Stacey May Fowles is a Toronto-based writer.
For Toronto Blue Jays fans, Friday's home opener is a time for genuine optimism. Baseball is back in Canada, we're back at the ballpark, and we can all dream of another October.
Yet just three games into the 2016 season, a reminder of sexism and homophobia derailed those good feelings. Manager John Gibbons made a controversial comment about the team coming out in dresses, a "joke" intended to condemn a newly implemented slide rule that cost them a win. (Sportsnet analyst Gregg Zaun added that baseball was turning into a "sissy game.") When questioned, Mr. Gibbons was unapologetic, responding that the world needs to "lighten up."
It was a disappointing, gendered jab that undermined the organization's attempts to appeal to a wider audience. But for Major League Baseball overall, there's reason to believe antiquated attitudes are slowly on their way out.
Last Sunday, 35-year-old Jessica Mendoza started her full-season stint as an ESPN analyst. The former Olympic softball player was the first woman ever to call a postseason game, replacing Curt Schilling after he was suspended for comparing Muslims to Nazis. Though the online reaction to Ms. Mendoza has been a visceral lesson in sports misogyny, she's here to stay, and her talent has provoked the excitement of a group of fans that felt previously excluded.
Ms. Mendoza made her debut in 2015, the same year the Mariners brought Amanda Hopkins on board, believed to be the first full-time female scout hired by a major league team in 60 years. The year also marked the introduction of Justine Siegal to the Oakland A's, the first female MLB coach. These may seem like small gestures, but they're inspiring moves that go a long way with female fans, tired of seeing the male-dominated status quo year after year.
When it comes to LGBT inclusion, the MLB is making small but notable strides as well. Though homophobia certainly still lurks in clubhouse culture, this year the league announced a new partnership with the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, encouraging businesses with at least 51-per-cent LGBT ownership to become official MLB suppliers. Detroit and Oakland had their first ever Pride Nights in 2015, and the Mets announced their own for this August, the first by any professional New York sports franchise. It's time for Toronto, a city that boasts the largest Pride celebration in North America, to follow suit.
Last year the MLB also announced its new domestic violence policy – and thus far has shown itself to be serious about implementing it. Yankees pitcher Aroldis Chapman was suspended for 30 games without pay after allegedly choking his girlfriend and admitting to firing his gun eight times. Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson spoke to the media in support of the new policy and relayed his own personal experience growing up in an environment of domestic violence. It was a gesture that effectively humanized the issue and vitally centred survivors in the conversation.
A few hires, some theme nights and intolerance for violence may seem inconsequential, but sports tends to move at a glacial pace when compared with societal attitudes. With the new season upon us, these trailblazing moves are something to get cautiously excited about when faced with the sexist statements this week from Mr. Gibbons and Mr. Zaun.
Together they reveal a momentum that's not only good for the league but good for fans who want to see themselves – and their beliefs – reflected in the game.