Stacey May Fowles is Toronto-based novelist.
When a baseball miracle happened last weekend – the return of Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman, who tore up his knee before the season started and whose post-surgical comeback to a team in a pennant race is nothing short of cinematic – you may have missed another debut: Tarheel, a pink-haired doll that Stroman had been carrying with him everywhere.
In the time-honoured tradition of sports hazing, veteran pitchers Mark Buehrle and LaTroy Hawkins asked a number of young players to carry around stuffed toys, or face a hefty fine if caught without them.
The idea of a rookie carrying around a doll to prove himself appears innocuous, hazing has a long tradition of being vile, violent, and often inherently sexist. It's a top-down tradition that those initiated are largely powerless to speak out against.
Hazing puts new players in their place, humiliates them and reinforces the understanding that they're at the bottom of the hierarchy, and that more senior players call the shots.
In February, retired catcher and Jays analyst Gregg Zaun actually called for more hazing in the name of forced respect, recalling a time when Cal Ripken and other teammates allegedly stripped him, bound him with tape, wrote "rookie" in pink on his forehead, and poured a bucket of ice down his shorts.
While it would seem most pro-players have moved on from the restraints, beatings and "iced genitals" of yore (barring this month's display of Red Sox rookie Henry Owens being gagged and taped to a pole in his home dugout,) sports culture still maintains that a good way to demean a player is to demand that he act in a way our that culture has deemed as "girly."
In 2011, after a game at Fenway, then-rookie Blue Jay Brett Lawrie was asked to don a pink tutu and leotard. Former Phillies pitcher Michael Stutes wore a pink feather boa for much of his first season, while the Padres have a history of making newbies put on dresses and Hooters uniforms. Rookies have carried little girls' backpacks to tote around supplies, emblazoned with Hello Kitty, Dora the Explorer and other bright-pink imagery stereotypically associated with little girls.
"It's just one more way to get at your rookie," then-Mets pitcher Tim Byrdak told The New York Times in 2011. "You have to walk all the way across the field to get to the bullpen, so you make the rookie carry this pink bag, and you can kind of humiliate him."
How exactly do we explain to little girls watching baseball that players are being degraded by wearing signifiers traditionally meant for them? And when teams dress players up "like women" with the purpose of pointing and laughing at them, doesn't that just confirm retrograde ideas that stereotypical feminization is somehow dehumanizing? Whether we like it or not, this kind of hyper-masculine jock culture is sending the dangerous message that being feminine is the most embarrassing thing you can be.
In most functional workplaces, you introduce the new guy to the team by sending an all-staff e-mail and taking him out for lunch, so why should pro sports be an exception? While some may argue that assigning a stuffed toy to a rookie is a harmless gesture, no one should ever be humiliated on the job as a rite of passage.
Whatever seemingly kindly form it takes, hazing is outdated and offensive, and should be banned by Major League Baseball, if only to send a message that there's nothing shameful about "acting like a girl."