Deep dive into a short story

So, I wrote a short story recently entitled "Signs of the Times," and this month I thought it might be fun to do a detailed "liner notes" style breakdown of everything that went into it. 

The story combines baseball, near-future science fiction, and a glimpse of breaking the sex/gender barrier in MLB. You can read the story online here: https://sabr.org/journal/article/signs-of-the-times/

It's a short-short, so every sentence has to do a lot of heavy lifting. That's one of the things I love about writing short-shorts: layering in a lot of stuff so that it's short, but dense and chewy, everything simmered down so that there's no "filler." What I'll do here is detail a lot of the things that are layered in, but that might not be obvious. 

Warning: There is a *lot* of "inside baseball" in this one. In fact, "Inside Baseball" could have been the story's title, if "Signs of the Times" hadn't been even more rife with meaning(s). 


How the Story Happened

The story appears in the 2021 issue of The National Pastime. This is a somewhat scholarly nonfiction publication that I edit annually for the Society for American Baseball Research, and usually each year the theme involves the region where the summer SABR convention is held. Since this year's conference was held virtually (thanks to COVID), we decided to give it a theme of "The Future According to Baseball." The idea was to not only look at the future of baseball, but to use baseball as a lens to look at the future of our world. 

Normally I don't put my own work into the SABR journals that I edit, but one of the issues that was raised was about women in baseball. There's a "future of women in baseball" article in it: an interview by Katie Krall with Janet Marie Smith (architect of most of the MLB stadiums since 1990) and Bianca Smith (current Red Sox minor league coach). The cool and amazing things is that if we did this article 3 years ago, we would have probably said we were still 5-10 years away (or more) from having women coaches in MLB-affiliated ball, and who knows when we'd see a female GM, if ever? But that future is here now! So in some ways Katie's article is about the present more than the future. 

So to project a bit more into the future, I wrote the story about the "grass ceiling": women actually playing in MLB. But I also wanted to draw in themes being discussed in other articles in the journal and a bunch of burning issues in the present day. They say whenever you write science fiction about the future, you're really writing about the present. So of course it is a commentary on a lot of issues we're currently grappling with. 

Go read the story now or the rest of this post won't make any sense!

THE DETAILS:

  • "the L-Pop walk-up music for the hitter coming to the plate"

-- In Major League Baseball, each batter typically has a piece of hype music that is blasted over the stadium PA system when they come up to the plate. But what's "L-Pop"? The story doesn't answer that question since to our narrator it's something everyone knows, the hottest music genre of the year 2040. One follower on Twitter guessed Laotian. It could be Latvia or Libya or maybe even some form of Latinx music that's been commodified into pop. But I'll let you in on the secret: it had to be L-Pop, because it's what came after J-Pop and K-Pop and L is the next letter in the alphabet. 

  • "enjoy being the answer to the trivia question who was the first batter walked by a female pitcher in the American League?

-- I've made my protagonist a pioneer, but not "the" pioneer. She's the Larry Doby to Jackie Robinson. Every schoolchild in America knows the name Jackie Robinson, the first Black player to cross the color barrier by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the National League. A whole lot fewer know the name of Larry Doby, the first Black player in the American League. 

  • "The weather shield keeps out excessive heat and wind; it doesn’t do anything for the cold."

-- I'm presuming that by 2040, the effects of climate change will have forced modifications to historic outdoor stadiums like Fenway Park. Dr. Lawrence Rocks wrote a paper in this journal on how climate change will affect baseball: https://sabr.org/journal/article/how-climate-change-will-affect-baseball/ 

  • "Little League has allowed girls since my grandmother’s era"

-- Little League kept girls out until 1974, when various anti-discrimination lawsuits were being leveled against them. They amended the charter to allow girls onto baseball teams, but they simultaneously created a parallel softball program to funnel the girls into as a way of keeping girls out of baseball and to send a strong message that they believed baseball was for boys. This "baseball is for boys, softball is for girls" nonsense persists to this day. (MLB tried to start something similar to the WNBA at one point but instead of partnering with one of the women's baseball leagues in the country, they tried to start a pro fastpitch softball league, and it failed. I played in two different women's baseball leagues around that time, the New England Women's Baseball League and the Pawtucket Slaterettes.)

  • "Thank goodness they did away with the “time between pitches” clock in the big leagues..."

-- MLB is currently experimenting with a pitch clock in the minor leagues with an eye toward speeding up the game. Some college leagues already use one, too. There's an actual MLB rule that the pitcher has to throw the ball within 12 seconds after receiving it, but it's almost never enforced. The last time MLB tried to "crack down" on slow pitchers (like Jonathan Papelbon), they did it by issuing fines. The players just paid the fines and didn't speed up. 

