The release from the Southern League of umpire Ria Cortesio at the end of the 2007 season was neither suspicious nor unexpected. As a matter of fact, it followed a very predictable pattern established by minor league supervisors over the course of the last thirty-six years and historically, was the only logical step for baseball to take regarding her employment.
Ria's rise to the top of the Double AA ranks was as close as baseball ever intended to allow her to get to the majors. She was kept on as a minor league umpire long past her expiration date - any male umpire, according to the standard currently employed by PBUC, the Professional Baseball Umpires Corporation, would have been either promoted or let go after two years in Double AA - merely as a sop to the spurious and easily refuted orthodoxy that baseball does not discriminate against or intentionally obstruct women's participation on the field as umpires. In fact, since 1972 when pioneer Bernice Gera filed suit and got the courts to throw out the height and weight restrictions that had prevented women - and a lot of men, too - from becoming professional umpires, women have been used, singly and intermittently, to legitimize the false hypothesis that baseball does not discriminate against their participation on the field. Just as Pam Postema was kept on for thirteen years, so Ria was used by baseball until her presence on a minor league umpiring staff became too threatening and inconvenient to allow her to advance any farther. By the time she got her big, important spring training assignment in Arizona last March, a lone Cubs/Diamondbacks game, the writing was on the wall and she had to go.
The premise that Ria's ranking within her league plummeted precipitously the last half of her final season is dubious at best; more likely, it was the sense of control guys like Mike Fitzpatrick and the other minor league supervisors and evaluators were losing over her as Ria's name and reputation grew nationally that compelled them to act and finally release her from Double AA. 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 referees staff. Because of his vision and fearlessness, two women were hired and one of them, Violet Palmer, is still working in the NBA ten years later. Palmer's career belies the belief held inviolable by too many for too long, that women are incapable of the physical and emotional fortitude demanded by the rigors of officiating at the highest levels of professional sport. Baseball holds this credo dear, and will obviously do anything to maintain the status quo as long as it possibly can.
Any real commitment by baseball to the eventual advent of women on a major league umpiring crew could be measured fairly accurately by the current construction plans for the soon-to-be-completed Yankees and Mets ballparks in New York. The NBA, for the last ten years, has contractually ensured a separate dressing room or changing area for its female referee(s) in every venue in the National Basketball Association. No complaining that it "costs too much, too much trouble, can't find a space, etc." Will the new ballparks in Flushing and the Bronx offer similar accommodations? They obviously won't be needed anytime soon now, but some indication that proper facilities will be provided for the women who may, at some point in the far, far, far-off future in a far, far, far-away land, be needing them would at least be a step in the right direction for baseball.
Ria's tenure in professional baseball will stand as a monument to the grit, determination, and love of the game that will one day propel another woman umpire to the major leagues, and to her own strength and endurance, both physical and spiritual. Her achievement will not be forgotten by those of us who know she would have done a fine job as a major league umpire if she had been given anything close to the same chance most of her peers are awarded routinely. For Ria it was not meant to be, 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, not feared and rejected. We obviously have a long way to go to get there; in baseball, change comes sluggishly and incrementally, and seldom without upheaval or resistance. But the day will come when a woman's presence behind home plate excites no more interest than a man's, and the term "woman umpire" is as redundant as "woman doctor" or "female astronaut."
Women will umpire in the major leagues; the only question is when, and the sooner baseball recognizes and embraces this inevitability, the greater the benefit for all of us. Ria Cortesio, we salute you and thank you for shedding some much needed light on this dim chapter in baseball's long and disappointing history of keeping women in their place. The wrong place.