MLB's response to beaning allegations shows baseball isn't just for the boys

A horrifying story out of New Hampshire highlights the struggles girls and women continue to face while merely trying to be accepted in sports.

Last week, the Fosters Daily Democrat, a paper covering parts of New Hampshire and Maine, reported that two youth baseball coaches were accused of planning to have one of the their pitchers hit an 11-year-old girl in the head in order to intimidate her into quitting their league. Dan Klein, the father of the girl, made the claim to officials in the Oyster River Youth Association after two other coaches told him they overheard the conversation during the league's draft at a local restaurant. Klein says his daughter is the only girl in the league and was drafted last. The league's board is currently investigating the incident, and local police are aware of the allegations.

If true, these claims are disturbing on multiple levels, not the least of which is the planned use of violence against a child of any gender for any reason. But the nefarious motivation behind this alleged scheme further demonstrates how dangerous it can be to be a girl in a space traditionally occupied by boys.

According to Tony Reagins, executive vice president of baseball and softball development at Major League Baseball (and former general manager of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim), the league has reached out to USA Baseball to further look into the claims on the local level. Reagins stressed that the league is still in the process of finding out exactly what happened but called for decisive action if the claims are confirmed. "If what is reported is factual, it's just not acceptable, and I would go so far as to recommend that those coaches that were involved in this be removed," he said.

Amid its push to make baseball more inclusive to girls, it's meaningful that MLB is acting swiftly in this extreme case. It sends a message that the most powerful league in the sport doesn't think baseball is just for the boys.

For the past two years, baseball's governing bodies, led by MLB, have acted on commitments to expand opportunities for girls in baseball, most recently highlighted by this past weekend's Trailblazer Series, an all-girls tournament held in Compton, California, in partnership with USA Baseball. In June, MLB and USA Baseball will host a new program for girls in the Breakthrough Series, a development camp in which girls under 17 will be trained and scouted by MLB teams.

"Girls want to play baseball," Reagins said. "Whether they play with boys or play with girls, we want to allow them the opportunity to play, because they want to and they choose to."

According to Fosters Daily Democrat, Klein's daughter has played T-ball and baseball in the league since 2012, "mostly without incident." Klein said his daughter used to have several girl teammates who have since switched to softball.

That dynamic brings up a separate yet related issue -- the steering of girls to softball rather than baseball. "The conventional wisdom is that baseball is for boys and men, and softball is for girls and women," Emma Span wrote in the New York Times in 2014. "But women have been playing baseball since long before they had the right to vote." Similar to the assumption that women tennis players can't complete five sets, the assumption that women and girls can't throw a hardball overhand is rooted in antiquated notions of the "delicate" nature of women's bodies. Women and girls like Serena Williams and Mo'ne Davis continue to disprove this.

Getting more girls into baseball isn't just about expanding playing opportunity -- it's also about creating a welcoming environment for girls in this space. To that end, MLB's response to the New Hampshire incident has been certainly encouraging. "This specific situation really speaks to the adults in the room," Reagins said. "These coaches that wanted to bean this young lady, that really speaks to their character, it really speaks to their leadership, when they should be focusing on instruction and sportsmanship."

Girls who play on boys' teams in any sport will continue to get bullied until the broader culture changes in sports. A league like MLB taking the lead on inclusiveness, both through development and discipline, can go a long way toward shifting long-standing attitudes on the place of girls in sports. Bullying doesn't have to reach the extreme level of headhunting to work against the end-goal of broadening baseball's reach.

"Even in isolation, that could lend itself to things happening on a bigger level, and it's just not something that we want as a part of our game," Reagins said. "Everybody deserves a right to play the game that they want to."

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