“Baseball Life Advice” Deftly Covers Baseball’s Heights, Depths

Baseball Life Advice doesn’t shy away from difficult questions. (via Alexis Brudnicki)

Every day in baseball brings a chance for something new and exciting, an occurrence to talk about and focus on, to share and enjoy. Stacey May Fowles’ latest book, Baseball Life Advice: Loving the Game That Saved Me offers exactly that. Fowles, an award-winning novelist who has published three novels and serves as a columnist for several outfits, including the Globe and Mail, Blue Jays Nation, and Open Book Toronto (she also is co-editor of Best Canadian Sports Writing), extended her weekly Baseball Life Advice email newsletter into a book (out today) to dive into pools of information that baseball fans have, but haven’t yet fully investigated.

In case you’re not familiar with Fowles’ weekly newsletter, she tackles a topic for which she wants to dispense life advice, or sometimes share an uplifting story. The main recurring sections include “Baseball Feelings I’m Having,” “What I’m Reading,” and the send-off, “Obligatory Picture of a Baseball Player With an Adorable Animal.” It’s the former, “Baseball Feelings I’m Having,” that has seemingly fueled the drive to write the collection of essays that form Baseball Life Advice the book.

Many of the essays carefully cover taboo topics that make far-too-brief appearances in baseball writing, and somehow make them acceptable – even desirable – to want to ask more questions and demand further answers. Those lessons and perspectives certainly aren’t always positive, as Fowles points out in her chapters on sexism, domestic violence in Major League Baseball, cheating and performance enhancing drugs, anxiety, injuries, and mental health. But they are, as she points out, important and in need of more light being shed upon them.

She argues that baseball doesn’t always recognize its audience, has a disconnect in its coverage and punishment of players who commit criminal injustices, and that its fans can move forward without forgetting. She also attests that it is acceptable to recognize a player’s attractiveness without taking away from one’s intrinsic knowledge for the game, that booing is unacceptable, and that it is appropriate – and gratifying – to go to the ballpark alone.

Fowles gives perspective on the game from a view not often seen a voice barely ever heard, with an exceptional voice on topics where she speaks from longstanding experience. Some of her experiences can seem heartbreaking, but she has the ability to offer hope in these moments, providing examples of perseverance while sharing in some of the undesirable sides of the sport. Breaking barriers doesn’t prove too difficult a task for the Toronto native, who understands that gender transcends the game but won’t stop until that understanding becomes widespread.

I certainly don’t deny that some people go to games simply to have a drink or two and people-watch, and I don’t deny that some of those people are women (nor do I think there’s anything wrong with that). What is important here is to recognize and call out the emphasis we put on supposed female ignorance, disinterest, and frivolity when we talk about female baseball fandom, and the way we exclude women from the larger dialogue as a consequence. Every fan’s personal experience of the game is different, regardless of gender, and the stereotypes we reinforce only limit and harm the overall community. It surely couldn’t have been hard for a reporter to find a quotable female fan who could talk complex stats, or who had more than a passing interest in the game, instead of focusing solely on attendees who confirmed the expectations of the status quo.

Men go to the ballpark with an assumed knowledge and interest, whereas women need to constantly demonstrate how much they know and care. A radically different take on the Ipsos-Reid survey is that maybe, despite the hostility female fans encounter every time we go to the ballpark or read the sports pages, we’re making a bold attempt to secure a spot for ourselves in a culture that has omitted us. Despite what sports culture may believe, many women deeply love what has long been considered a man’s game, and the time is overdue for the gatekeepers of fandom to accept, support, and welcome this growing audience, and for sports media to report on them in a non-biased way.”

For as much hope as Fowles provides, she also manages to give an accurate portrayal of just how discouraging life can be from the stadium seats, or from press box row, as a female fan or media member. She gives a glimpse of just how difficult it can be to want to press on, though we all should be thankful that she does.

Fowles speaks so admiringly of the late Alison Gordon, the pioneering female media member to work in clubhouses and take the first lashing of sexism so that it would be easier for those who followed, that it makes you want to run and order a copy of Gordon’s book – Foul Ball! Five Years In The American League – which Fowles references. In it, Gordon details her journey as a Toronto Star reporter from 1979-1984, when she was the first woman to cover the American League. The book provides a sense of motivation to women constantly on the brink of leaving and finding a safer space to work in.

One of the most important ways to create a better, more comfortable place for women in sports is to have more of them – their voices and their ideas – in the media. Whether they know it or not, the women who endure sports’ sexist trials are shifting things toward something better, more robust, and more inclusive for everyone. Not only are they battling daily to do and talk about what they love, they’re creating a safer and more welcoming atmosphere for the women who come after that, just like Gordon did in 1979. It’s an arduous but necessary process, applying not only to beat writers or TV personalities, but also to bloggers, tweeters, and any women who assert their fandom and say, “We’re allowed to be here.”

And despite the slow evolution, it’s working.

About a week before Gordon died, my boss at the time walked into my office and casually handed me her tattered hardcover copy of Foul Balls. She knew of my rabid love of baseball, and asked if I’d ever met her trailblazing friend. I told her I hadn’t, but said I’d love the chance to thank Gordon for everything she’d done. My boss promised to set up a meeting. I’ll never get that chance to express my gratitude to Gordon in person now, but I can help continue the work that she started. She provided a model for carving out a vital space for women in sports, and relentlessly asserted that we deserve to be here, and we deserve better. Even when it gets hard, hopeless, and daunting, I can wake up the next day and do it again, because that’s what Gordon would have done. That’s what Gordon did.”

