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Breaking in Is Hard to Do: ‘Pitch,’ Jessica Mendoza & Women in the Church

This past summer I was having lunch with some co-workers when the conversation turned to sports. A colleague lamented the poor performance of his hometown baseball team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and I tried to encourage him: “They made the right decision in signing Zack Greinke, but sometimes pitchers don’t do well when they transition to a hitter’s park. And who could have predicted he’d struggle so much and then end up on the DL? It just didn’t work out.”

He looked at me like I had just named names before a Senate committee.

In my life, this is not an uncommon occurrence. And I have to admit that sometimes I will gleefully insert baseball knowledge into a sports-related conversation where nobody expects me to know anything just to see the stunned reactions. A woman who knows and likes sports is still perceived as a rarity, even in our egalitarian modern society that boasts of the WNBA, a stellar women’s soccer team, and where women make up 35 percent of the fans of professional sports.

 And the fact is that I learned to love baseball from my mom. It was my mom who embarrassed me by cheering loudly at baseball stadiums; it was my mom who insisted my brother play little league and who happily took him to every game; and it was my mom whose idea it was to take the whole family to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York when I was twelve. I absorbed knowledge of baseball almost by osmosis growing up in my mother’s house, until I grew to love it.

And that’s why I was intrigued by a new show on Fox called Pitch. Pitch, as its title implies, is a show about a pitcher on a Major League Baseball team. The twist is that this pitcher is a black woman, the first woman to break into the league as a starting pitcher. The show is brilliant and unusual not only for its diverse cast, but also its partnership with MLB that allows its many exciting game sequences to be filmed in a stadium.

Ginny Baker is the title pitcher that is promoted to the San Diego Padres, cheered on by women and girls excited at the shattering of this glass ceiling. Her throngs of fans see her as the female Jackie Robinson, but her all male team and coaching staff are less than enthusiastic. Some view her as a flash in the pan that will lose her shine and fade out of existence quickly; while others view her as a threat, taking the place of qualified and more talented players in order to lure more fans to the ballpark with her novelty. In her professional world, Ginny has few friends, mostly her agent and the upper management of the team that profit immensely from her.

For her part, Ginny seems uncomfortable with all the attention. In the opening scene, she’s in a hotel room adorned with vases of flowers from the likes of Hillary Clinton and Ellen Degeneres and surrounded by body guards who protect her from the multitudes that follow wherever she goes. We learn in flashbacks that she has always been a natural at baseball, though she has trained tirelessly with the help of her stern and dedicated father from a young age. She’s a gifted athlete who has worked hard and just wants to pitch, but the expectations thrust upon her by her historic rise to Major League Baseball bring the added pressure of not just being good enough to play in the big show but being a phenom—a pitcher with outstanding talent worthy of the hall of fame—one who will surely pave the way for other women in baseball.

It is precisely this pressure that is reminiscent for me of women leaders in the Church. Like many people who advocate for the inclusion of women at all levels of church leadership, I have sat in churches where a woman steps up to preach, rooting for her success and knowing that not only will she need to exude confidence and warmth, but she will need to hit it out of the park (pardon the pun) with her public speaking skills and sermon preparation. In short, she needs to be the “exceptional” pastor to be deemed successful and find acceptance. Unlike her male counterparts, her competence and theological training are not enough. She is not allowed bad days; nor is she given the grace not to be good at everything. If she is not extraordinarily gifted at all the pastoral duties, there are those who will say that her limitations are the very reasons women do not belong in church leadership; she will be seen as representative of her entire gender not just herself. Imagine the unfair burden of knowing that your failure will likely be seen as the failure of all women pastors!

I fully expected Pitch to head in the very cliché “exceptional” woman direction, making Ginny Baker the phenom that paves the way with her greatness, and I was delighted that it did not. Ginny is a good pitcher, but she is not great—at least not in the episodes of the series so far. In fact (spoiler alert!), she chokes in her first start and is unable to record even a single out before begging the pitching coach and manager to take her out of the game. In a later episode, she gives up a homerun in the All-Star Game, caving under the pressure of facing an experienced and intimidating hitter. Those were bad moments for Ginny, but I enjoyed them because they humanized her and provided room for her to grow and learn the game like all rookies. It’s only fair. And it’s the same opportunity I would love to see given to all women leaders in the church: safer places to fail, learn, and grow.

