michigan-Flint who is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank. "They are getting the skills that will protect them from future downturns."

While young women have been exceeding men in college enrollment since the early 1980s, the educational gains have now progressively spread upward to older age groups. That could have wide ramifications in the workplace: more working mothers, increased child-care needs and a greater focus on pay disparities among them.

Women with full-time jobs now have weekly earnings equal to 80.2 percent of what men earn, up slightly from 2008 but lower than a high of 81 percent in 2005.

So, why the continued disparity in pay, then? If we are on a par with men in terms of education, why are we not getting paid the same as they are? And if women are going to overtake men, will pay go up for women, or will it just come down for men? I guess we'll see, but it is infuriating that this disparity continues after all these years. When will the time come that women will be treated as truly equal??

And that brings me to this story. Now, you know I am a huge baseball fan, so when I saw this headline, it caught my eye,
Joe Niekro's Knuckler Lives Through Arm of 12-Year-Old Girl
. Say whaaa? How can that be? This is how:
As an organ donor, pitching great Joe Niekro left his eyes behind so another man could see. He left his liver, kidneys and heart so three others could live today.

He left a unique and special gift -- his famed knuckleball -- to a precocious little girl who could be on the verge of inspiring a whole new generation of baseball players.

Chelsea Baker, only 12, has learned to make that pitch dance, to magically make it move like a butterfly on its way to home plate, baffling and befuddling young hitters. Like Joe taught her, shortly before his death in 2006 (the two are seen in the photo above, courtesy of Rod Mason).

"Joe would be so proud, so really proud,'' said Debbie Niekro, Joe's widow who has watched Chelsea pitch several times. "He really liked Chelsea. He loved the way she listened, and learned at that age. He knew she was going to be something special.''

Niekro was 61 when he died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. At the time, he was helping coach a Little League team on which Chelsea and his own son played in his adopted hometown of Plant City.

Wow, what gifts Niekro left behind, from being an organ donor, an issue near and dear to my heart (my mom received a liver transplant almost 25 years ago, which allowed us to have her for all those years before her death in January), to coaching Little Leaguers, to treating this little girl like she was just as worthy as any of those boys on the field. That is no small thing. Nor was the way in which he inspired this little girl:
Chelsea was 8 when he died, too young to quite understand how final death would be, but old enough to understand the gift that Niekro had left her. It gave her a passion for the game, and specifically for the pitch.

"I bugged him to teach me because I never could hit that knuckleball when he would throw it to me in batting practice. He always said it was a secret, but he finally taught me, and we worked on it a lot,'' Chelsea told FanHouse last week after a game. "I love throwing it. My catcher says it's so nasty.''

And the batters can't touch it. Although there are many young girls peppered across America now playing Little League Baseball with the boys, there are only a few who can dominate as Chelsea does.

She has thrown two perfect games within the past year, including one in an All-Star Game. She is unbeaten this season in nine starts, throwing 54 innings and striking out 103 batters while allowing only four runs. She also is hitting .569, playing third base when she doesn't pitch.

"When she first came to me for instruction, I was thinking 'OK, here is a girl I can help,'' said Keith Maxwell, a hitting instructor who played 12 years of professional baseball, including five with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. "But after two weeks with her, I was like 'wow.' She has an incredible pop in her bat. She isn't just a pitcher. I thought, 'This is probably going to be the first girl to play Major League Baseball.' And I don't say that lightly.''

Holy cow, wouldn't that be SOMETHING? I would sure love to live to see that day, a woman playing in the Big Leagues. Just think about this: baseball players, football players, and basketball players make MILLIONS of dollars a year - if they are men. Women do not have access to those kinds of salaries as professional athletes with the exceptions of tennis and golf. Professional women soccer and basketball players are not signing multi-million dollar contracts right out of college, that's for sure. The disparity is glaring and extreme. For women to finally have access to those kinds of salaries would be a big deal indeed.

Back to Chelsea:
She already is being recruited to play for the Sparks, a girls baseball team based in the Northeast that tours nationally playing against the best boys teams in the country.

Chelsea, average size for a 12-year-old girl, is unusually athletic with a powerful arm and a fastball that comes close to 70 mph. Yet it's Niekro's knuckleball, and the passion he sparked, that makes her so special.

It's why in the fall, when her sixth-grade history assignment was to do a project on "Someone Who Changed The World,'' she selected Joe Niekro as her topic. She already had all his old baseball cards. She had several pictures of her and him on the baseball field together.

"I got an A on the project. The teacher told us it had to be about someone you felt strongly about,'' she said. "And I knew how famous Coach Joe was. I miss him. I remember before every game I pitched, I had to give him a kiss on the cheek before he'd give me the ball.''

Niekro pitched 22 seasons in the major leagues for seven different teams. He won 221 games. He and his brother Phil Niekro combined for 539 wins, the most of any brother tandem in history. Chelsea knows all those numbers now.

