Sports

Talking Shop: John Sickels on the Business of Covering MiLB

Talking Shop: Minor League Life

By Jessica Quiroli

Look for this series to be featured throughout the season! We'll talk to someone in the minor leagues about the business and media, and how those worlds intersect and impact one another.

I'm happy to present the first installment with my longtime colleague and a pioneer in the business of covering MiLB, John Sickels. Now with The Athletic for the 2019 season, Sickels was the mind behind Minor League Ball on SB Nation, where I worked with him covering the minor leagues a few years ago. We talked recently about that website, what interests him most about covering the bus leagues and how the business of minor league baseball coverage has evolved.--JQ

 

JQ: When you started out covering MiLB, what were fans especially interested in? Because they're so savvy now, how has their interest shifted?
 
I started doing prospect stuff with Bill James in 1993 then transitioned to the internet in 1996 with ESPN.com. That was 23 years ago and the internet was just getting started, so in that way I was a pioneer.
 
At the time the main prospect interest came from fantasy players looking for a future edge. That is still true today, although the amount of information available today is far greater and so are the expectations. Back then a Top 50 prospect list was the gold standard. Nowadays you have Top 100 or 200 or 500 lists and information available on high school and international players who are years away from the majors.  
 
While fantasy players are still the main core of the audience, there has been increased interest from general baseball fans and specific followers of the minors.
 
JQ: When I started my own MiLB blog, Heels on the Field, in 2008, I felt unsure anyone would care about something entirely focused on the minor leagues. We're you skeptical when you began Minor League Ball? How quickly did the idea connect?
 
By the time I started Minor League Ball with SB Nation/Vox in 2005, I was fairly confident there would be enough interest to sustain daily blogging as opposed to occasional articles.
 
That was a success and although Vox pulled the plug at the end of 2018 for their own reasons, we ran for 13 years, an eternity in internet time. Our traffic grew every year and I’m proud of what we accomplished.
 
JQ: Do you think upstarts covering that specific aspect of baseball have a shot at connecting, or are bigger sites monopolizing the market?
 
I think we are in a consolidation process right now. Digital media continues to grow in terms of traffic but companies are still trying to figure out how to monetize it.
 
The pure advertising model used by Vox for example doesn’t seem to provide enough revenue, at least if you want to actually pay writers, and we are seeing more companies switch to a subscriber model.
 
My guess is that this trend will continue. Upstarts are going to have a rough time of it in the short run, but quality material will find an audience one way or another, eventually. It can take time though.
 
 
JQ: With so many people jumping to cover MiLB now, and getting more attention because of social media power, what motivates your focus? Why do you still love this?
 
I still love baseball but if I am completely honest, I was burned out on blogging after 13 years. I’m trying to make a living of course….I have a family to support and my wife and children are my main focus. The work supports them, not the other way around. That said, I have been very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.
 
JQ: When we worked together at Minor League Ball, we often talked about the kinds of stories readers we're interested in. What pulls you in as a writer?  Do you think readers have the same interest as you do?
 
I have always been more interested in the underdog type prospects, the 10th round or 20th round or non-drafted free agents who work their way to the majors without big hype.
 
For fantasy owners these guys have value, but on a personal, human level they hold more interest for me than the well-known bonus babies. Those types of stories pull me in, players overcoming obstacles and exceeding expectations.
 
JQ: How do you think the business of covering MiLB will evolve in the next few years?
 
I think we will see an increasing focus on players as people. The recent attention paid to poor minor league salaries is an example of that. How the business will evolve as a business is hard to say given the consolidation in digital media mentioned earlier.
 
JQ: Finally, what do you hope to do going forward covering MiLB? What excites you?
 
I will be doing a weekly prospect column for The Athletic in 2019 but it is not a full-time gig. I own the rights to the name Minor League Ball but as I noted above, I am burned out on daily blogging and am still uncertain on what I want to do in the baseball world.
 
Follow John on Twitter @MinorLeagueBall
 

Postcards from the Minor Leagues: Padres Todd Van Steensel

Postcards from the Minor Leagues

This is the first installment in a four-part series this baseball season. Todd Van Steensel will check in with blog posts on his experiences in the San Diego Padres organization, giving us a front row view of MiLB life. Look for added features such as photos and special Q&A's with every installment.-- Jessica Quiroli, AHOD Editor

 

Greetings from Spring Training with the San Diego Padres!

 

How did I wind up here, so far from home in Australia? 

 

Let us start when I was part of the Minnesota Twins organisation. An organisation I had been part of for six seasons. But just over a month after appearing in the Southern League All-Star Game, and spending two weeks on the injured list, I was told that there was no longer a spot for me within the Minnesota Twins and I was handed my release. Although I was disappointed and had to say goodbye to some close friends that became like family, I was excited at what the future would hold and looking towards a fresh start somewhere else. 

 

A few teams came calling over the next few days, affiliated and independent league teams, but nothing really worked out. I decided to begin my off-season early and prepare to play for my hometown team in the Australian Baseball League. Heading into the ABL season there was a lot of excitement for me. For the first time in six years I’d be part of my first opening day roster and able to play a full season, our team was under new ownership by one of the most passionate baseball people I’ve met, and two new teams were joining the league. But the thing I was most looking forward to was showing teams what I was capable of doing on the field and try and secure a contract in the USA for the 2019 season. 

 

Week one of the season came along mid November and we were facing newcomers, Geelong-Korea. A team comprised completely of Korean players from the Korean minor league or former KBO players, but they were based in a town in Australia. I pitched twice that weekend and was able to get video footage and scouting reports from that weekend. I passed it all onto my agent, who quickly shared it to any MLB team he had contacts with.

 

Within a week of him sending out all that information, the Padres came calling, offered me a contract and I had signed. It was a sense of relief, to know I still have a spot in baseball, and someone saw value in me. 

 

The ABL season came to an early end for my team, the Sydney Blue Sox, as we were knocked out in the semi finals. I didn’t have too much time to be upset and dwell on it, because in a few weeks time I was going to fly to the US for spring training. That isn’t without a little scare at first whether I’d make my flight or not! 

