Here's one place where we definitely want women to get yelled at: the major league baseball diamond. Looks like it's gonna be a while, though, as 31-year-old Ria Cortesio -- for years the only female umpire in organized baseball -- has, as of last week, been "released."
Cortesio -- whose mask hangs in the Baseball Hall of Fame -- spent nine years in the minor leagues, the last five in the Double-A Southern League, where she served as crew chief. Only a few years after graduating, she became the first female instructor at the Jim Evans Umpire Academy. She had worked a minor league all-star game as well as, just this March, a Cubs-Diamondbacks exhibition game: the first time a woman had done so in 20 years, the second time a woman had done so ever. Cortesio, who started this season as the top-ranked umpire in Double-A, had reportedly been told that her seniority put her first in line to move up to Triple-A. This would have been her second-to-last step toward the notoriously impenetrable major league.
Last Tuesday, however, Cortesio was informed there'd be no room for her in the big(ger) leagues.
Word is, her ranking had dropped. Truth is, plenty of AA umps are let go every year; there are often only a few open AAA spots to fill.
Still, some have deemed the release of Cortesio a particularly lousy call. "Baseball never had it in its plan to get Cortesio to the big stage," columnist John Marx wrote on Illinois' Quad Cities Online. "I believe the powers that be let her float the last few years, keeping her at one level so it would look as if there were hope for her to move up. Dumping the girl umpire too soon would have looked bad for baseball," he said. "I believe her ranking dropped because she's a woman, and baseball's leaders were working out a way to let her go. She got too close for comfort, on the verge of working Triple-A baseball, which was too close to the big leagues for baseball brass to handle."
Experienced umpire Perry Barber, who alerted Broadsheet to Cortesio's firing, said in an e-mail that "one has only to examine the record of recruitment, training, and promoting of women by pro ball to discern that there is no recruitment, targeted training, or promoting of women the way there is and has been for other minorities, including African-Americans and Hispanics." She notes that "baseball has no one like Rod Thorn, former head of operations for the National Basketball Association, who saw a void and actively went out looking for qualified women to sign up and promote to the NBA staff of referees." Of the two who were hired 10 years ago as a result, Violet Palmer is still working. ("And," adds Barber, "you never hear anything about her, that's how proficient and competent she is.")
Of course we don't, and won't, know why, after nine years, Cortesio apparently started to suck overnight. Though I have to agree with Marx that -- unless she giggled and said, "Eek, throw slower!" or asked for Alfonso Soriano's autograph during the game -- it's kind of suspicious.
Suspicious, but in the scheme of things, hardly shocking. As far as major league umpiring is concerned, Cortesio's being released -- and the dearth in general of women behind home plate -- is about as surprising as Lou Piniella losing his cool. Of the six female umps ever in the minor leagues, none has made the majors, not even Pam Postema, who spent six years in Triple-A during the 1980s. (After being fired, she filed a sex discrimination suit that was ultimately settled out of court.) And really, not that much has changed since then. Major league umpires have contracts that give them about as much job security as a Supreme Court justice or the pope. They do not budge; they are not known for embracing change. And, unlike in Double-A, umpires in Triple-A are under the auspices of major league supervisors. So.
Cortesio may not have managed to break through this grass ceiling, but "her spirit will infuse the next one who makes the attempt, and the next one after that, with focus and energy until at last baseball wakes up and realizes that a woman on the field of play is something to be welcomed and appreciated," says Barber. "Women will umpire in the major leagues; the only question is when." Right now, that question looks very, very open. We only wish we could say, "That'll happen when the Red Sox win the World Series."