Yogi Berra, baseball’s master of malapropisms, once uttered the immortal words, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” If Yogi were still among the living, he would probably say the same about the big ballyhoo over women in baseball.
Last year I posted an article on Kelsie Whitmore (see “Kelsie Whitmore Proves Less Is More” posted on August 13, 2022), who had signed a professional contract with the minor league Staten Island Ferry Hawks. If you don’t want to read the article, the bottom line was she played rarely and without distinction, which would have meant a total lack of media interest if she were male.
Kelsie Whitmore was a media darling for…well, you know the drill: Being a pioneer, making history, being stunning and brave, etc.
Inexplicably, given her 2022 performance, Kelsie Whitmore is back with the Ferry Hawks in 2023. Perhaps they took a look at the talent on hand and figured they didn’t have a chance to compete for the Atlantic League championship (as in 2022, they are at the bottom of their division), so why not reserve a roster spot for Kelsie Whitmore? Again, her playing time is limited (as of May 11th, she has come to bat just three times and is still looking for her first hit in pro ball). The media attention has tailed off, but not to worry. The media have a new darling: Olivia Pichardo.
As was the case with Kelsie Whitmore, a team going nowhere chose to add a female to the roster to get some good public relations. This time around, it is a collegiate team: the Brown University Bears of Providence, Rhode Island. Freshman Olivia Pichardo showed up at a fall tryout and made the team. Head coach Grant Achilles said, “Olivia put together the most complete walk-on tryout I have ever seen from a player since becoming a head coach .” Since only one other player tried out for him in the fall of 2022, I can only wonder how many players he’s auditioned.
As an Ivy League school, Brown is forbidden to dole out athletic scholarships – at least not officially. I’m sure that the needs-based scholarship committee considers athletic participation when they peruse the extracurricular activities of applicants.
Nevertheless, high school baseball studs are likely to look elsewhere when shopping for colleges. A ballplayer with an outstanding academic record can apply to elite warm-weather schools (e.g., Rice, Stanford, or Vanderbilt) and possibly get an athletic scholarship. That limits the talent pool for the Ivies. Consequently, Ivy League grads in major league ball are rare. The last Brown alum was shortstop Bill Almon. He was a real outlier, as he was also the No. 1 amateur draft pick in 1974 and made his debut after just 39 games in the minors. He went on to play 15 seasons.
Curiously, Ivy League baseball teams are classified as Division I (out of three divisions) by the NCAA. Typically, they schedule fewer games than other D-1 schools. Brown, for example, played 38 games in 2023. D-I teams usually schedule around 55 games.
Despite the asterisk that should accompany Ivy League baseball, the media have made a big deal about Olivia Pichardo playing Division I ball. This makes it seem as though she is playing at the highest level of college competition, which is technically true but not the truth.
Since it is difficult for ballplayers to perform in freezing temperatures (and few fans would show up if they did), the Ivy League schools typically start the season in tournaments at warmer climes and schedule away games with southern schools.
This year Brown, for example, played ten games below the Mason-Dixon Line before they played at their home park, Attanasio (named after the alum who currently owns the Milwaukee Brewers) Family Field at Murray Stadium. The Bears’ home opener was on March 17, roughly a month before the average last frost in Providence. Opening day was damp and chilly, and only 115 fans were on hand to see baseball history. This was the day Olivia Pichardo made her debut as the first-ever female player in Division I history.
It was not a particularly memorable appearance. Sent up to pinch-hit in the 9th inning with the Bears losing 10-1 to the Bryant University Bulldogs, she swung at the first pitch and grounded out to the first baseman. Having entered the history books, she did not play the rest of the season. Since the Bears finished the season with a 12-26 record (the NCAA ranked them 280 out of 305 D-1 schools), there were surely other low-risk opportunities to put her into a game. In fairness, playing time for freshmen is usually minimal unless they are exceptional (in days of old, freshmen had separate teams).
So who is this bench-warmer who made sports headlines nationwide?
Pichardo stands 5’7” and weighs 155, pretty good size for a freshman female but only an inch taller than the Houston Astros’ Jose Altuve, the smallest man in major league ball today. She is listed as a utility player in the roster posted on the Brown web site.
Now I’m not going to give you all the details of her background. If you’re curious, you can consult her web site, oliviabaseball.com, and read all about her baseball odyssey. It’s a comprehensive résumé that goes back to her Little League days. She says nothing remotely controversial and claims her biggest kick is being an inspiration to younger female ballplayers (at least she doesn’t drag out the tired old “if they see it they can be it” trope), but if I read between the lines accurately, it seems she’s angling for a future front office job (she’s majoring in business at Brown) after she graduates. If the whole thing strikes you as self-centered, maybe even narcissistic, remember: This is a woman’s space. A young woman’s space.