 

As an international working in the US, I need a visa and, well, the visa process isn’t fun at all! I applied for my visa on January 10th, and had a flight booked for February 21st. You would think I gave myself plenty of time to have it approved and sent back to me. But, after sending countless emails, and one tweet, which received an immediate response, my visa was back in my hands on February 18th! In years past I would send my completed papers to the Consulate and have it sent back to me within ten days but the last two years it’s been a real struggle. Last year I actually missed my first flight to Spring Training because I hadn’t received it back yet! Nonetheless, I got my visa back and made my flight! 

 

And this is where I am today. Currently in Peoria enjoying my first spring training in Arizona and my ninth spring training overall. No matter how many years I do this, no matter how monotonous it gets or how many bullpens, drills, games, bus rides and meetings we go through, it’s still a special feeling being in spring training preparing for another Opening Day. 

 

You can follow Todd on Twitter @toddvs35

https://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.fcgi?id=vanste001tod


Never A Doubt: The 2018 Boston Red Sox

By Helen Silfin

 

The 2018 Boston Red Sox had a season fans can usually only dream about. They won 108 games in the regular season and then those essential 11 postseason games to be World Series Champions. And while they always believed in themselves, and much of the fanbase believed too, many of the “experts” around Major League Baseball did not believe until the final pitch was thrown.

 

 

Just about every publication - including MLB.com, SB Nation, Baseball America, USA Today, and The Sporting News - had the Red Sox winning one of the AL Wild Card spots and perhaps making it to the ALDS but no further. Possibly undeservedly, they were underdogs coming into the season.

 

The 2018 Red Sox spent one day with a winning percentage under .500, and that day was the first of the season. They never had a losing streak of over three games and were never more than two games back in the American League East. Their “worst” month of the season was September, during which they were still four games over .500. They simply never stumbled and never took their foot off the gas.

 

However, on their way to 108 wins people still wondered if they were for real. Even once the playoff field was set, most of Sports Illustrated’s experts left them out of the World Series.

  Rick Porcello

What separated the Red Sox from the rest of the pack may be the same as the reason so many questioned their legitimacy. They feasted on lesser teams, going 16-3 against the Orioles, 15-4 against the Blue Jays, 6-1 against the Rangers, and 5-1 against the Royals. They built a cushion that would have helped had they struggled against contenders like the Angels, Mariners, and Braves. The cushion also helped them win the AL East by eight games even though they only won the season series against the Yankees by one game. They somehow made it through the entire regular season without appearing to be truly tested.

 

Yet, in the playoffs they beat the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers handily - only losing one game in each series. Their offense bested both Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw along the way. They handled the best of the best like it was nothing.

 

So maybe their domination of lesser teams should not have been taken as a sign that they still needed to be tested, but rather a signal of their true greatness. They never played down to an opponent, collecting wins like coins in Super Mario. They collected so many that they were able to rest Chris Sale, their ace, in August and then essentially use real games in September as his rehab assignment before the playoffs.

 

A team with a Wild Card ceiling would never be able to do that.

 

It is a bit of a shame that the media never seemed to catch on to just how good this team was. Whispers of the 1978 Red Sox, 2001 Mariners, and the team’s 2016 and 2017 first round playoff exits surrounded them until they finally hoisted the Commissioner’s Trophy.

  Jason Varitek Joe Kelly

Just about everything related to the 2018 Boston Red Sox was unbelievable, but perhaps most impressively, they really did not make their fans sweat. The high of a 21-7 start to the season never wore off. Dennis Eckersley proclaimed “It’s time to party!” on July 12th and he was absolutely right.

 

  World Series Banner


 

 

 


 

All Shirts

Lifer: Post-season Edition

 

Welcome back to the sixth installment of Lifer by All Heels on Deck! After a brief hiatus, Lifer is back with all new content for baseball fans like you. Our team of writers have been hard at work this last week thinking of ways to bring you closer to the game we all love. 

 

It’s October, so you know what that means! We’re in the midst of MLB’s Postseason, the most intense month the baseball season has to offer. It’s only fitting that this edition of Lifer be dedicated to the season we all love, even if our team didn’t make it this far.

 

What does it mean to a part of a team? Is there some joining force that rallies fans and players together as one? This season, Major League Baseball has gotten very creative with team branding, giving each team their own unique slogan for fans to use on social media. Well, this new branding is continuing into the Postseason. Our Karen Soutar takes a closer look at some of the creative Postseason gear fans can buy to make you feel even more connected to their favorite playoff team.

 

With the growing popularity of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube TV, the need for cable television is becoming more obsolete. What happens then, if you don’t have cable when every playoff game is broadcast on cable? Helen Silfin dives into the techniques and platforms you can use to ensure you won’t miss a second of October baseball. 

 

So, join us as we do life the baseball fan way! You don’t want to miss this edition of Lifer!

 

~RoseAnn Sapia

 

2018 Postseason Gear:

Slogan Fever

 

By Karen Soutar

 

If you’re a fan of one of the 10 MLB teams in the 2018 playoffs, you might be interested in picking up some gear to wear.  Whether you’re lucky enough to be attending a game, or just want something to wear around to support your team, MLB offers some good choices this year.

 

Over the past few seasons, MLB chose a slogan for each playoff team, and used it on Postseason merch. In 2015 it was “Take October”. In 2016 it was “Made for October”, along with “Postseason 2016” and the specific team logo. While it’s certainly nice to have postseason gear to wear, there wasn’t much to set one playoff team’s merchandise apart from another, besides the teams’ logo.

 

This year, MLB has taken creativity to another level. The common slogan for 2018 is “Defend”, and from that point, each team’s merchandise is more unique. For each of the six division winners, merchandise recognizes the division that they’ve won. Using the Cleveland Indians as an example, all their merch reads “AL Central Division Champs” in small print at the top. For each of the four Wild Card teams, merch reads “Postseason” instead. It’s after this initial branding that each team’s merchandise differentiates. This is followed by large print that is the focal point of the merch: “Defend Tribe Town” (Cleveland), “Defend H-Town” (Houston), “Defend the Bronx” (New York), “Defend Fenway” (Boston), “Defend So Cal” (Los Angeles)… You get the idea.     

