As if this old post didn’t give you enough of a hint, I am a sports nut, particularly a baseball fan. And one noteworthy baseball ritual is the ceremonial first pitch. The ritual, at least here in the United States, dates back to at least 1910, when William Howard Taft stood up in his seat at the Washington Senators’ season opener and threw out a ceremonial ball. Since then, various noteworthy people — presidents and prime ministers, actors and singers, even your everyday average Joe or Jane — have gone out on the field, stepped onto or in front of the pitcher’s mound, and heaved the ball towards (more often than not) a home team player awaiting at home plate. And while other sports have similar ceremonial openings — the first puck in hockey, the tip-off in basketball, the coin flip in football (which actually has an impact on the game as it determines who wants the ball first) — there’s something so happy and awe-inspiring about that first pitch in baseball.
Why am I talking up the ceremonial first pitch in baseball? Well, on Thursday night (June 9), a noteworthy first pitch was thrown before the Toronto Blue Jays’ home game against the Baltimore Orioles.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is Rachel Lauren Clark throwing that ceremonial first pitch. Rachel is an IT professional who lives and works in the Toronto area. She is also working on a Masters of Divinity degree from Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto. So, you’re wondering, why was Rachel’s first pitch so momentous? Well, three reasons: First, Rachel was appearing on behalf of Pride Toronto, the not-for-profit LGBTQ organization that organizes Toronto’s annual pride festivities, including the pride parade that will take place the first weekend of July. (Rachel serves as board secretary for Pride Toronto.) Secondly, her appearance coincided with “Pride Month” in Toronto, the first time the LGBTQ celebration in Canada’s largest city (or anywhere else in Canada, for that matter) has been extended to a full month. And third, Rachel was the first ever trans person to be invited by the Jays to throw a ceremonial first pitch before a game, if not the first trans person to perform the feat before any Major League Baseball game (at least according to this report).
A few things about Rachel’s background: She grew up as a boy in upstate New York, where, as she recalls in this Toronto Life article, she tried hard to become the manly son her parents expected her to be, up to and including spending 8 years in the U.S. Armed Forces. But she still kept the feelings that she was a girl inside her, not letting those feelings out lest she risk parental punishment. So not as to spoil the rest of Rachel’s story or the importance of it any further here, I do recommend that you read her essay in that article (and those of the other people featured). Suffice it to say, though, she has overcome dark times and harassment to live full-time as Rachel, establishing or rebuilding friendships and familial connections and becoming a devoted advocate for trans people and trans-related issues.
Reading articles about Rachel and her first pitch effort, you do indeed get the sense that she took the moment, and trans acceptance as a whole, seriously. She would prefer not to have become the latest “first person” to do this or that, but she understood the significance of the moment. As she put it to CITY Television, “Firsts are good things. They help to blaze trails.” It shouldn’t go unsaid that Rachel had some pretty good form (and a pretty good leg kick) on that ceremonial pitch, as demonstrated in this video of the moment from CBC News (which can be also found here); the pitch was a bit high, but it was right down Broadway.
The importance of recognizing the LGBT community at the ballpark shouldn’t go unnoticed, especially with the community gaining so much acceptance, and especially with a sport that adheres to tradition so closely. “LGBT Pride Day” at the ballpark has indeed become commonplace in recent years, and the events have been mostly welcomed with open arms by fans of all stripes. However, not every MLB team has been on the record as officially staging an “LGBT Pride Day” event (my Milwaukee Brewers, sadly, are not among those who have). And when the Oakland Athletics did announce plans to stage their first “LGBT Pride Night” last year, it was met with strong objections from some objecting season ticket holders. (At least the girlfriend of one A’s pitcher made an effort to buy back game tickets from the objectors and donate them to a Bay Area LGBT youth service.) Then there are the actions of those directly involved in the sport. In 2012, the Blue Jays suspended a player for wearing eye black that included an anti-gay slur. And just recently, TV analyst and former pitcher Curt Schilling paid a professional price (and deservedly so, in my opinion) for voicing bigoted objections over trans people using restrooms and locker rooms that don’t coincide with their birth genders.
But while some narrow-minded people will still object to open members of the LGBTQ community working in or enjoying baseball, at least teams like the Blue Jays make an effort, officially or unofficially, to make the ballpark more welcoming and accessible to everyone regardless of who they are or whom they love. As Rachel Lauren Clark so eloquently put it in a Pride Toronto press release announcing her ceremonial first pitch, “I hope this historic moment will send a message that everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity will, as Robert Frost once eloquently put, ‘never feel more at home than at a ballgame.’” Congratulations and thank you to Rachel and the Blue Jays for delivering a great moment with a great message.