  • "the rulebooks literally still say 'he,'"

-- Yes, they do, and I'm betting that won't change. 

  • "this year they added back two allowed pickoff attempts per at bat"

-- One of the rules changes being tried out is banning pitchers from trying to pick the runner off of first base entirely. The idea is that lately pitchers dominate the game too much and there has to be some way to help the offense. Making the stolen base a better bet, by banning the pickoff, is one way to do that. If you're curious about all the rules tinkering, I also wrote an entire article just about that, and you can read it here: https://sabr.org/journal/article/the-rules-they-are-a-changin/ 

  • "He’s the only Dutch player in the league right now"

-- MLB teams are always looking for more talent. And the Dutch play baseball! The Netherlands have had entries into the past few World Baseball Classics, largely populated by players from Dutch colonies like Aruba and Curacao, but there are some players from Europe, too. 

  • "He was only in Louisville for a week..."

-- It's usual for a big league player rehabbing an injury to go play for a week or two in the minor leagues in order to get back up to speed. It's also somewhat expected that the big leaguer will pay for the postgame meal for the whole team while he's there (minor leaguers get fed terribly and aren't even paid minimum wage, though a lot of folks are trying to change that) and act as a mentor to the up-and-coming talent on the team. 

  • "...and for the record we did stay late in the VR batting cage one night"

-- VR batting cages are definitely coming to a baseball training facility near you, soon. Another of the articles in The National Pastime, by Cathy Hackl and Nate Nelson, details what VR training methods are already in use right now and the direction VR and AR training is taking: https://sabr.org/journal/article/the-future-of-baseball-training-starts-with-vr-but-leads-to-the-metaverse/ 

  • "Because Kip doesn’t know shit about pitching."

-- Mansplaining is still a thing in 2040.

  • "I hear the little click of Jerry’s helmet mic coming on"

-- I think it's only a matter of time before MLB starts allowing radio communication between the pitcher and the catcher, and maybe the pitching coach in the dugout. But I assume that like with football, where now the quarterback has an earpiece from the head coach, there will be tight rules on when the channel is open and when it is not. 

  • "I resist the urge to fiddle with my earbug"

-- I think this was supposed to say "earbud" but I decided earbug was actually better. 

  • "it cuts down some of the whine from the camera drones overhead"

-- When this story went to press, in late June 2021, MLB was not yet using drones to televise baseball games. As I write this post in August 2021, I just saw an announcement that Fox will be using drones to televise the Field of Dreams Game next week. This is the problem with writing about the future. It very quickly becomes the present. https://www.sporttechie.com/mlb-fox-will-use-drones-to-broadcast-field-of-dreams-game 

  • "backup catchers can’t be assholes or they wouldn’t keep their jobs"

-- Mostly true. The backup catcher is one of the players with the least amount of job security on a major league roster. Every team needs one, but they are the catchers who aren't good enough to be starters, which is why they're backups. 

  • "without expansion diluting the talent pool, we wouldn’t even be here"

-- This old chestnut gets dragged out every time that MLB expands. While it sounds logical, it's often just a form of "things were better when I was young!" *Shakes fist at cloud*

  • "That’s what Boston’s scouting director told me when they traded me from Louisville to Aberdeen"

-- Presuming that Louisville, Kentucky, is a Red Sox farm team at this point in time. So our protagonist used to be in the Red Sox system, but then was traded to Aberdeen, Maryland. (The Aberdeen Iron Pigs are currently in the Orioles system). 

  • "he couldn’t come out and tell me they were shipping me out because of the “rumor” I’d slept with a teammate."

-- I believe sexism and misogyny will still be alive and well in 2040, as will the morality police. 

  • "The closest he came to admitting that was some vague, paternalistic “advice” about keeping my wits about me"

-- Same for paternalistic and patriarchal attitudes in baseball and society. 

  • "There are rumors that the Red Sox have hacked catcher audio at Fenway"

-- The Red Sox are the team who got caught in 2017 using an Apple Watch to steal signs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3abDNkP6_M (That scandal was minor, unlike the one that broke on the Houston Astros and their trash-can banging scheme. Just Google that one if you don't know about it.)

  • "I pitch like I always do, dropping down sidearm. I give him my best “lefty laredo,”

-- A nod to former MLB pitcher David Cone, who would sometimes drop down and throw sidearm (instead of over the top, like usual) in what he called a "laredo" silder. (Because it was like throwing a lariat or lasso, I think?) 