  Brewers

But that’s not all! There are other options which are completely unique to each specific team, most of which incorporate official Twitter hashtags: #NeverSettle (Houston), #RallyTogether (Cleveland), #ForEachOther (Atlanta), #FlyTheW (Chicago Cubs). Others have gone completely unique in origin: Rocktober (Colorado. For anyone who was a baseball fan in 2007, who could forget their magical playoff run that year?!); Unite in the Bronx (obviously the New York Yankees); Our Crew Our October (Milwaukee); LA Determined (LA Dodgers); Do Damage (Boston); Win For Hero-Town (Oakland). For New York Yankee fans, there is #UniteInTheBronx. 

LA

Apparel includes hats, T-shirts and hoodies for men, women, and children. There are men’s big & tall and women’s plus sizes available. 

 

The MLB post-season is now squarely focused on the perfect hashtag, so why not wear your team AND hashtag pride, Twitter/baseball lovers?

 

 

Cutting The Cord:

How to Consume October Baseball

 

By Helen Silfin

 

As someone who was used to a house full of TVs tuned to MLB Network, I never pictured myself not being able to watch a playoff game. Yet, this year I moved out of my childhood home and into an apartment with Wi-Fi, but not cable. Now that I have survived not only the end of the regular season but also the first rounds of postseason play, I feel qualified to direct other young people lost in this crazy cable-free world.

 

My first tip is to take advantage of streaming. If your parents or sibling or best friend has cable and will share their log-in information, you should be good to go. MLB Network, FS1, and TBS all allow you to watch live with a cable log-in. This is how I’ve watched most games because the apocalypse will come before my family cuts the cord.

 

My next tip is to use as many screens as possible. Sometimes games overlap. Sometimes you want to replay a web gem while keeping up with live action. Sometimes you also want to watch Dancing With The Stars. I’m just saying, if a game can be streamed on your computer, it can be streamed on a smartphone or tablet, too. The phone/tablet option also comes in handy when you know you could fall asleep at any moment and don’t want to risk your laptop sliding off your bed.

 

My final tip would be to use social media, especially Twitter, to your advantage. If you find yourself unable to stream a game or simply too busy to watch, the official @MLB account has been pretty quick to upload highlights, and people like @PitchingNinja will keep you up-to-date with what everybody is talking about. I have done this more than once already this postseason and have missed so little that I am pretty sure by 2020 there’ll be accounts live-tweeting every play of each game in .gif form. 

 

Adjusting to life without cable is very much a first world problem, but it can be done. Lord knows if I can get used to watching all my TV online, you can, too. (And don't tell anybody I told you this but if you are really in a bind and looking for a way to watch an MLB stream, reddit can be your best friend.) 

 

 


Lifer: Baseball Life Through Image

Welcome to the fifth installment of Lifer!

Our team of writers have been hard at work thinking of new ways we could spice up the column. This week, we’re doing Lifer with a twist. In this edition, photos taken by our writers while at games is the focus. This is the most visual installment of Lifer yet, and we’re so excited to share our ballpark experiences with you!

What would it be like to have a VIP experience at the ballpark? To sit right behind home plate to get the best look at the action? Imagine no more! Our Karen Soutar got an exclusive opportunity to watch a Jays game from the Action Seats. She details her experience with the help of some up-close photos. You won’t want to miss these views!

Oh, what it must be like to be a die-hard fan of a team that’s not in contention for a playoff spot. But, just because your team isn’t in the pennant race doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the other great things about attending a baseball game. Helen Silfin shows us how to make the best of your ballpark experience even when your team is playing at its worst. She takes us through her typical day at Citi Field in this one-of-a-kind photo essay.

Do you have a favorite ballpark? Sometimes, there’s just something about a park that makes you fall in love with it, even if your favorite team doesn’t play there. For me, that park is PNC Park in Pittsburgh. I’ll take you through some of the beautiful sights you can soak in while attending a game.

You don’t want to miss this edition of Lifer! So, join us as we do life the baseball fan way!

 

~RoseAnn Sapia

 

 

In The Action Seats

By Karen Soutar

Ever wonder what a VIP baseball fan experience is like? Sure, it’s great any time you go to a ballpark and watch a game, but for something extra special, there are In The Action Seats at the Rogers Centre.     

These are field level box seats which are located behind home plate, behind first base, and behind third base to watch the Blue Jays play in Toronto. You can’t beat that view; being close enough to the action to see what brand of shoes the players wear. 

Screen Shot 2018-08-17 at 5.43.58 PM Screen Shot 2018-08-17 at 5.43.57 PM Screen Shot 2018-08-17 at 5.43.59 PM


Seats were padded and very comfortable with plenty of leg room – no need to get up when neighboring fans were coming and going.     

Gourmet food and non-alcoholic beverages were included in the price and brought to you at the seats. All you can eat, with alcoholic beverages available for purchase.

If you aren’t quite well off financially, you probably won’t be making a habit of this. But it was very worthwhile as a once in a lifetime treat!

 

 

A Citi Trip

By Helen Silfin

1

This outfit can only mean one thing...

Yes, “Welcome to Citi Field" where the baseball cards are large but the numbers on the back of them are not.

Of course, I'm here well before the game starts so there's plenty of time to visit Shea Bridge.

4

5

*stuffs entire burger in my face before the game starts*

Occasionally the Mets hit home runs. Here are one of those instances.

7

Time to go exploring again! Pictured here is an ancient artifact the Mets recovered from the ruins of “Shea Stadium.

8

Wow I found cookie dough! After all, you come to Citi Field for the food, not the baseball. 

9

Okay, maybe you also come for the views?

10

Making it through an entire Mets game is an accomplishment, right? Goodnight Citi Field.

11

 

 

A Beautiful Day At The Ballpark

By: RoseAnn Sapia 

Have you ever watched a game on TV and said, ‘wow that ballpark is gorgeous’? I’ve done that many times. My goal is to visit all 30 MLB ballparks. Even though I’ve only made a small dent in that, I may have already found my favorite ballpark.

The last two years, Little League games have brought me to Pittsburgh. That stadium looks beautiful on TV, so I knew we’d have to make a stop at PNC Park. As fate would have it, the Pirates weren’t playing at home during either of my trips. However, due to “Picklesburgh”, the Right Field Gate was open so that people were able to walk along the ballpark. 