During her freshman year, Brown Bears baseball attracted far more media attention than the team warranted. The entire university basks in the reflected glory. After all, any university can have a trans male on a women’s sports team but Brown has a biological female on a men’s sports team! Now that’s progressive! And on top of all that, she’s a Latina! Wow! She’s really making history…admittedly at a time when history no longer means the chronology, description, and analysis of eras and events, but a woman boldly going where no woman has gone before…though thousands of men have been there and done that.
Once the 2023 Brown season was over, the media’s focus on Pichardo didn’t stop. But this time there was a major hiccup, the kind that is accompanied with acid reflux.
On May 3rd, before the Red Sox-Blue Jays game at Fenway Park in Boston, Olivia Pichardo was invited to throw out the first ball.
Now throwing out the first pitch is not reserved for men only. It’s not unusual for a woman or even a child to be selected for this honor. But never before in baseball history had a female D-I college baseball player been accorded this honor. So attention must be paid! And it was.
Actually, Pichardo had performed the same duty for the New York Mets (her hometown team, as she hails from Queens) on their first-ever Women’s Day on August 10, 2022. At the time she was not yet a Brown student but a summer intern in the Mets front office. Apparently, that first-pitch episode went off without a hitch. That was not the case at Fenway Park.
All she had to do was lob the ball from the pitcher’s mound to the Red Sox player behind home plate. Not even remotely challenging for a Division I college player, right?
Pichardo wound up and let loose, uncorking a wild pitch way out of the reach of her batterymate. “You throw like a girl” might have been the first thought to pop into one’s head, but that would not be accurate. Most girls wouldn’t have missed the mark as badly as Pichardo did. Too much Brownian motion on that pitch, maybe?
Granted, Olivia Pichardo, despite all the media attention, was not used to performing in front of large crowds. When she threw out that first pitch in New York last summer, she had not begun her college career so she was a relative unknown. Now her public profile was much higher, so she might have had a case of stage fright…Even so, a drunken knuckleball pitcher in a windstorm could have done better.
It was an object lesson in how quickly a carefully crafted narrative can unravel. After all that media hoopla about breaking barriers and making history, she flopped when the cameras were on her. It was not so much that she embarrassed herself, but that she embarrassed the media talking heads and typists who had been praising her for months. Was the media’s narrative all wrong? If so, what about some of their other narratives? Hmmmmmm.
There was a time when such an embarrassment could be kept under wraps. Newspaper editors could spike the story. Newsreels could judiciously edit the footage. A radio broadcaster could make like Bob Uecker in the movie Major League and describe the pitch as “Juuuuust a bit outside.” Those days are long gone.
Red Sox games are broadcast on NESN (New England Sports Network) so Red Sox Nation got an eyeful. Once seen, Pichardo’s gaffe could not be unseen. NESN and numerous fans with smart phones video recorded the event for posterity. Naturally, comments were posted at Twitter and a lot of them were, let’s say, less than complimentary. So what did NESN do?
They shut down the Twitter comments!
Turning off the comments section is often recommended to content creators with thin skins. Typically, negative comments in response to any sort of female empowerment video would be dismissed as the work of trolls at best, or misogynists at worst.
Now there are plenty of videos of men – even high-status men – embarrassing themselves with errant first-pitches bouncing in the dirt, sailing over the catcher and hitting the backstop, or whatever. No comment turn-offs for you guys.
When a man makes an ass of himself, he must face the music. Not so for the likes of Olivia Pichardo. But keep in mind that she didn’t shut off the comments section, NESN did. And I’m betting that the decision to do that was probably made by a man. If so, it goes to show that chivalry is not dead.
Well, I don’t know what the future holds for Olivia Pichardo. Given her freshman stats, I don’t think she has to worry about a sophomore slump. Brown cannot squeeze much more PR mojo out of her presence. It is questionable if she deserves a roster spot if better players, presumably men, show up for the tryout next year. I would not want to be in the coach’s shoes (or is it spikes?) in the event he decides to drop her from the roster.
Actually, I don’t think Olivia Pichardo will garner much media attention after this year. The media will find another darling. Maybe Dylan Mulvaney will sign with a team in the WNBA. Maybe the NFL will hire a female to hold the ball for field goal kickers. Maybe the NHL will hire a figure skater. Maybe a female rugby player (Brown actually has a women’s team) will suit up for a men’s team. Gang bang! Gang bang!
Now there is the possibility that one day she may follow the Kelsie Whitmore career curve and sign with an independent minor league team. Or she might find a job as a coach. Like I said earlier, I think she’s on the lookout for a front office job.
Personally, I would like to see the Chicago Cubs hire Olivia Pichardo after she completes her studies at Brown. They could use a she-Bear to serve as den mother and give all the Cubbies a big Bear hug.
Whoops! Did I just engage in sex role stereotyping?
A thousand pardons.