  • "This is not the way anyone imagines their big league debut is going to go when they do their positive visualization exercises."

-- Positive visualization has been a part of professional baseball since at least the 1989 publication of Harvey Dorfman's book THE MENTAL GAME OF BASEBALL. 

  • "Barny and Kratz, the skipper, must be beside themselves."

-- Earlier I established the pitching coach's name is Oliver Barnes, so he's Barny. Kratz, on the other hand, I am presuming that former backup catcher Erik Kratz has become a major league manager and is still around in 2040. 

  • "women who break through into men’s college baseball are still on the rare side. There are 10-20 a year, which sounds like a lot until you realize there are over 10,000 players in Division I baseball alone."

-- There are currently six women playing men's college baseball in the United States. That's up from one in 1989. I don't expect that the change drastically, unless women's collegiate baseball (seperate from softball) actually becomes a new NCAA sport. A good article on the current state of women playing with the men in NCAA baseball: https://www.si.com/college/2021/06/23/womens-college-baseball-gaining-momentum 

  • "[Team captain] Corso’s been vocally supportive of me in the press, but he hasn’t really said much to me personally, outside of when we practiced pickoffs a few weeks ago. You’d think it would chap my ass to see him fraternizing with Janssen at a moment like this."

-- You'd think. 

  • "Three batter minimum—blessing or curse?"

-- MLB recently introduced a rule requiring relievers to face three batters. In this story, that rule is still in place. 

  • "He’s a Boston favorite, Xander Bogaerts, currently the oldest guy in the majors and a fan favorite, ever since he returned to the Sox after that disastrous trade to Atlanta."

-- The Red Sox have kind of a history of running their stars out of town on a rail. I thought about casting Mookie Betts in this role and then thought that would be too cruel. 

  • "He’s 49 years old, one of the last of the guys who got methylation and anti-glycation before anti-aging treatments were outlawed by MLB."

-- Anti-aging treatments are not currently outlawed by MLB, but if the league's incredibly slow reaction the steroid abuse in the mid-90s through mid-2000s is any indication of how (not) quickly they'll move on anti-aging treatments... Xander and others playing today might very well take advantage while it's still legal.

  • "Mom let us have real meat hot dogs. I wonder if they still serve those or if they’ve gone to plant-based dogs like every other park by now?"

-- Yes, plant-based meat is a real-world, present-day thing (Google "the impossible burger") that I felt I ought to include because while I was writing this story, an ex-Trump adviser and Fox pundit railed about how soft-hearted liberal Joe Biden would soon be forcing Americans to celebrate the 4th of July not with grilled steaks but by "throw[ing] back a plant-based beer." (Beer is already plant-based, dude.) https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/apr/26/trump-larry-kudlow-biden-plant-based-beer 

  • "Jerry clears his throat but says nothing, just drops a series of signs. They’re fake, just there to distract Martinez who’s trying to steal them from second."

-- See aforementioned sign-stealing scandals. 

  • "He’s still jawing away. So is Paulie. That’s it. Laugh it up."

-- I'm engaging in some authorial misdirection here. 

  • "It’s not quickpitching, not really, but for a guy who came up in the era when every batter tried to make himself a human rain delay, it must seem quick."

-- Pitchers aren't the only ones to blame for how slow major league baseball games go these days. And it isn't even a recent thing. In 1999 -- that's over 20 years ago -- Chuck Knoblauch became infamous for an eleven-part routine he would go through before EVERY PITCH. (See: https://www.nytimes.com/1999/08/22/sports/baseball-between-pitches-twist-tap-a-game-within-the-game.html) He was hardly the only one. But one of the rules MLB has been tinkering with enforcing is one to keep the batter in the box unless the ball is fouled off or something else that creates a break in play. 

Then, of course, comes the surprise ending. 

While the #MeToo movement has brought consequences down on some of the most egregious abusers and sexual harassment specialists across all industries and walks of life, it's still really difficult to get around the microaggressions and alleviate endemic sexism and toxic masculinity. Our heroine can't ever really get even with Janssen for his betrayal of her trust and what she's had to put up with because of him, not exactly, but the tiniest measure of poetic justice is still sweet. 

So to circle back to the title, now you see why "Signs of the Times" resonates, because that theme of baseball signs and signals becomes the scaffolding on which to tell the tale of the times, both our present and one possible future. 

And there you have it: the explanation of the backstory behind the story that is, by necessity, longer than the story itself. Hope you liked this deep dive into how I packed it all in there! 


[Image credit: © Lightfieldstudiosprod | Dreamstime.com]



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