The following are some of my favorite sights from the ballpark. It was even more picturesque than I expected. 

When you drive down towards the water, you’re greeted with an amazing sight. A larger than life statue of Bill Mazeroski overlooking the Allegheny.

Descending the steps towards the water, you’re greeted by an amazing view of the Pittsburgh skyline and breathtaking yellow steel bridges. 

The sights everywhere are gorgeous. If you’re visiting at the right time, you can turn around to get a glimpse of the Mazeroski statue in the sunset.

Walk along the outfield fences, and you’ll hit the bullpen. You’ll get a gated view of the outfield, but also come to one of the hidden treasures of the ballpark: Ralph Kiner’s hands. 

You’ll then come to my favorite part about this ballpark, the Roberto Clemente Bridge with a statue of Roberto himself located right by the Center Field Gate. 

I still haven't attended a game at PNC, but these sights alone make me want to return. 

1-Bill Mazeroski 2-Bridge 3-Mazeroski Sunset 4-Kiner's Hands 5-Bridge 2


6-Clemente Statue




Expanded Roster Report: Blue Jays Predictions

By Tammy Rainey

 

Every year fans anticipate what their favorite team will do when it comes to September call-ups. Of course if you’re a fan of, say, the 2018 Red Sox that’s not the foremost issue on your mind but for a team looking to build for the future like the Toronto Blue Jays are this year, it’s a shiny sprinkle of glitter on an otherwise potentially dreary string being played out.

 

The Blue Jays, like many other clubs, are notoriously slow and sloppy about publicizing such news (honestly, I probably have a rant-post in me for a future date about how teams could be so much better in the digital age about making an event out of certain roster activity throughout their system rather than letting beat reporters drag it out through the gritted teeth of some staffer) and here I sit, four hours from September 1, as of this writing,  with incomplete news for you. So I’ll tell you what I know from the beat reports, and offer my best guess at what goes on beyond that.

 

It was always easy to anticipate that Top 10 prospect Sean Reid-Foley would be back in the first wave and, indeed, he’s set to start for the Jays on Sunday. Joining him, per Shi Davidi, in the first bunch will be RH reliever Tyler Guerrieri and LH Jose Fernandez.  Another easy guess was the return of Justin Schafer, another RH reliever the team is impressed with, and veteran Jake Petricka but since neither have been down the requisite 10 days, they have to wait until after the AAA season ends on Monday.

 

That’s all the official word that’s on the wire on the subject as of now. But it’s certainly not the only players who’ll be coming north. There are a few factors one can look at as one tries to anticipate the potential moves. First, anyone on the 40 man roster is at least a theoretical possibility. Secondary to that, any player who might need to be added to the 40 this winter in order to be protected from the Rule 5 draft will be considered. If a player falls into neither group, it’s rare indeed to see him added because teams are obsessive about managing roster spots, particularly prospect rich teams.

 

Beyond that, historically teams don’t go to 40 players just because they can. The space in the clubhouse is limited and seldom do they pack in even as many as 10 extra players. Usually you see more relief pitchers than anything else but if a team has a position where the major league squad lacks depth, you can look for a match there too. With these considerations in mind, a savvy observer can make some guesses, but you never really know. For example, the three returning guys above were easy predictions, Guerrieri not as much but being on the 40 means it was no shock - but adding Fernandez to the 40 man roster is a mild surprise. He has had a good season at AAA and was a spring training invite the last two seasons so they have had their eye on him. Still, I didn’t expect it. So we have identified five pitchers, there are only two more on the 40 and one of them is injured and the other would have been likely to be designated to make room for Fernandez absent the Donaldson trade so let’s turn our attention to position players.

 

Shortstop Richard Urena has gotten enough major league work this year to make his return all but certain, ditto for outfielder Dwight Smith, Jr. The former has hit better in the majors than we have any right to expect given his minor league performance, the latter has acquitted himself well in previous appearances. Others on the 40 already include the following:

Catcher Reese McGuire - typically teams always add an extra catcher, but there are three in Toronto already so he might not make it.

First Baseman Rowdy Tellez - has had a very impressive recovery after one of his typical slow starts (and coming off a very troubled season in 2017) but while it would be good to get a look, 1B and DH are filled nicely and there are already a lot of extra bodies to try and work into an occasional DH role.

Center Fielder Anthony Alford - Player development manager Gil Kim expressed this week that the team was pleased with the progress Alford has made over recent weeks in recovering from a horrible start to the season (marred, again, by injury and interrupted by a brief recall in April) and there’s a pretty good argument for getting him in the hands of the major league staff for a few weeks. One could also argue for giving him a breather and sending him to the AFL in October, and in theory he could do both and i expect that he will.
Outfielder Dalton Pompey - To be completely honest, no one knows what the team is doing with him at this point. I can’t think of a single reason not to recall him (other than the problem of having seven outfielders in the room and getting everyone some reps. Particularly given he’s out of options next spring and every look is crucial at this point. But maybe they have decided to move on already?

 

Finally, there’s one non-roster player that might get added later. As of now he’s on the post-season bound New Hampshire Fisher cats where he’s an untouchable closer. If the playoffs go well he will be busy there for as much as two more weeks. But after that, it’s not impossible that Travis Bergen will get to dip his toes in the big league waters. He’s been a monster this year, he’s a lefty who could very well break camp with the Jay in 2019 with a good spring, and he’d be Rule 5 eligible this winter if not added. More evidence is that he was not announced on the initial roster for the Arizona Fall League where he would seem to be a natural fit (not that the two are exclusionary to each other).

 

Forced to predict, I’m pretty sure Alford joins the sure bets, Pompey too, and Bergen gets that cup of coffee. Anyone I haven’t yet mentioned would be a pretty big shock (unless the team acquires someone in a trade tonight that’s a logical candidate).


The Feminist, Celebratory, Unapologetic Victory of G.L.O.W.

'G.L.O.W.' Gives Women A Ringside Seat To a Feminist Uprising

By Jessica Quiroli

I can’t look away from Debbie Egan’s face.

The hold her every expression of pain, unhinged humor, desperation, heartache has on me is transcendentally powerful.

