Upon RBG's passing, a meditation on my middle school baseball team

September 20, 2020

The afternoon of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing, my social media feeds erupted in a cacophony of RIPs, Holy Shits, I’m Frighteneds, and a couple dudes very helpfully explaining Actually You Are Unsophisticated If You Think This Is A Big Deal.

I went through some scattered emotions, during which I sent a few texts and read a few reactions before realizing I was starting to spiral and stopped. Shortly after I put away my computer and phone, while privately contemplating Ginsburg’s legacy, I experienced an intensely clear vision of my middle school baseball team. Here's why.

I played high-level baseball in San Francisco from tee ball up through high school, and throughout middle school played for my school as a supplement to my more-competitive public recreation league team. My school team, as with the league we played in, had an extremely wide talent range. I was near the top of that range, among the few players who would go on to play high school ball with and against college and pro prospects, but there were also good athletes dabbling in baseball as something to do after basketball season, and there were kids playing on organized teams for the first time in their lives.

Mostly, I pitched or played shortstop. The second-best pitcher and infielder on the team, our starting second baseman and No. 2 pitcher, was Sandra (not her real name).

Sandra and I had both gone to the school since kindergarten. We played on the same soccer team for a few years, and her best sport was basketball — her NBA analogue was probably someone like Fred Van Vleet in that she played point and was small and compact, even for girls her age, yet did everything well. But she was also probably our school’s second-most-valuable baseball player.

The main thing I remember about Sandra on the field or court, no matter the sport, was a sense she had pride and confidence in her abilities that didn’t verge into swagger, but that she always backed up. In the infield, she was fundamentally sound and had sure hands. On the mound, she was a soft-tosser who pounded the bottom of the zone and had enough of a slurve to keep hitters off balance at that level. She didn’t have much power at the plate, but she had a decent eye, and because she had a small strike zone, I remember she got on base quite a bit, where she was a quick and savvy baserunner.

And maybe it was because we were at a progressively-minded private school in San Francisco in the late 1990s, but all of this was completely normal and accepted. I don’t remember anyone ever suggesting Sandra shouldn’t play on the baseball team because she was a girl, or anyone even questioning if she deserved her spot in the lineup. She could play, she wanted to play, she did, and the boys saw her as an equal teammate who earned her spot through her play.

This story does not have a heartwarming ending. Sandra and I went to the same Catholic high school, too, the only two kids from our grade school in that class. While we stuck near each other in the first few days, we found new friends, eventually she transferred, and we haven’t had any contact since.

That freshman year, out on the track, we saw each other and our conversation turned to baseball. She hadn’t gone out for the baseball team, choosing to play softball instead. I don’t remember if she asked, but I did tell her she probably could've played on the freshman team, though it would’ve been a long shot for her to play on junior varsity, let alone varsity. We didn’t talk about the social ramifications of trying out for baseball, but in retrospect, knowing how that school was at that time, there would have been significant resistance and cruelty. Maybe she’d inquired about it and gotten a clear message. I do remember she was ambivalent about softball, lamenting that it was a completely different game.

All that’s to say that Justice Ginsburg’s efforts to ensure gender equality under the law undeniably improved life in the United States in dramatic ways, but also in smaller ways like creating legal and social space for my middle school baseball team’s unequivocal acceptance of a female teammate. However, our high school experience also illustrates that despite de jure equality of opportunity, there are still de facto obstacles presented to girls’ and gender-nonconforming individuals' participation in sports and other activities that boys do not face.

History and progress aren’t neat and tidy. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t happen on its own. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was absurdly talented and brilliant, but she didn’t dedicate her life to being right; whatever you think of her accomplishments and legacy, she was determined to improve the lot of others and followed through on that work for the bulk of her life. May we all achieve a semblance of that moral clarity and conviction.

(There are several organizations that advocate for girls who want to play baseball. One with messaging that’s resonated with me is Baseball for All.)

(Photo: “2020.09.19 Vigil for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Washington, DC USA 263 96288” by Ted Eytan. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.)