It's time for MLB to stop focusing on optics and take women seriously

Women have started to gain a relatively small foothold on MLB teams, appearing in front offices, baseball operations departments, and even in dugouts and on the field. That all feels like progress, and baseball has been lauded for it, but that good press hasn't been earned.

Reports continue to emerge from the world of major and minor league baseball that show how teams continue to dismiss and degrade women in the workplace, issues that are often caused by players and club employees.

The latest incident in this seemingly unending problem appeared in The Athletic on Monday. Maura Sheridan, the former broadcaster for the Cleveland Guardians' Single-A affiliate, the Lynchburg Hillcats, told the Athletic's Britt Ghiroli that she believes the team retaliated against her after she informed the club that a player had allegedly assaulted her while they were on the road.

Sheridan's story

Sheridan's hiring in 2020 was announced with a self-congratulatory media release touting her as the first female broadcaster in the team's history, which earned the Hillcats a fair amount of praise. According to Sheridan, the team's support ended up being an illusion.

Sheridan told The Athletic that relief pitcher Daritzon Feliz asked her on a date in the middle of the season, which she declined, and sent her multiple Instagram messages that she didn't answer. Sheridan didn't want to get involved with Feliz, but she told The Athletic that she wanted to avoid "embarrassing" him.

Then, on an offday in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in late August 2021, Sheridan got caught in a hotel elevator alone with Feliz. He allegedly ushered her off the elevator and toward what she thought was a small gathering of players, which she didn't want to attend. The room was empty when they entered, and then Feliz allegedly started assaulting her. Sheridan claims that Feliz physically prevented her from leaving the room, ripped off her shorts, laid on top of her, and began kissing and clawing at her neck, leaving marks. Sheridan said she eventually escaped when Feliz opened the door to the room.

A week later, Sheridan broke down in front of then-Hillcats manager Dennis Malave, telling him about the alleged assault and showing him the marks on her neck. The news went up the chain, and the Guardians' general manager, an assistant GM, and the vice president of player development were looped in. MLB suspended Feliz for the entire season (though the Hillcats had already released him), and while she said the higher-ups in Cleveland and Lynchburg were initially sympathetic, they all stopped communicating with her quickly after she reported the incident.

LYNCHBURG, VA - JUNE 15: Luis Salazar, Manager of the Lynchburg Hillcats in Lynchburg, VA on June 15, 2011. Luis is showing his shatterproof glasses he wears whenever he is on the baseball field.   On March 9, 2011, he was struck in the face by a foul ball. Salazar had his left eye removed on March 15, 2011 due to the injuries he sustained from the incident. He has a temporary prosthetic left eye until his permanent one is ready. (Photo by Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Former Lynchburg Hillcats broadcaster Maura Sheridan believes the team retaliated against her after she reported that a player had allegedly sexually assaulted her during a road trip. (Photo by Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In January, Sheridan discovered that the Hillcats had put up a job posting advertising her own job. She called Hillcats president and GM, Chris Jones, who took several days to reply to her. According to Sheridan, Jones said he thought she wasn't coming back, something Sheridan says she never said to Jones or anyone else, and began acting like she'd been given the job "as a charity case as a woman." Then he told her the job's hours and pay had been cut, and the broadcaster would no longer travel with the team.

“I can’t help but think it was retaliation,” Sheridan told The Athletic.

Women in baseball, including beat writers and team employees, have often said they decided not to report an incident of harassment or assault because they were afraid of the very kind of retaliation that Sheridan believes happened to her. Sheridan believes her decision to report the assault "hurt" her.

In a comment to The Athletic, Jones said the 2022 broadcasting position was severely cut back to save money due to the 2020 pandemic season, which had happened two years ago and one year after she worked a full season for the Hillcats. Jones also claimed that it was Sheridan's job to tell him she was planning to come back. Several minor league broadcasters told The Athletic that they'd never heard of a play-by-play job being posted without first contacting the current broadcaster.

MLB has its own problems

Just a few weeks ago, ESPN obtained a memo sent to teams by Michael Hill, MLB's senior vice president of on-field operations, regarding the atrocious state of women's facilities in major league stadiums. Women's bathrooms were often far away from the clubhouse, making it difficult for them to do their jobs, and some were dysfunctional and ill-equipped.

"It is unacceptable that women who are traveling as part of the visiting team are not afforded accommodations that permit them to do their jobs at the same level as their male colleagues and counterparts," the league's memo said via ESPN. "Many Clubs' female facilities fall embarrassingly below the high standards befitting a member of a visiting traveling party of a Major League organization."

According to ESPN's Jeff Passan, some women "stewed silently about the inequity," but others went to MLB with their concerns, resulting in the memo. Some women in team traveling parties also provided accounts of their experiences to ESPN, but would do so only anonymously.

That a memo had to be sent implies that there are more than just a few clubs with inadequate facilities for women. However, while teams were required to submit their detailed plans to Hill by June 3, no repercussions were mentioned for teams that failed to do so. (And considering that MLB fined the Houston Astros a paltry $5 million for a season-long cheating scandal that ended with a World Series victory, MLB's punishments often don't fit the crime.) Paired with the fact that it has taken awhile for MLB to send this memo — teams have had mixed-gender traveling parties for several years — how seriously is it actually taking the issues of women working in baseball?

The answer appears to be the same for MLB as it is for some teams and their minor league affiliates: not very. Progress is being made, but only on the surface. Teams have started hiring women for jobs that have been traditionally done by men. Without the institutional support to give them the most basic, necessary things — safety, security, a working bathroom with a lock — it's not progress. It's a meaningless news release or press leak meant to garner positive media.

Going to the media is all they have

The only weapon women in baseball can use to fight back is media scrutiny. That's all they have. They often stay quiet until all other avenues are exhausted, until the pain becomes unbearable, or until something so damaging happens that they can't keep quiet anymore.

When women speak out after their employer fails to protect them or treat them fairly, it's because every other thing meant to protect or help them has failed. It's their last option before the hungry engine of time swallows them whole.

MLB isn't alone in this. It's endemic across all sports and teams. A coach from the NWSL was accused of harassing women for years before players had the courage to speak up and know they'd be heard. Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder has gotten off relatively scot-free for allegedly fostering a workplace that was hostile and discriminatory to women in every way, despite an ocean full of evidence and complaints. (Snyder has NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to thank for that.) During the offseason before the 2021-22 NBA season, two teams hired head coaches who had been accused of sexual misconduct or domestic abuse, while then-San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon was again passed over.

Going to the media is the only option for women who have been utterly and devastatingly failed by the men who rule sports. Unfortunately, not even that is enough for sports institutions to take them seriously and treat them as equal human beings instead of nuisances or charity cases.

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