And in this moment, the final minutes of Season 2 of the Netflix original series “G.L.O.W.”’ she’s holding me so still that the only sensation I feel is my throat tightening, and a vague shakiness.

For that moment, standing before her ex-husband, Mark (Rich Sommer), and her infant son, Randy--Look. At. Her. Face.

Betty Gilpin is a brilliant revelation not just in that pivotal moment. She experiences so many different and complex emotions and situations, and plays them all to the hilt. Her utter embodiment of a woman on the verge makes taking my eyes off of her impossible. I felt her performance in my bones.

Every woman in the cast creates a unique energy. Each character carries a weight, expresses a desire to achieve, and represents something within each one of us, or, at least, someone we’re familiar with. Ruth, played pitch perfect by Alison Brie, stars as the central character who also offsets multiple key storylines. Her character is a mess, but knows it. She’s smart, but not particularly savvy, something she develops as time goes on when she's forced to up her game. She’s also the estranged best friend of Debbie--estranged due to extraordinary betrayals.

The dynamics between the two women is chemistry personified. Not only are they entirely different people, and opposites in how they live their lives, they’re also at constant personal odds over real-life pain. Lucky for viewers, and fictional fans in the seats, they bring that to their rivalry in the ring.

But, digging deeper, they represent an archetype. Debbie, the good wife and mother sacrifices a successful acting career, and her ambitions, in order to stay in her suburban home with Randy. Ruth’s single and struggling to find success in her career. She’s disconnected, uncertain, but ambitious and passionate, while battling wounding insecurities that lead to self-destructive actions.

The Netflix original series is set in the 80’s, but these women are as real and current today as in the era  of big hair. In the age of the #MeToo movement, they feel urgently necessary.

There are direct forms of sexual politics and harassment, such as Ruth’s private meeting with an exec who wants a sexual encounter, and, perhaps, if she cooperates, there’s a possibility that could facilitate the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling surviving. Women’s experiences as easily abused sexual objects, overpowered throughout industries big and small are weaved into the fabric of every episode and, of course, the entire premise. The women in the ring didn’t choose GLOW, it chose them. But, eventually, a bond forms even between the most unlikely of sisters. That camaraderie is so much the essence of female kinship and solidarity, whether personal or professional, or both. What these women get isn’t what they showed up for. But, as is so common, women begin to unravel, reveal and fight in ways brand new to them. 

There are important characters across the board: richly drawn with emotional depth and nuance. Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) is the leader the team needs: athletic, an experienced stunt woman, vocal, passionate and sharply instinctual. Her marriage to referee/actor Keith (Bashir Salahuddin) shows a healthy relationship between an African American couple, something television needs much more, and that includes all communities of color. Tamme, Welfare Queen in the ring, is superbly, poignantly portrayed by real-life wrestler Kia Stevens. While diversity is often discussed and not executed, the series will hopefully continue showcasing their talents, and increase their screen time. With creators Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive serving as executive producers, along with Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange is the New Black) and Tara Herrmann, the possibilities for the women of G.L.O.W. seem endless. 

Let's talk about Marc Maron. As Sam Sylvia, he plays G.L.O.W.'s weathered director. His behaviors are sometimes sexist, but there’s some unraveling here, too. His attitude toward Ruth as a director, or Debbie as a producer is barely camouflaged insecurity that pulsates through his face and voice in every scene. And he’s honest in many moments about that, privately, outwardly and in ways that require some old fashioned women’s emotional labor in order to recognize the subtext. We can’t praise him for his treatment of Ruth and Debbie as enthusiastic creative partners. We can, however, recognize that he’s not trying to abuse anyone, even as his inclinations are hurtful; and he’s as complex as the women he’s working with. Is Ruth a hero? Is Debbie? Both women hurt each other, manipulate, tear down, judge and play power games. In male-speak, that’s being a cutthroat business man. When you peel the emotional layers of Sam, Debbie and Ruth, you don’t see hateful, selfish, immoral people. You’re looking in the face of desperation, desire, loss of self, unspoken or unrealized love, and hopefulness. It’s easy to be equally angry or disappointed in them, as you simultaneously root for them, cry for them and laugh at the moments they surrender to their emotional nuttiness, no longer hiding their cracks.

Finally, there’s a larger theme here that cuts deep, making G.L.O.W. even more timely.

Just as this retro sports show has exploded in popularity and honors (TEN Emmy nominations!), women’s sports is emerging on a bigger stage, but, more than that, women are fighting more publicly, and with tremendous support. Serena Williams came under attack by the French Tennis Federation for a bodysuit she wore to compete. The suit, designed to help her with postpartum blood clots, wasn’t the final word. She wore a tutu the next two times she took the court, sending a message, with acid humor, that you can’t control women’s bodies without a defiant act, and a ton of outrage across social media. The WNBA has been fighting for equality in pay and coverage, and, the most powerful moment in recent sports history happened when USA Olympic gymnasts came forward as sexual abuse survivors, outing former coach Larry Nassar for years of harm. These moments change the guard. Creators of television and film would be wise to commit to reflecting that in their art.

I imagine a day in the fictional G.L.O.W. universe, when Debbie and Ruth stand on a stage being honored for their contributions as women and performers. I envision them speaking publicly and forcefully about the need to take power from the sexist monsters who attempted to or actually did assault them, and so many other women, while stealing their dreams with no consequences. The subplots that touch on these charged issues of sexual objectification and powerlessness are retro AND current. Big hair and spandex have changed. Other things don’t.

This is our time. And G.L.O.W. fits right in. 

 


Special Report: "Chyna," WWE's Cautionary Tale, Had Big Impact on LGBTQ Youth

Why has the WWE taken so long to honor Joanie Laurer's popular alter ego?

By Em Burfitt

The end of Joanie Laurer’s story is far too common. The perils of an addictive personality mixed with a cavernous need to be loved inside of anyone can be damaging. Why should the Ninth Wonder of the World be any different? 

As a kid in the 90’s, the WWE—then the WWF—was everything. More in, as a girl in the 90’s who was wild about it, there was nobody greater to watch than Chyna. Lying in a bath of bubbles around Summerslam may have taught me the meaning of “viewer discretion”, but I was never particularly advised.