Of course, it is important to note that Ginny does not occupy an entirely safe space. Her aforementioned disgruntled teammates initially begrudge her presence on the team and even resent giving up space in their clubhouse for her to dress privately. Some are annoyed that congratulatory butt-slaps can longer be given to everyone as is the custom; while others see her promotion as a threat to their place of prominence on the team.

What Ginny experiences is not unlike what many women leaders still experience in the Church: the discomfort of men who are asked to make space for them. The one advantage Ginny has is that her teammates are not given the choice to reject her because upper management fully supports her; after all, she is a lucrative investment that is filling up the stands. Men in the church, however, often have a choice. They do not have to sit with the discomfort of this “other” in their space. They do not have to make room because they can choose to hire a male pastor and relegate women leaders to work with other women or children.

In part, I resonate with the discomfort that men can experience having to learn under the leadership of a woman. I am an advocate for gender equality in the Church, but that does not mean that I have not internalized the normalization of male only leadership and voices. I never thought I would relate so much to those that resist women leaders, until I was introduced to the broadcasting voice of Jessica Mendoza on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. Ms. Mendoza is an Olympic gold-medalist in softball and the first woman hired by ESPN as a baseball analyst and broadcaster—her rise is historic and happened in real life, unlike Ginny Baker’s. I was thrilled to hear her call a game and yet I was strangely and unexpectedly disappointed with her performance. Something just felt…wrong with her commentary on the game. And while there were those who found her addition to the broadcasting team “seamless,” I wasn’t the only one that experienced a feeling of dis-ease.

I mentioned this feeling to my brother while we were watching a game, and his response was simple but profound, “I think you’re looking for something to be wrong, but there isn’t. She’s good. You just have to get used to hearing her call the games.” And he was right. I am so used to the familiar and distinct voices of broadcasters like Vin Scully, Dan Schulman, and John Kruk that I had to adjust to hearing a different voice.

In the end it was worth it to sit with the ambiguity and discomfort that comes with a new paradigm because now that I am used to Jessica Mendoza’s voice, I love it, and I am continuously impressed by her expertise and ease in talking baseball. I admire a woman who can navigate a male-dominated world with such grace and style.

This discomfort that I experienced is one that many men will have to choose to sit with as well, if the leadership of women in the Church will ever become commonplace. A professor in the seminary I attended was well known for telling the men in his classes that it would become their duty to advocate for women. He reminded them that they would be the ones entrusted with power and privilege in the church, so they would be the ones who would need to make sure that their churches made space for women pastors and leaders, however uncomfortable that might be. To put it in terms of the TV series, we do not need Ginny Bakers in the Church; we have many, and more women are being called into pastoral ministry and church leadership every day. We need more all-male teams, like the Padres, to have the courage to advocate for the inclusion of women and be willing to persevere through the challenges that will come because of it.

Toward the end of the first episode of Pitch there’s an important turning point in the story. Ginny, after collapsing on the mound under the pressure she is experiencing from all sides, is asked by a veteran player whom she is playing for: is it for the female Jackie Robinson everyone wants her to be? Is it for the women and girls that look to her as a role model? Or is it for herself—for her love of baseball? She decides she must play for herself if she is going not just to survive but thrive as a player.

Women pastors and leaders must also answer a variation of that question: whom are they in ministry for? After all, they will face many obstacles and challenges to be ministers of the word and sacraments in God’s church. So unlike Ginny, they cannot be in it for themselves but for the one who says they bear God’s image and are called by God to serve the Church. The Apostle Paul tells all God’s people in Ephesians: “…I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” That is, indeed, the making of a godly leader, regardless of gender.

Karen Gonzalez is an immigrant from Guatemala, raised in the US. She works in church engagement for immigration advocacy for a non-profit in Baltimore. She studied missiology and theology (cross-cultural studies) at Fuller Theological Seminary and holds a BA in English from the University of South Florida. She writes often about gender and race in the church. She loves baseball and tacos.

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