It's too easy to talk about Mo'ne Davis the wrong way, or at least in a way that puts a burden on a 13-year-old girl that her performance does not require. The Little League World Series is mostly just a fun chance to watch kids play baseball at a precociously high level. It is also, perhaps as often, a chance for us to completely lose our perspective.
The LLWS brought us Reds All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier, sure, but it also gave us Sean Burroughs and pitcher Danny Almonte, a ringer who was actually old enough to have served in President Franklin Pierce's cabinet when he threw a perfect game in the 2001 edition of the tournament. Now it has given us Davis, the right-handed Philadelphian that has been the sensation of this year's LLWS. This is a good thing, but also one we should handle with care.
It's so easy to forget the "little" in Little League, especially when we're watching alpha-children who are already nearly adult height. Because they are so good, and because of the reflexes we build up as baseball-watching humans, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that these are kids, and forget that word is shorthand for "not fully formed." You can put anything on LLWS players in terms of projecting a future, but any and all of it will be both flatly irresponsible and wrong, not because some of them won't be major leaguers, but because most of them won't be. Most of them won't even come close. In this way, they're like most everyone else their age.
A lot of them won't even want to be major leaguers, as Davis reportedly does not want to be, and that's good. It may even be the best part. In an age in which ever more people aren't born serfs or slaves and can choose how they spend this one life they've been given, every time someone decides their own destiny it's a new monument to human progress. Mo'ne Davis will be able to decide what and who she wants to be. It's likely that it will have little to do with baseball, and that's just fine.
There's an old saying, "You can look for me when you see me coming." We should take that kind of attitude towards these Little Leaguers, regardless of gender. Let them be children now. Scout them when they're in high school, for gosh sakes, or college, but accept that today they are protoplasmic, inchoate, evolving youngsters who have not asked to have their futures projected by self-appointed professional soothsayers. They get to make that choice, or to grow out of their present abilities, or anything, without anyone having the right to look back at what any outsider wrote when they were 13 and saying, "Tch tch, woulda coulda shoulda."
Eri Yoshida (Getty)
Back on Mother's Day, I speculated about the day, sometime in the hazy future, when the female Jackie Robinson will arrive to shatter baseball's gender barrier. It would be oh so easy to look at Ms. Davis and her 70-mph fastball and big curve and use her as an excuse to say, "Ah, maybe she's arrived ahead of schedule" as some writers have done. That is not only spectacularly premature, but also an unwarranted bit of objectification for a girl barely into her teens. We don't need to ask if Davis' fastball will add more velocity as she grows, if she grows because women don't gain as much height and weight as men as they go through adolescence to adulthood. We don't have to look at her precocious offspeed stuff and ask if that gives her an advantage against inexperienced competition that will fade with time. We can watch, because it's fun to watch baseball and because Davis is great fun to watch, but we might as well leave it there, if only for her sake and because it's the only sensible thing to do.
Important: That is not the same as denying that a female major leaguer is something that many of us look forward to seeing. Hell, I spent that whole Mother's Day piece hoping for it to happen in my lifetime, and I hope you want it to happen as much as I do. But it's not yet time to say if Davis is The Chosen One, and it may never be. You'll know it's her when you see her coming. Until then, she's not, for all practical purposes, a female prospect. She is not a prospect at all. She's a Little Leaguer, full stop.
More on Mo'ne
Let's let Mo'ne Davis just be a kid
It's hard enough being 13 without the world putting near-impossible dreams on your shoulders. Let's enjoy Mo'ne Davis without the weight of expectations.
More on Mo'ne
The Jeff Passan piece linked above is well-reported, with quotes from Julie Croteau and all the usual sources who get called when a woman plays baseball at a high level. And yes, Croteau was an outlier back then and still is, but, "Twenty-five years ago, when Croteau walked on to the St. Mary's College baseball team in Maryland, the gender barrier extended beyond the appropriateness of sport for each sex. It was a time when boys and men wouldn't dare dress in an objectionable color - purple or, egads, pink -- lest their manliness come under fire" is a non-factual non-sequitur -- when Croteau was playing, "Miami Vice" was on the air and men's fashion went jarringly pastel for awhile. More to the point, traditional gender barriers have nothing to do with Davis right now. Girls have played Little League before. There is another female in this tournament. Croteau sees Davis representing a "beautiful arc of progress." She doesn't. Not yet.
And maybe "not yet" should be "never," regardless of her future. It will be a great day for Davis and everyone else when we stop treating everything a female athlete does as an outlier or a surprise (or, for that matter, female mathematicians). Passan quotes former college ballplayer Susan Perabo to this effect, pointing out that Davis would be less of an isolated case in the LLWS if girls weren't steered to softball, and observes of Davis, "she's only 13. The best thing personally that could happen to her is everyone forgets her for a while. It's overwhelming to be in the spotlight." Ideally, the story could start and end there, but it does not. People are watching Davis, Passan writes,
Because she's a she -- because the novelty of a girl who can throw a baseball 70 mph and hurl a shutout against the elite of her age group's elite is a match made in zeitgeist heaven -- it's more because of who she is than what she does. Mo'ne, like her namesake, traffics in beauty. Her achievements are of one variety, her comportment of an entirely different sort. And the latter is the luminescent part, the one that makes everyone wonder what, exactly, Mo'ne Davis might be when she's not a kid anymore."
See how subject changes there, how Davis's athleticism is de-emphasized in favor of novelty and femininity? Would anyone write that about Mike Trout's luminescence as if he was some kind of angler fish? Then comes the nonsensical big finish: "It is baseball in 2014. It is a big and vibrant, a Mo'ne for the modern set, capturing all of our feelings as great impressionism was meant to."
Davis is a girl, not a painting. She's a kid athlete, not a Barry Bonds to be analyzed and given a thumbs up or a thumbs down, to love or hate or really anything at all. She's a fascinating and talented kid, but despite her being on television, she's really none of our damned business.
I don't mean to pick on Passan, who does some very fine work, but if a writer has one obligation in this world, just one, it's to say, "Fuck the zeitgeist." You don't pick up a banner and march. To do the job well is to resist that urge, to rail against cliché and conventional wisdom. Instead of joining the parade, you light a torch that leads in some other, heretofore unsuspected direction. Otherwise, why bother saying anything at all?
I'm not saying I do that every time, or often enough, or that I've ever even done it once. But I do know that readers do not need to be told what they're already thinking. We might be wrong for thinking it, right, Galileo? Right, Darwin? To very slightly paraphrase an uncited quote from John Gray's philosophical tract, "Straw Dogs," "Without chaos, no knowledge. Without a frequent dismissal of reason, no progress. Ideas which today form the very basis of [knowledge] exist because there were such things as prejudice, conceit, passion; because these things opposed reason and because they were permitted to have their way."
As applied to Mo'ne Davis, that means there's a lot more value in not exploring the possibilities inherent in a female child-pitcher. Everyone is doing that already. Far better to give her time and not reinforce a line of errant thinking. She is a baseball player, not a female baseball player. We view the world through any number of prejudicial lenses, many of which we simply can't help but put on. If you view Davis through that one you're going to miss the great things you would have seen otherwise, which is simultaneously so much more and so much less than "female pitcher" or "female prospect." It's simply this: she's a kid playing a kids' version of the game and doing it excellently. That's wonderful, and it should be enough for now.