I stopped watching wrestling around the time that the WWE let Chyna go, though I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Rumors swirled around the wrestling forums I used to lurk, where we’d each have terribly pieced together banners of our favorite wrestlers done in Paint. For years, the circumstances over her no longer appearing in the squared circle was because of the love affair between Paul Levesque—known as Triple H—and Stephanie McMahon, the boss’s daughter. Equally, for years, that tale was canon.

Turns out, according to Jim Ross, she’d bitten the hands that fed her by asking for more money than the company could handle for one superstar. This explains why she was let go, but as for being left out of the Hall of Fame when the stars already in its annals are, arguably, just as screwed up. Arguing to separate the art from the artist can only go so far, but Joanie certainly never killed anyone. 

Even though I stopped watching years ago, I still kept quite a bit of the memorabilia I’d amassed over the years. There’s a cover of RAW magazine with Chyna on the cover; on it, she’s holding up a metal globe on a background of stars. The last time I rifled through this box was right after she’d died. Another thing I hadn’t realized was that, in the time between when I’d been a teenage obsessive and that moment, this iconic woman many of us had looked up to had fallen on the wrong side of the tracks.

At the root of it all, Jim Ross said that she just wanted to be loved. Who can’t relate to that?

When I began reading more into Joanie’s post-WWE life, it was a mix of feeling empathy for her, and wonder. A wonder of how the same woman who pinned Jeff Jarrett for the Intercontinental Championship received more flack for doing porn than she did praise for the entire legacy she’d left in the wrestling world. There was a feeling of disconnect. 

In an interview with Broadly, Joanie’s mother Jan LaQue, said that she’d advised her daughter not to go back to California. She told her to get away from the “Chyna” persona, and to just be her. After 30 years of not speaking as the result of a tumultuous decade that ultimately led to Joanie leaving home to live with her father, they’d been exchanging emails in the years preceding her last. In the course of the emails, LaQue thought her daughter wanted to escape the persona and return to who she was. 

I bring this up because, as a wrestling fan in my teens, the superstars were who they were on television. Despite relentless searches on dial up internet connections about wrestlers’ real names, Chris Jericho was Chris Jericho, Kane was Kane (and given his current political standings, if only that were still the case), and Chyna was Chyna. So if Joanie was Chyna to many of us who idolized her, then presumably, that was the path to being loved. And those of us who loved her or not, should know how solid her standing should be in the legacy of the WWE: the Hall of Fame.

Something I also remember from the wrestling days was a barrage of comments about how “Chyna is a man!” or “Chyna is a lesbian!” I’m a queer kid from a tiny town, so there was always an interesting level of what I like to call Whatthef-kery going on there. If being muscular means you’re “a man” or a “lesbian”, aren’t both of those terms, directed at a woman, meant as an insult? Statements like that not only affected Laurer—a woman who wanted to be seen as sexy and feminine—but gay kids like me who heard we weren’t “good enough” either. And, unfortunately, even after the WWE, these insults towards Joanie herself only increased after her sex tape with Sean “X-Pac” Waltman.

On that same note, is a sex tape really that much of a big deal?

In the PG-rated world of wrestling—all holds barred matches and playing with nails is fine—apparently, yes. 

But even if the first of many sex tapes didn’t exist, would Chyna have been inducted into the Hall of Fame? 

In the November 2000 issue of Raw magazine, which is both the one I mentioned earlier and also has an article about Chris Benoit, there’s an exclusive “sneak peek” into Chyna’s Playboy shoot. In the sneak peek, Laurer talks to the magazine about how she hopes the shoot will be inspiring. She says that from a Joanie Laurer standpoint, “There’s a lot of bodies that are not shown because they’re not the norm.” Later, she asserts that she can be bigger and stronger and still beautiful, regardless of outsider voices. “The great thing to me is that I can show [who I really am] in all of those aspects.” Maybe her personal downfall that would happen just a couple of years later came from not getting to be who she was at the same time as being part of her wrestling family.

I reached out via email to an incredible entertainment writer who might be one of the best voices on the topic of wrestling, LaToya Ferguson. I wanted another woman’s view on what happened with Joanie, as I navigate this strange world I was once so familiar with, from the outside, it’s often difficult to split what happened in the ring from what happened in reality. As the author of an in-the-works book on women’s wrestling—covering both sides of the McMahon/Levesque/Laurer divide—she was certainly the right person to ask.

In doing this, my internal search for reasoning behind wanting to know more ended up taking a different path to the same argument: Chyna should be in the WWE Hall of Fame. She should have been long before she lost the cage match to addiction. However many people out there say she wasn’t a good wrestler, I’d put my left foot on the line in saying there’s three times the number of people who say and think otherwise. I’m one of them.

Chyna should be in the Hall of Fame for a legion of reasons, but now, in ways, I understand there were things she did that destroyed the chance. Or liabilities that, when under the influence of who knows how many substances, she might. LaToya said it best via email, that there was always going to be a chance she’d go off script and maybe if she’d have gotten fully clean and apologized, just maybe, she’d have gotten back into the fold. Unfortunately, it sounds like there were other forces at work. When you’re surrounded by demons, it’s often difficult to see the lighthouse through the storm. And see who’s good for you, and who’s bad.

I’m 13 when I see Chyna enter the Royal Rumble. The first woman ever to do so. We only had video tapes of matches, so as far as we knew, the Corporate Rumble and Raw didn’t exist. I’m sure they’d mentioned her taking part on a title card at some point, but none of those stick. Entrances, on the other hand, were everything. Each entrance was a surprise to us, and at 30, when Chyna appeared, I was suddenly aware that girls could do anything. 

Despite the personal and professional differences between Joanie Laurer and Vince McMahon, with all of the private goings on put to one side, there’s simply no excuse strong enough to leave the Ninth Wonder of the World out of the Hall of Fame. This is a Hall of Fame that have lobbyists who want to see Benoit inducted, and unless the gender divide is bigger than I imagined, I’d say murder-suicide is worse than revenge porn ten years later. But even Benoit aside, the hall is full of wrestlers and celebrities, men and women, with their pasts just as dark as Laurer’s. 

