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First pitch controversy causes cancellation of Arkansas Travelers Pride Night

Mariners Double-A affiliate demonstrate that pride only applies to some

RuPaul’s Drag Race alum and All-Stars winner Shea Couleé, in partnership with Goose Island, threw out the first pitch at the Chicago White Sox Pride game
Chicago White Sox

The Arkansas Travelers’ season, the Double-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, is now over. And for at least one fan, it ended on a sour note, regardless of the team’s on-field performance.

There are so many things that could potentially make minor league baseball more of an appealing night out compared to a major league game, especially for the more casual fan. The cost, from tickets to food to parking, is a much better value at a minor league game. There are also considerably more opportunities to see a minor league game, with roughly 120 affiliated clubs, compared to just 30 MLB teams. For the vast majority of fans, the final result is not going to impact them nearly the same way it would at a major league ballpark. In many ways, it is a much more welcoming place for everyone compared to its more high-stakes professional counterpart. Well, theoretically, it should be a much more welcoming place.

The other day @SofieBallgame, who you might remember from sending Jesse Winker a pizza, brought it to our attention that the Arkansas Travelers ended up not having their scheduled Pride Night this season with a few threads on Twitter.

If you want the TL;DR version, the Travs had partnered with Central Arkansas Pride to have someone from the LGBTQIA+ community throw out the first pitch for Central Arkansas Pride’s “Out Days” event. When Central Arkansas Pride proposed a drag queen throw out the pitch, the Travs rejected the offer, and asked them to pick someone else. CAP declined, saying that sending someone to replace their original, apparently unacceptable pick doesn’t align with their mission to increase visibility and diversity, and the whole event was cancelled. It is worth noting that they did have Sofie, a non-binary person, throw out a first pitch earlier this season after an ejected Jesse Winker receiving Sofie’s gesture of a pizza became a viral sensation and iconic Mariners event, but apparently a drag queen is where the Travs draw the line with the LGBTQ+ community, even while other teams like the White Sox and Red Sox—the Red Sox!—have had drag queens present on the mound.

The Travs were comfortable celebrating Sofie and their viral moment, as well as potentially bringing fans to the ballpark with their first pitch, but that same comfort apparently doesn’t extend to a person who presents in a way the Travs deem unacceptable or offensive to families, in an unpleasant throwback to respectability politics and the era of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The Travs communicated that they are fine with spotlighting a queer person, as long as that person presents in a way the Travs deem acceptable or “family-friendly”. This line of thought has echoes in conservative or far-right circles that have expressly targeted drag queens over the past several months, with numerous events protested at or canceled due to public pressure or credible threats made because of the presence of drag queens simply existing in the proximity of children, including at a minor league game in July

The Travs’ decision to deny a drag queen from throwing out the first pitch becomes even more curious when you consider the history of drag shows in Little Rock. There’s an article on Ruth Coker Burks, a woman who cared for hundreds of abandoned gay men during the AIDS epidemic. The article mentions much of the financial expenses to care for them came from gay clubs and money that would come in, particularly from drag shows on Saturday nights, “That’s how we’d buy the medicine, that’s how we’d pay rent,” she said. “If it hadn’t been for the drag queens, I don’t know what we would have done.”

The Travs did put out a statement of their own on what transpired:

“The Arkansas Travelers have and always will be a place for ALL fans. We work with a number of 501c3 non-profits at Dickey-Stephens Park including hosting a Pride Night event in 2019 with Central Arkansas Pride. Although we have enjoyed working with them in preparation for an event in 2022, we respect and understand their decision to cancel their event this season. We will continue to create a safe and welcoming environment for all fans entering Dickey-Stephens Park and look forward to working with Central Arkansas Pride in the future.”

The Travelers contradict themselves in the first line of this statement, which should read “have and always will be a place for ALL fans, providing they align with our values.” Apparently drag queens can’t be baseball fans, or at least not the kind who are welcomed at the park, which further belies the statement’s later insistence that their goal is to create a “safe and welcoming environment for all fans.” It’s that later point, repeated, that emphasizes which fans are being prioritized here.

Even such a passionate Travs fan like Sofie has been made uncomfortable at the ballpark simply because of who they are, which doesn't fit the Travs mission of creating a safe and welcoming place for all fans.

In contrast, earlier this season the Travs invited Jep Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame to throw out a first pitch and have an autograph and Q&A session with him on Faith and Family night. Robertson is the son of Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the aforementioned Dynasty, who has a pattern of making racist, homophobic comments and, even after being suspended by A&E Network over his comments, doubled down on his belief that queerness is a “sin” and queer people are “sinners”

While Jep was not the one to make those comments, he came out in pretty swift endorsement: “We’re not quite as outspoken as my dad, but I’m definitely in line. If somebody asks, I tell ’em what the Bible says.”

To invite someone who so blatantly spits in the face of the beliefs of the LGBTQ+ community is antithetical to the Travs core statement that the ballpark is a safe and welcoming place for “ALL fans.” You can’t say one thing when your actions and who you put your energy behind and promote say the opposite. This is not a “both sides” issue when one side believes the other side shouldn’t exist.

Even if the Travs allowed the drag queen to throw out the first pitch, it is still not meeting the bare minimum set by so many other teams of actually hosting their own Pride Night, as opposed to consigning it to a brief pre-game moment. We have actual examples of minor league teams putting in effort and going beyond the bare minimum, such as the Worcester Red Sox having an actual pregame drag show before the game and a queer history in Worcester exhibit, among many other things, as well as full-throated statements of support on social media, which shows how wide the gulf is between what acceptance and integration of the community can look like and where the Travelers have fallen short. This isn’t necessarily a regional difference, either; multiple minor league teams across the south hosted Pride Nights this year.

Beyond catering to their LGBTQIA+ fans and creating a more welcoming environment, the decision to have a Pride Night also means creating a safer space for those that maybe wouldn’t openly admit they are going to a pride event or just those fans that feel more comfortable in a crowd that doesn’t resemble the typical crowd at a baseball game. Creating a more welcoming environment for everyone is a non-zero reason why the NWSL and WNBA have experienced the growth they have over recent years. And while canceling the Pride Night event is an understandable decision by CAP to align with their values, it also means the loss of such a night for individuals who were looking forward to celebrating the night, from those who are out and proud to those who are just discovering their identities or those who ache for this sense of community but feel like they can’t participate openly for whatever reason. All of them lost out on this space. And for at least one fan, the damage this series of events caused echoed into the end of the season, and possibly beyond.

Baseball has a long history of catering to a very specific type of fan. Its continuation is actively hurting the game and not allowing it to grow, as well as creating an unwelcoming environment for such a large group of people. The Travs and minor league baseball can be so much better about creating a safer environment for the LGBTQIA+ community. The deeply rooted history of sexism, misogyny, and homophobia in baseball is hard to dismantle with just a Pride Night here or there. It will take a long time and actual effort, but you need to start by putting in even an ounce of effort. The Travs fell short in this arena. It is 2022; it should not be considered controversial to fully throw your support behind the LGBTQIA+ community, even if it is just for one night. Hopefully the Travelers can embrace that and be better going forward and actually create a welcoming environment, like their PR statement says, for all fans.