As a female media member and a Torontonian with a lifelong allegiance to the Blue Jays and a love for the game built from visits to the ballpark with her father, Fowles does an impressive job of writing to reach all audiences, and will leave all her readers wanting more.

Her chapters centred around the undesirables of the game are intertwined with those touching on the intricacies of baseball and some of its longstanding traditions, and many of the reasons to love the sport, with specific pages dedicated to players including the dearly departed Jose Fernandez, as well as David Price, Adam Lind, Dioner Navarro, Josh Donaldson, Marcus Stroman and Jose Bautista. Fowles delves into the subject matter that the book is aptly named for on multiple occasions, reaching into her personal life and baring all, from her struggles with anxiety to reproduction to sexual assault.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

For those of us who have endured abuse at the hands of someone we loved and trusted, the discussion around José Reyes’s June 2016 reunion with the New York Mets – after a suspension for domestic violence and subsequently being dumped by the Colorado Rockies – is one fraught with personal emotion. It is not an abstract baseball debate, nor some logical puzzle to be solved. It’s more like opening an old wound that will never completely heal.

On October 31, 2015, José Bernabé Reyes allegedly grabbed Katherine Ramirez, his wife of eight years, by the throat and shoved her into a sliding glass door at the Maui hotel in which they were staying. I’m using the term allegedly here because Reyes has never been convicted of the crime, even though, in coded language, he has taken some ownership of the incident, and offered a lacklustre public apology for it at least twice. (Most recently he said, “I feel sorry for what happened. I’m a human being. People make mistakes. For me, I stand up for the terrible mistake that I made.”) Further, he served a fifty-one game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy, and although he had a right to appeal the suspension, he chose not to.

In the 911 call from that evening, a hotel-security staff member told the dispatcher that an argument had occurred, and that Ramirez had suffered injuries to her face, neck, and leg. Reyes was arrested, and Ramirez was aided by medics before being taken to Maui Memorial Medical Center for further treatment. Five months later, prosecutors moved to dismiss the charges against Reyes on the grounds that his wife was refusing to co-operate. He had been scheduled to go to trial less than a week later, on April 4, 2016, Major League Baseball’s Opening Day.

Ramirez, of course, deserves no judgment or blame here, and her decision is one that many survivors of violence will deeply understand. While I won’t endeavour to assume any of her motivations, I readily acknowledge that her emotional well-being and security, and that of her children, were certainly at stake. For Ramirez, like so many before her, not pursuing criminal justice became the better personal choice. It was one that was hers alone to make – just like forgiveness is hers alone to give.

So what then is the responsibility of baseball fans when it comes to José Reyes? The standard chorus of “innocent until proven guilty” has abated now that he is “standing up” for his “mistake,” but the baseball community must still content with what to do with – or how to appropriately punish, rehabilitate, and, now that he has been unloaded by the Rockies and snapped up by the Mets, cheer for – a player who has harmed someone closest to him, someone he pledged to love and keep safe.

We don’t have a roadmap for these kinds of conversations.

Every individual watcher has their own reason to take solace in the game, but Fowles makes it easier for other fans to divulge theirs and to share in the idea that no matter what we are going through, and no matter how much stigma might be attached to the idea that we want to use this game to take away all of our problems, at least for a little while, we are not alone.

After beginning the conversation on the tough topics, Fowles readily acknowledges just how much ignorance is practiced in order to fulfill the fandom the game requires, and opens readers up to the idea that they can indeed keep loving the game they always have and still stand against it in particular instances, but ignoring those altogether negates the change we should all seek.

Fowles acknowledges that while baseball can and is so often the setting for terrible occurrences and taboo topics, the game can also offer a nine-inning escape from the everyday of what any fan is trying to ignore out in the real world, and we can decide the way in which we choose to view it and take in those 27 outs.

Fowles does an exceptional job of revealing how the game has made her whole, sharing incredibly personal insights and bringing topics to the table that deserve more light to be shed upon them, from a unique perspective. Mixing in the fun of spring training, the idea of the baseball gods and the power they hold, the magic of no-hitters and more, she opens the door to ideas to appeal to everyone.

The book is one written for every fan, transcending the Toronto landscape and casting a wide net into the throngs of know-it-all fans, casual observers, and the everyman with feelings. It can be used as a guide for those who don’t understand the magic of the game that encapsulates so many, giving them an understanding of what more it means. It covers the lighthearted topics, and it delves into the darker side of baseball, stressing a need for more conversation and offering a place to start.

That is what Baseball Life Advice is, a beginning that looks for ends in every corner of the game, offers a chance for anyone to ask questions and weigh in, and gives hope to the issues it addresses while expressing an obvious appreciation for baseball as a game that saved its author.


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A competitive baseball player growing up, Alexis Budnicki has worked for the Toronto Blue Jays, and written for Baseball America, the Australian Baseball League and Canadian Baseball Network, among others. Follow her on Twitter @baseballexis.
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Mark L
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Excellent review! I’ll be snapping one up asap.

Carl
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Carl

Alexis,

Your writing, which I first came to know in your Nov 2015 piece here @ HBT, is always fantastic. Thank you for providing us daily readers another great one to enjoy and referring us another baseball book to read.

Lisa Wondo
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Lisa Wondo
This is an exciting piece you wrote, about an even more exciting book! I will be reading it real soon. As a female die hard baseball fan, I’ve often wondered why the perspective of women (also known as a significant percentage of baseball fandom) isn’t more central in the baseball universe. For example, if I took a poll of 100 people on the question “Who is known as the first lady of baseball?” I would bet my life’s earnings that maybe 5 would know it’s Grace Coolidge. Even fewer would know the name Alison Gordon. This is not intended in… Read more »
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