Tammy Lynn “Sunny” Michaels was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011; since then, she’s been arrested various times and has also starred in her own adult film. She’s still in the Hall of Fame. Rightfully. For the 186 individual inductees in the Hall of Fame—including embarrassments in the “celebrity” ring such as Donald Trump, Pete Rose, and Kid Rock—there are 16 women. That’s across individual and legacy inductions. 

The Fabulous Moolah, whose brutal pimping ways have come to light in the last few years, was inducted in 1995. Not only did WWE not take her out of the Hall of Fame, they also nearly named a Battle Royal after her, only reconsidering after fans had made their ire known. Hulk Hogan, arguably the WWE’s most famous wrestler of all time, was involved in a scandal that included not only a sex tape, but a racist rant that meant it wasn’t just his mini-Hogan caught on tape. (You can find out more about this in the Gawker vs. Hulk Hogan Netflix documentary and sports journalist Dave Dyer’s column, about the WWE Hall of Fame’s hypocrisy). 

For those who don’t know, in short, Hogan received a suspension from the Hall of Fame after the scandal. Great, in ways, but what about 2014-inductee Scott Hall’s multiple arrests for domestic abuse and drunk and disorderly actions? Or Steve Austin’s spousal abuse? “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka allegedly killed his mistress in the early 80s, and granted, WWE pulled him out of the Hall of Fame, it doesn’t explain the countless superstars that have had the same kind of problems as Joanie had. What is it that makes her different?

If Hogan was making the WWE so much money via merchandise that he got reinstated because of his legacy, how about the legacy of Chyna?

In an interview with Jim Ross, Stacy Carter—who was once, as Miss Kitty/The Kat, Chyna’s manager and also one of her good friends while they were in the company—said that they didn’t talk a lot after Joanie left the WWE. Carter left, too, remarking to Ross that it was getting away from the wrestling world that saved her, but in the case of Laurer, the comfort and stardom of being a WWE superstar was, ultimately, what she craved. She also remarked on how much Joanie’s personality changed with the drugs. Like she was barely the person she knew anymore. Also, that she shouldn’t have gone back to LA so soon. (Statements that were echoed by Laurer’s sister, Kathy).

At the Judgment Day Pay-Per-View in 2001, Laurer had her last match as Chyna against Lita. Chyna would continue to hold the women’s championship for months after she’d left the WWE, but that match was the start of the women’s division being taken seriously. And when Chyna took Lita’s hand and raised it up over the ring, even not knowing we’d never see the Ninth Wonder of the World the same again, it felt like there was a shift. It breaks my heart, as a fan, that she was so deeply affected by circumstances that she’d never get to experience that thrill again.

Joanie Laurer had a difficult life. In the WWE, she found acceptance, family, and love. These are the kinds of purity that drugs take away. They don’t mesh with alcohol or meth or coke or steroids. But it’s those drugs that take away the pain. If people she knew and who knew her and loved her didn’t recognize her by the end, then we have to ask whether who she was around was a good influence. After reading the Broadly article, I’m even inclined to ask whether she knew that the WWE offered her their rehabilitation program or not. Did she know? Or were there voices that spoke for her?

After all, it wouldn’t have been the first time.

Chyna was a force to be reckoned with. But it’s with Laurer that her legacy lies. It was Laurer who brought a force to the ring so powerful for kids like me and thousands of others. It was Laurer who was unapologetically strong, who did dozens of things in the then-federation for the first time. She had problems, she made stupid decisions, she said and did stupid things—but why should that take away her legacy when it didn’t the countless others?

WWE will induct Chyna into the Hall of Fame eventually. I hope.

It just should’ve happened a long time ago. 

Because she was the Ninth Wonder of the World, but more importantly, she was human.

 

***

 

Thank you to LaToya Ferguson and Dave Dyer for your wise words and knowledge.

 


Pain and Glory: Memories of a Transgender Cardinals Fan

Danielle Solzman

I’ve been a St. Louis Cardinals fan dating back to some of the earliest baseball games at Old Cardinal Stadium and saw the Louisville Redbirds take the field. The Redbirds were affiliated with the Cardinals so the allegiance to the Birds on the Bat stuck.

My first trip to Busch Stadium came on June 30, 1996. It was only the second MLB game I ever attended with the first being the Reds and Giants in July 1995 at what was then Riverfront Stadium. When you’re a Cardinals fan, you never forget your first trip to Busch. It was a hot day with the weather in the 90s so of course, my mom made us leave the game early! Tickets were $12 at the time. The Cardinals went on to defeat the Pittsburgh Pirates 10-3 that day.

While every year would see a new MLB stadium added, the next trip to Busch wouldn’t come until 2005 as the stadium would be torn down to make way for Busch Stadium III next door. It was August 4, 2005. While the Cardinals fell to the Florida Marlins that night in a 4-3 loss, there were a lot of emotions to be taken in. Jeff Suppan started the game and took the loss. It was only my second-ever game at Busch but it would also be my last game at Busch.

In the morning that followed, I would purchase my Got Rings? shirt that I would continue to wear for over the next decade. My family went to the Cardinals Hall of Fame and Museum and would take the stadium tour shortly thereafter. During the tour, we would visit the press box, the dugout, Batter’s Eye Club, Plaza of Champions, all the statues, and the Umpires’ Locker Room.

It’s kind of ironic to think about now but I didn’t get many photos with me in them. Not with the Stan Musial or Ozzie Smith statue. I had seen the Jack Buck statue but wasn’t able to snap a pic in time. I took one of the Augustus Busch Jr. statue with my brother. There was the one with my brother and I in front of the home run scoreboard that tracked the 1998 race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

One of the photos that I had taken with myself included was in the Cardinals dugout with my father. This was going to be my last time ever in the stadium that once played home to Red Schoendienst, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ken Boyer, Ozzie Smith, Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Stan Musial (he worked as a GM and special assistant), Whitey Herzog, Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa, and broadcaster Jack Buck. I was not leaving without a photo in that dugout!

Cut to August 2, 2006. It’s the first trip to Busch Stadium III during what would turn out to be a magical year by finishing with the club’s 10th World Series championship. The Cards were crushed 16-8 by the Philadelphia Phillies. It was unfortunate in the loss. I was able to see the Cards play twice in person that season. We lost both times. Oh, well. You can’t win them all.