Some of his time in the Bigs was spent in Atlanta, my favorite NL team, with his brother, Phil. He and Phil were also in the Pinstripes of the New York Yankees while I was living in New York. What a career. Chelsea could tell you all about it:
She is the one who wrote the moving passage that was used as part of Niekro's obituary tribute. It brought friends and family members to tears.

"Coach Joe taught me so much in the few short years I new (sic) him. He taught me how to have pride in myself, and to be humble. Most of all, he taught me to throw his famous knuckle ball. . . . . I miss seeing him . . . . . . and his happy face at the ballpark. I will always remember and love you. – CHELSEA BAKER.''

It was also Chelsea who came to the funeral viewing services and left a baseball in Niekro's open casket. And it wasn't just any baseball, either. It was a scuffed baseball, with four tiny and barely visible fingernail marks along the seams, exactly where he taught her to grip it.

"He taught me how to hold it like this,'' she demonstrated last week. "I usually wait until I have two strikes. They can't hit it. He told me that's how it would be.''

She is merely a seventh-grader, but watching her pitch or watching her play, or hearing her speak about Niekro, she seems much older. For all her accomplishments -- she will make her sixth consecutive All-Star team in Plant City -- she is surprisingly humble.

Now THAT is something to celebrate. An accomplished athlete who makes good grades AND is humble. Wow. This pretty much says it all:
Some of her teachers at Turkey Creek Middle School don't even know she plays baseball. Most of the boys do, because they've been playing against her for several years, accepting her as one of the best. It's when she travels, as the only girl in her league, that occasionally she hears remarks about her being a girl. Mostly it's from the grandstands, from other parents.

"I still hear parents from other teams say, 'When is she going to start playing softball?' '' said stepfather Rod Mason, who helps coach her team now. "And it kind of ticks me off. So I usually just say, 'When she stops striking out your little Johnny.' ''

Well said, Mr. Mason. Well said, indeed. How fortunate Chelsea is to have such supportive people in her life:
Mason and wife Missy have followed Chelsea's baseball from the start. She started with baseball because that's what Mason's sons played. And she just happened to be so good at it.

"I've had other parents tell me now that they couldn't get their girls to practice until they saw Chelsea play,'' Mason said. "I think her success will help other girls. She's just so unbelievably focused. I never ask her to practice. But she always comes to me.''

Home-plate umpires often come to Steve Gude, manager of her team now, and apologize for missing calls when Chelsea pitches. Her knuckleball often darts out and back into the strike zone when she keeps it low -- like Coach Joe taught her.

Joe never taught her this trick, but it's one she can do if you ask. She can stand out in center field -- and her arm is so strong -- she can throw a knuckleball all the way to home plate, giggling as it flutters through the air.

"Joe was really good to her,'' Mason said. "He went out of his way to help her. He was such a giving guy with all the kids, always willing to help. But I think he knew Chelsea was kind of special."

Women are graduating with advanced degrees in equal numbers with men. Our pay still lags behind the men. Good news, bad news. And the bad news is simply unacceptable in this day and age. Women must get the same pay as their male colleagues. Women must learn to stand together and demand the same salary as the guys with whom they are graduating. It is not going to be something handed down from on high. This battle has been dragging on far too long.

But then there is Chelsea Baker, a knuckleballer who throws as hard as Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield, who can also hit, and may well be the first woman to go up to the Big Show. Oh, who is also a good student and humble to boot. Here's hoping she is one of many to shatter that glass ceiling. How ironic would that be - to have a woman in the Big Leagues before we have a woman president? Looking like that might be possible. It's a start, though, a glimmer of hope. I'll take it.


Anonymous said...

Hey Rev! There IS so much going on these days, it's nice to have a positive story! What an amazing young ballplayer, and how fortunate she's had so much support from family as well as someone like Joe Niekro. Wouldn't it be something to see a woman in the major leagues??? If more men were like Mr. Niekro I don't think that would even be an issue. Her passage in his obituary brought tears to my eyes. I think we'll be hearing a lot more about Chelsea Baker in the future.

And then there's all the rest. Women still getting paid less than men for doing the same work. Illegal immigrants wanting a free pass. Illegal immigrants on state-funded projects. Oil spill. Floods. The terrorist attack (or is it man-made disaster?) in NYC.

Sigh. I may go back into hiding and dream of Montserrat.

Rabble Rouser Reverend Amy said...

Hey, SF - I was hoping my positive story abt Chelsea would lure you out. Dang all of those other horrible events (especially the natural ones that are affecting so many people, including the oil spill) for trying to chase you back in!

You are so right - if there were more people like Niekro in the world, things would already be better for women. He didn't seem to treat her as an "almost boy," but as a girl with tremendous capabilities. Sadly, a rare commodity these days...

I was just trying to figure out how I can get down to Montserrat to start looking at houses. Seriously! I swear, we are so connected on this dream, SF!! :-)

Thanks for coming out for a little bit, and coming by here. Means a lot!