Chelsea Baker was a baseball pitcher with a ferocious knuckleball who graduated from a high school in Florida last spring. Chelsea Baker once threw batting practice for the Tampa Bay Rays, and was profiled on ESPN, and struck out former major-leaguer Kevin Millar, and earned the nickname “Knuckleball Princess” for her exploits. Chelsea Baker is attending Florida Atlantic University this fall, and is apparently finished playing baseball altogether.

Ginny Baker, on the other hand, is a pitcher with a nasty screwball who will soon become the first woman to play Major League Baseball, for the San Diego Padres. I do not know much about Ginny Baker’s background as of yet, largely because Ginny Baker is a fictional character, the star of the new FOX drama series Pitch, which premieres Thursday. But I imagine Ginny Baker is an idealized amalgam of real-life figures like Chelsea Baker and Mo’ne Davis, the young pitcher who dominated the Little League World Series as a pitcher in 2014 and advanced the notion that perhaps a woman might someday be able to play in Major League Baseball.

As stories like Chelsea Baker’s become more common, and as women are afforded more opportunities to succeed in sports, the question remains: How far are we from the moment when major American sports go coed?

For now, Ginny Baker is a screenwriter’s fantasy—female athletes like Chelsea Baker don’t even get much of a chance to pitch on the college level, let alone at the professional level. But as stories like these become more common, and as women are afforded more opportunities to succeed in sports, the question remains: How far are we from the moment when major American sports go coed? Will there be a moment when a woman like Mo’ne Davis (if not Davis herself) cracks the glass ceiling of athletics? Or are our cultural mores so well-established in the sporting realm that it might never happen?

At least when it comes to baseball, it’s very possible that we’re not as far away as we think.

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The 1972 passage of Title IX, which mandated athletic equality between men and women, was a breakthrough that still resonates today. It forever altered women’s athletics, and provided new opportunities for women to play sports, particularly at the college level. But Title IX also did something else, according to Erin Buzuvis, director of the Center for Gender & Equality Studies at the Western New England School of Law. It also set up a paradigm of “separate but equal.” The endgame ideal, at this point, is equal opportunity for men and women in their respective sports, but, “It’s possible that’s a little bit undermining,” says Buzuvis, when it comes to the idea of women crossing over into traditionally male sports.

This division is something that begins early, in youth sports, when even, say, soccer teams are often separated into boys and girls. That leads to what Buzuvis calls a sense of “biological determinism”—the cultural expectation that boys and girls are different when it comes to athletics. And it discourages a sense of experimentation—it perhaps keeps us from asking the question, What if women could cross over to men’s sports in a legitimate way?

It’s not that there aren’t any historical precedents. But many of those precedents have been viewed by a skeptical public as more like stunts than reality. Even Billie Jean King’s undeniably historic tennis victory over Bobby Riggs in 1973 has been marred by allegations of match-fixing. Mixed doubles, one tennis writer told me, is generally not taken very seriously in professional circles. When Nancy Lieberman played on a couple of NBA summer-league teams in the early 1980s, the idea of her actually making an NBA roster was largely scoffed at as an unrealistic possibility; three decades later, when Brittney Griner dabbled with the notion of playing for the Dallas Mavericks, the same naysayers pounced. None of the female kickers who have played for high-school or college football teams have been good enough to make a major impact; when Manon Rheaume became the first female goaltender in the NHL in 1992, she was, wrote Sports Illustrated, “as celebrated for her looks as her play.”

Still, these stereotypes are continuing to be challenged in more serious ways. Danica Patrick is not a superstar on the racing circuit, but she’s good enough to be considered legitimate; same with Kelly Kulick, who won an event competing with men on the Professional Bowlers Association tour. Annika Sorenstam proved she could at least hold her own against men in golf; Mo’ne Davis was a sensation at the Little League World Series not merely because she was female, but because she was one of the best players on the field. And that’s what it will take, the experts say: a woman who is both good enough to earn a spot based entirely on merit, and a woman who can also handle the scrutiny and skepticism that will attend any attempt to break that barrier.

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In what major sport is this most likely to happen? And at what position? Oddly, in certain sports that America pays little attention to, women are already dominant. In ultra-distance open-water swimming, women’s bodies appear to be better at fat-burning over long distances than men (or so the theory goes), which means they may also eclipse men in events like ultra-marathoning as well. “It’s not all skills, but there are some skills where women could potentially have the tendency to dominate,” Buzuvis says.

But what about in mainstream American team sports, where the bar is even higher and the stereotypes more entrenched, where even female sportswriters are regularly harassed by cruel and ignorant male fans?

Obviously, football would be the most difficult at nearly every position except kicker, largely because of the strength and size required. (While some women’s hockey players have crossed over on the high-school and college levels, that size and strength disparity might also raise the bar for the NHL, as well, with the notable exception of a goaltender.) But it may also be because, Buzuvis tells me, “Football plays a role in constructing our image of masculinity,” and so even a female kicker would be viewed as an interloper into a traditionally male universe. When Colorado kicker Katie Hnida alleged that she was raped by a teammate back in 2004, then-coach Gary Barnett responded by criticizing her abilities as a kicker. In basketball, of course, height is a primary issue, and even Griner, at 6-foot-8, is not particularly tall compared to most NBA post players.

“Many of the examples have been a one-off situation, and that doesn’t have the same kind of power to change people’s minds,” Buzuvis says. “You need somebody who’s willing to be a trailblazer.”

And that would mean dealing with the public scrutiny and unfair criticism that attended groundbreaking women like Billie Jean King.

“There are women who can kick a football or a soccer ball,” Earl Smith, director of American ethnic studies at Wake Forest, told ESPNW, “but then you have to ask yourself, as a parent, would you put your daughter through that just to play a game?”

**

In the end, all of this may wind up leading back to baseball.

A woman who throws a nasty knuckleball or an unhittable screwball: That may be the surest pathway to a roster spot. At the moment, most female pitchers top out in the mid-80s in terms of velocity, but that’s likely to change as more and more women grow up playing baseball, claims University of Nevada-Reno professor Jennifer Ring, who’s written a book about women’s baseball. Real-life role models like Mo’ne Davis, and fictional role models like Ginny Baker—presuming Pitch catches on with viewers—may inspire more young girls to actually try playing baseball, and to keep with it despite the long odds of professional success. The fact that several baseball personnel executives have said it’s only a matter of time before a woman plays in the major leagues may help open doors, as well.

Buzuvis saw the effects of this when watching a random regional Little League World Series game: There she watched a girl from a squad in Minnesota who was one of her team’s best players. It’s still a rare sight, but it’s becoming less and less so: Japanese player Eri Yoshida taught herself how to throw a knuckleball by watching major-leaguer Tim Wakefield on television, and played in several independent leagues in America before returning to Japan. Houston’s Sarah Hudek won a college game as a pitcher at a Texas community college before transferring to Texas A&M to play softball. And even beyond the mound, France’s Melissa Mayeux last year became the first female to be added to MLB’s international registration list, meaning she was eligible to be drafted by an MLB team. All of this has facilitated the case for establishing both women’s high-school baseball and women’s college baseball, which might make the path to the majors easier in the future, presuming, as Buzuvis points out, it doesn’t establish a “separate but equal” mentality.

“When I was watching that Little League World Series game with that team from Minnesota, or when I was watching Mo’ne Davis,” Buzuvis says, “whatever objections people might have had about it, it was also clear that these women were helping their team win.”

 

Michael Weinreb is the author of four books, including The Kings of New York, which was named one of the best books of the year by Amazon. For more, go here.