In a new hazing ritual, rookie relief pitchers are forced to carry gear and snacks for the rest of the bullpen in colorful backpacks meant for little girls. It's hard not to snicker at the image of a top athlete carrying a little cartoon pack, but the tradition also says something about gender politics and the culture of the game.
The Times reports on the ritual, which has apparently sprung up in the last few years and spread throughout the major leagues. Says Mets pitcher Tim Byrdak,
It's just one more way to get at your rookie. You have to walk all the way across the field to get to the bullpen, so you make the rookie carry this pink bag, and you can kind of humiliate him.
Some pitchers apparently carry Star Wars or Cookie Monster backpacks, but pink appears to dominate. The most junior reliever for the Phillies has to wear not just a Hello Kitty pack but also a pink feather boa. Of course, part of the joke is that no grown man wants to look like a little kid, but there's also some sexism here — on the baseball field, the most embarrassing thing you can be is girly. This fits in with stereotypes about "throwing like a girl" and "playing like a bunch of little girls." And pink has a long history of hazing use — when I was in junior high in mid-nineties, kids who forgot their gym clothes had to wear sets dyed bright fuchsia.
On the plus side, the backpack tradition doesn't seem to be mean-spirited, and rookie pitchers take it in stride: says Mets pitcher Pedro Beato of his Dora the Explorer pack, "The first day I showed up, and it was just in my locker, I knew what I had to do. It's my duty." And while the practice implicitly denigrate girls, it also celebrates childhood, or at least immaturity. After all, hazing itself is often the province of young people at school or camp, and this is a pretty benign version of it. It may be that playing a game for a living encourages childlike behavior — in which case, maybe all baseball players are a little bit like the kids who carry around cartoon backpacks. And maybe, for all its gender politics problems, a Hello Kitty pack is an acknowledgment that its wearer is out there having fun.
Humility By The Pack [NYT]