I had the day off during finals week that May so I treated myself to a Cardinals game against the Reds. Because it had rained earlier, they weren’t doing batting practice but the entire Cardinals bullpen was signing autographs that day in addition to a few position players. On the autograph front, it was one of my best days ever: Adam Wainwright, Jason Isringhausen, Braden Looper, Randy Flores, Brad Thompson, Josh Hancock, and Aaron Miles.

Because my brother attended St. Louis University, I took advantage of a family weekend trip in late September 2007. I would finally get my photo with the Jack Buck statue while taking photos of all the other statues.

In spite of all this, I don’t look at these photos any more. Not since late 2015 when I came out as a transgender woman to myself and my immediate family. I would later come out to everyone in my life over Memorial Day weekend in 2016 before going full-time that September.

Our next trip came in August 2012. This was the first family trip to a ball game that would include my brother’s wife and daughter. I was able to meet two sportswriters that I admire before the game: Derrick Goold and Rick Hummel. I would also meet Mike Shannon later that evening when he was doing his radio show at his restaurant.

Even though these trips did happen and the memories last forever, it’s hard looking at photos and seeing a body that you know is wrong. Even while working on this article and looking back at photos to make sure I got information correct, I couldn’t help but cringe. Even in the photos that I really wanted to take, it was hard to get a smile out of me while presenting as male. I’m a transgender woman. Even though I’ve been on hormone replacement therapy since May 1, 2016, not a day goes by in which I don’t pray to wake up as a cisgender woman.

When I came out to my family, my mom wanted to throw away all my baseball books because she doesn’t think I can be a sports fan, because I’m a woman. I’m sorry but that’s not the way it works. Not when I know so many women who are baseball fans and quite a few of them who cover the game in one way or another. One of my good friends used to work in ESPN PR so when I covered the Cardinals for Fansided’s Redbird Rants, I would get interview opportunities all the time when St. Louis played on Sunday Night Baseball.

While some trans women may have faked being a sports fan in order to fit into a society that says men must love sports, my love of baseball has never wavered. One of the first things I did as soon as my boobs grew to a decent size was buy a women’s St. Louis Cardinals shirt that I could be able to wear in public. Women’s clothing sizes is another story for another day but for the love of everything, is it so hard to be consistent among all brands?!?

The one thing that did change upon coming out, however, was how hard reading was initially without the right hormones in my system. Not being able to do something you love definitely hurt. By the way, if anything, my baseball book collection has grown since coming out! Some things haven’t changed. I still follow my Cardinals whenever I have the chance. 


Blue Jays Final Spring Training Report: Au Revoir Montreal

By Karen Soutar

The Blue Jays wrapped up their 2018 spring training schedule with their fifth annual two game series at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, and a record of 14-18 with one tie.

There are those who’d love to see Major League Baseball return to Montreal, years after the Expos franchise left, following the 2004 season, when they became the Washington Nationals; however it seems like the (second) honeymoon between baseball and fans in Montreal may be over.

From 2014-2017, total attendance for the two game series was 96,350, 96,545, 106,102 and 95,382, respectively. The spike in 2016 is easily explained, since much of Canada had “Blue Jays fever” in 2015 due to the team’s first postseason appearance in 22 years, and this carried over in to 2016. In 2018, however, total attendance was only 51,151. It’s worth noting that in previous years, the two games were played on Friday and Saturday, whereas the Thursday start to the regular seasion in 2018 necessitated that the games be played on Monday/Tuesday instead.

Still, even with weekday rather than weekend games, attendance in 2018 dropped 46% from the average attendance in 2014, 2015 and 2017. Using the 2017 Blue Jays regular season as a comparison, and eliminating the home opener which is almost always sold out, they averaged 36,362 in 41 games played Monday-Thursday and 42,682 in 39 games played Friday-Sunday and holidays. This works out to approximately 15% fewer fans attending weekday games than weekend games, so it’s reasonable to assume there are other factors at work here. MLB commissioner Manfred has previously expressed interest in returning an MLB franchise to Montreal. (www.cbc.ca/.../montreal/montreal-a-frontrunner-for-expansion-mlb-commissioner-says-...) It will be interesting to see what effect this drop has on Manfred’s future consideration of bringing an MLB team back to Montreal.

But for 19-year old Vladimir Guerrero Jr, it was an opportunity to play professionally on the same field where his father rose to super stardom with the Expos. Vlad Jr was born in Montreal during Vlad sr’s tenure with the Expos. None of this was lost on the crowd of 25,335 on Monday. When Vlad Jr, wearing his father’s #27 on his jersey was announced in to the game as a defensive replacement mid-way through the game, he was greeted with a standing ovation.

Vlad Jr hasn’t looked intimidated or out of place when playing in MLB spring training games this year. This isn’t surprising, as the son of a future Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero sr, the younger Guerrero has been around MLB ballparks his whole life. In 4 MLB spring training games, he hit .538 in 13 ABs with only one strikeout. He also went 2-4 with a walk in a game vs the Canadian junior team that doesn’t count in the spring stats.

Vlad Jr has proven to be more than just a slugger. He has made a few impressive defensive plays at third base, and displayed good hustle and instincts on the base path. Some may argue the future should be now for MLB’s third ranked prospect, and that the Jays should add him to their major league roster now. But it makes sense that they’re assigning him to Double-A to start the 2018 season. Vlad Jr is a special young talent, and the Jays should give him every opportunity to succeed; that means allowing him time and experience to develop at each minor league level, not rushing him to MLB before he’s ready. By mid-season if he’s dominating Double-A pitching the way he did at A-ball in 2017, maybe then they should promote him to Triple-A.

Before the exhibition schedule came to a close, the stage was set for a special moment. Bottom of the 9th. Two out, bases empty in a scoreless tie. It was announced earlier that they wouldn’t play extra innings; either the Jays would be victorious or it would end 0-0. Up came Vlad Jr, who crushed a solo shot to left centre field for his first dinger of MLB spring training, and giving the Jays the win, to the excitement of his teammates and fans in attendance. The curtain call afterward was the icing on the cake for the young prospect.

Karen Soutar is a lifelong resident of Toronto, Canada, baseball aficionado and die hard Toronto Blue Jays fan. Twitter: @KarenSoutar1