Deep in the Dugout

Sounds like a high school locker room on Internet sports sites and radio talk shows these days, as baseball fans salaciously swap suspicions about players’ sexuality. Last week, after Out magazine editor Brendan Lemon announced in print that for a year and a half he had been having an affair with a “pro baseball player” from an “East Coast franchise, not his team’s biggest star, but a very recognizable media figure all the same,” the buzz has not abated. Here was a scandal so much juicier than Daryl Strawberry‘s latest bust. Good for the gays? Maybe there’s a frisson in the fact that Major League fans are entertaining the possibility that any guy in those butt-hugging uniforms could be queer. Indeed, the best that can be said for Lemon’s whiny little letter from the editor is that it reminds the world that gay folks are everywhere, including in the dugout.

But the response from the gay community has been less than enthusiastic. Lemon’s sour column “exacerbates the notion that being gay is something to be gossiped about,” wrote Cyd Zeigler Jr. on the hopping gay Web site, and makes Out magazine look “more like a bad issue of The National Enquirer than a reputable publication.” Of course, that’s how the slick fashion-and-celebrity glossy looks all the time—Lemon’s confession is featured in the special “luxury-themed” issue—so it’s a fair accusation that the column is more a self-serving publicity stunt than a sincere blow against homophobia.

The surprising thing is that half a dozen daily sports columnists have responded with sympathy for the mystery man, condemning the macho fag-bashing atmosphere of men’s pro sports. Many rued how tough it is for gay men in pro leagues—barely a handful have come out, even after their careers have ended—and condemned how crushing teammates’, managers’, and fans’ homo-panic can be for players. Of course, in men’s sports, it’s an individual matter: They suffer in secrecy lest they ruin their careers. In women’s sports—which none of the columnists bothered to mention—lesbians are locked in the closet with the threat that coming out will bring down the whole league. As for the ever consumerist and conservative Out, it would rather goad one guy with a lot to lose than do some real journalism that looks at what really needs to change.

Chrissakes, Just Do It

For those of you who may not have figured it out yet, a new survey of conditions at Nike factories finds the shoe conglomerate still woefully lacking in the human rights department. Among the findings of the 115-page Global Exchange document: Promises by Nike CEO Phil Knight to allow independent monitoring of factories have yet to be fulfilled; worker education programs provided by the company are largely inaccessible to workers, who must labor as much as 70 hours a week just to earn a subsistence wage; and while the use of toxic solvents such as toluene has been reduced, it still remains high, even according to Nike’s own figures—which were collected by inspectors whose visits were preannounced to factory management.

The report also calls Nike on the carpet for what it didn’t promise to do three years ago, when the sporting-goods behemoth first sought to distance itself from its growing reputation as Sweatshop Central. Among the omissions: remedying the hideously low wages paid to Nike workers. Doubling its third world pay scale, the report estimates, would ensure Nike’s workers of a living wage while adding at most $5 to the retail price of a pair of shoes.

Nike’s hegemony in college athletic programs, meanwhile, may yet prove to be the company’s Achilles’ heel when it comes to worker’s rights. Last year at this time, student anti-sweatshop activists had just helped launch the Worker’s Rights Consortium—an independent alternative to the industry-approved Fair Labor Association—to monitor compliance with universities’ codes of conduct. In response, Nike was reportedly set to withdraw endorsement contracts with Brown University and the University of Michigan for affiliating with the WRC, while Knight had cut off donations to his alma mater, the University of Oregon. The rumored college shoe war fizzled out, however—”it is a tempest that never moved beyond the boundaries of the University of Oregon,” says WRC director Scott Nova—and the WRC now sports 80 member schools. The organization’s own report on Nike’s Kuk Dong plant in Mexico was cited by the Global Exchange study for uncovering continued use of child labor and illegally low wages.

Whether increased scrutiny will lead to reforms remains to be seen. The WRC was designed to provide college administrators with monitoring reports with which to enforce their codes of conduct—but as Nova explains, “When I say enforce, I mean enforce through persuasion.” We’re not holding our breath—though if we were Nike workers, we probably would be.

Game Called

With baseball in full swing and filling the airwaves, fans are once again being subjected to that annoying Claritin commercial—you know, the one that concludes, ” . . . and when the ump yells, ‘Play ball!’ you’ll be ready.” But here’s a question: Do umpires really bellow, “Play ball!” at the outset of each game? The phrase has become ingrained upon our collective baseball psyche (an article on earlier this spring said, “It’s almost time to hear the umpires cry, ‘Play ball,’ the greatest two words in the English language next to ‘happy hour’ “), so much so that you might presume it’s codified in the rule book—and it is, sort of, but not the way you’d expect.

Rule 4.02 states, “The players of the home team shall take their defensive positions, the first batter of the visiting team shall take his position in the batter’s box, the umpire shall call ‘Play’ and the game shall start.”

Jockbeat doesn’t mean to split hairs, but you’ve gotta admit that “Play” sounds downright effete compared to the authoritative “Play Ball!” Surely any ump who can withstand heckling from fans, frowns of disgust from Paul O’Neill, and shouted abuse from Lou Pinnella isn’t going to daintily instruct the teams to “Play,” is he?

“Believe it or not, every one of them simply says, ‘Play,’ ” says Ralph E. Nelson Jr., Vice President of Umpiring for Major League Baseball, confounding the expectations of Jockbeat and Claritin alike. So if “Play” is both officially sanctioned and currently used, how did “Play Ball!” enter the vernacular? Nelson isn’t sure, but Bill Francis, Jockbeat’s favorite researcher up at the Baseball Hall of Fame, reports that “Play Ball!” appears in printed references at least as far back as 1901. But the term’s origins remain murky, at least for now. If any umpires (or umpire scholars) can clear this up, we’re all ears.

Poorly Armed

Not that we wouldn’t trust Joe Torre with our firstborn child, but we couldn’t help but notice the alarming pitch counts being rung up by Yankee starters the past week and a half: Orlando Hernandez, 137 (May 13); Andy Pettitte, 143 (May 16); Roger Clemens, 135 (May 20). According to the number crunchers at Baseball Prospectus, pitch counts of higher than 133 are considered “high risk,” with even a single outing at this level carrying the chance of diminished effectiveness or serious injury. “It should be viewed as nearly inexcusable to let a starting pitcher exceed 140 pitches in any start,” writes BP’s Keith Woolner. On second thought, can we have that firstborn child back?

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