Let’s Not Talk Small Talk, by Jenn Danko

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I haven’t had a guest poster in a while, so I’m excited about this one. Jenn Danko is a Chicago-based writer whose stuff is incredibly good. I’m not exactly sure how we first became friendly, but years ago she sent me the below essay (unpublished, amazingly),danko and I absolutely loved it. Against all logic, the piece has never run anywhere—until now. Although Sal Bando hasn’t been the GM in eons, and Jenn no longer interns with the Brewers, the ideas of the essay still stand. In short, women are treated like crap in baseball, and it’s disgusting.

Alas, I’m babbling. Here’s Jenn’s work. Enjoy …

The first time I met Sal Bando, we talked about water-skiing. I was wearing a blue tank dress dotted with green flowers, and I had thrown a white cardigan sweater over my shoulders because the front offices of County Stadium were much cooler than the concourse. Sal called himself the “General Manager of the Milwaukee Brewers,” a title that granted him more clout than I thought he deserved. Men in gray suits slipped in and out of the door as I handed him two stacks of starting line-ups an hour before the first pitch. He smiled for a moment, maybe staring at my tanned legs or ruddy cheekbones, and then asked me how often I water-skied.

I wanted to give him a thrill, maybe an entertaining story of the one-handed back flip I was perfecting on the waters of Lake Michigan. But honestly, the only water-skiing feat I had ever accomplished involved a 12-second ride that ended after I had lost my balance and the top of my bathing suit. My tan came from hot afternoons spent on Milwaukee’s Bradford Beach—slow days that passed without the help of my watch or credit cards. I would lie down on a red towel—my back buttered with rich oil—while the sun slid through cirrus clouds and mid-summer haze. And instead of swimming or water-skiing, I read books about baseball and browsed through black and white photos of players my father knew when he pitched for Kansas City. Historians had researched hundreds of ballplayers and published books filled with their career statistics, names of obscure taverns they frequented after ballgames, stories of women who smiled at them from the open stands.

Sometimes I thought about these women when I weaved through the front offices of County Stadium that summer. I was an intern in the Media Relations Department for the Milwaukee Brewers and spent long nights running down the catwalks and ramps, delivering memos to vice presidents and talent scouts, charting home runs on the out-of-town scoreboard. I would by-pass tight rows of green seats, some filled with women wearing bold tank tops and drinking beer from plastic cups. Sometimes I looked at them—their faces glazed with silent stares—and saw the same fascination that existed in every man that brushed past me on the ramps. Some men ate bratwurst, or pizza slices, or simply had forgotten to shave; but they all loved baseball, and, whether they wanted to believe it, many women shared their passion for the game.

At night games (between innings, while I waited for the Xerox machine to staple the last game notes) I imagined women outsmarting their boyfriends with 1984 World Series trivia, or discussing recent trades and salary caps. They challenged the absurdities of Randy Johnson’s contract over fine wine and rice pilaf. They insisted that the Florida Marlins had no business winning the 1997 Series. In my idealistic mind, I saw all of this happening—on the riverside decks of Water Street, on the balconies of East Side apartments, in the hard little seats of County Stadium—baseball was everywhere, and women wanted everyone to know.

But this was not the truth.

The truth lay in my open-toed pair of brown mules. It lay in the rayon fabric of my yellow skirt, or the thin links of my silver necklace. What did I know about baseball, right—South Side twenty-something who attended Catholic schools and waitressed on the weekends. I wore eye make-up and ordered Cesar salad at business luncheons. And all those baseball executives dared to ask me about water-skiing and perfume I wore and the places I bought my shoes. They dared to believe I knew nothing about the game; I only worked there because Bob Uecker liked to serenade me on the way to the press box. He would wink as we passed one another, his face flushed from a steady night of brandy old-fashions. And of course I wanted to score a date with a real major leaguer, or hang out in locker rooms to watch teams eat rib dinners in nothing but white bath towels.

But if I believed all of this—if I absently carried myself through my work and giggled while Sal Bando asked me to go water-skiing—then I would prove all the preconceived notions that existed the day I began my job.  There was the parking lot attendant who called me Sunny because I smiled so easily and the gatekeeper who insisted I grew up in Iowa, not more than three towns away from him. I traveled to Iowa once and all I saw was cornhusks and bread shops. After a while, I quit arguing with him. I didn’t want my frustrated reactions to become his cheap form of entertainment.

And I knew other women existed. Once I ate lunch with an associate named Carlita, who worked in the Brewers’ promotions department. She had spent her last four years with the organization and was tired of “the good ol’ boys and their antics,” as she liked to say. I knew very little about bureaucratic politics. But I was aware of every game front office executives and sports writers played when they stopped and talked to me. Most of the time, they conveniently skirted around any topic involving baseball. Sometimes I waited near the Sports Ticker listening to broadcasters slurp black coffee and talk about a recent trade. Sometimes I offered my input and let them gnaw on my knowledge before turning my back to walk away.

I walked away that summer thinking about small talk, and how it was easier for people to assume I had no real knowledge of the game. I delivered notes to Sal, while he believed I water-skied because I tanned very easily. But now I look and see that my skin color is hereditary, much like my love for simple things, like baseball, and insight, and warm nights on catwalks and ramps. Aging ballplayers will spend the remainder of their days sitting behind wooden desks or admiring old photos of pin stripes and resin bags; they are allowed to form their own notions about me, or any other woman who knows how it feels to grow-up with a baseball in her hand.  My hands are wide and stable. They are firm, and flat, and can grip a ball more securely than a sad piece of rope trailing from the back of a boat.

5 thoughts on “Let’s Not Talk Small Talk, by Jenn Danko”

  1. What a fantastically written piece … and what truth. I worked for a couple of minor league hockey teams and it was tough enough to crack the good ol’ boys’ network — the jokes, the smalltalk, the eye contact — as a 21 year-old white male. Can’t imagine what it’s like for a woman.

  2. This was a well-written piece, but I’m not sure what the point is.

    It sounds like she had some opportunities to assert herself, but didn’t. However at the same time it seems as if no one was interested in hearing what she had to say.

    Was this because she was a woman? Was this because she was young? Was it because she was an intern?

    Like I said, I enjoyed the story (and maybe that’s good enough) but I don’t know what to take from it.

  3. This is really well-written. I’m lucky. I love baseball and so does my wife of 14 years, Mardi. She grew up rooting for the Braves on the Superstation (she’s since become a loyal Astros fan, if only to appease me and our baseball-starved 7-year-old).

    Yes, there are women who understand balks, hit-and-run and the designated hitter. I’m married to one.

  4. Agree with Byron. This is very well written, but the author seems to be making a lot of assumptions about how other people were thinking.

    I was around the behind-the-scenes of sports for a few years, at the major college level. Executives don’t typically talk shop with interns, male or female. It’s not because they think the interns are ignorant about sports…it’s because they are interns.

    This is not to say that there isn’t sexism in sports because surely there is. I just don’t see much evidence of it here. I do see some evidence of someone who was looking for an excuse to be offended.

  5. Hey Jenn, good read. I have to admit I am as guilty of the male-dominated mindset as the rest of them… in general. Though I’m not sure I wouldn’t give the benefit of the doubt if I worked in a professional sports setting. There’s a reason most of these women gravitated to a pro sports career, right? Keep proving us wrong!

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