Baseball's Leading Lady

Ria Cortesio is the only female umpire in professional baseball. In her journey beyond the "glass ceiling," she has experienced sexism first-hand — in the world and in her sport.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And we have a little more in women in baseball, a milestone to tell you about. For the first time in nearly 20 years, a woman has called a Major League exhibition game. Ria Cortesio officiated a game between the Chicago Cubs and the Arizona Diamondbacks in MISA, Arizona this spring. She's an umpire in the AA. We caught up with her in Mobile, Alabama. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. RIA CORTESIO (Major League Umpire): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Are you calling a game today?

Ms. CORTESIO: Every day. We'll get one or two days off a month. That's about it.

MARTIN: One or two days off a month. Wow, tough schedule.

Ms. CORTESIO: Yeah, no such thing as weekends in baseball.

MARTIN: Now, don't throw a bat at my head, figuratively, but why major league baseball instead of softball or another woman's professional athletic league?

Ms. CORTESIO: I bet you if you go to any high school or college softball team and ask any of the girls, probably most of them when they're growing up dreamed of playing major league baseball. You know, baseball is our national pastime, but for some reason half of the nation is shut out of it. There's this pretty ridiculous stereotype, I think, in this country that baseball is just for boys, and girls, go play with dolls or play softball or something.

MARTIN: Did you grow up playing the game?

Ms. CORTESIO: I grew up playing sandlot baseball in Grandpa's front yard with my cousins, you know, sunup to sundown, whenever we were together, so you know, I didn't have the chance to play organized ball until I was 21.

MARTIN: So did you have it in your head somewhere that you wanted to be an umpire?

Ms. CORTESIO: Not until I was 16 because, again, like any kid, you know, that grows up watching baseball, I wanted to play in the big leagues and I wanted to pitch in Fenway Park. Although now, you know, I think I should've picked a better baseball, you know, park to pitch in, but…

MARTIN: So what happened? How did you turn that dream into a reality?

Ms. CORTESIO: Well, I grew up in the Quad Cities and still live there. In 1993 - that's when the Great Flood hit - and the Quad Cities was under water - the stadium, which is right on the Mississippi River, was under about eight feet of water. And so the team, you know, the whole second half of the season played home games on the road, they played in high school fields and that sort of thing. One day, between games of a double header, we saw the umpires changing in the parking lot. There were no dressing rooms at this high school field, and I remember looking at those umpires and it wasn't the stereotype that I'd had. You know, they weren't big fat grouchy old men.

You know, they were kids, basically, 20-something-year-old, you know, males. Being the kids that we were, us cousins, we went up and started talking to them and then it just kind of became a routine that we would say hi to every crew that came through. One of the umpires by the end of the season - his name is Scott Higgins, he was an instructor at umpire school - and he sat me down for about an hour after a game and he explained the whole process of going to umpire school and getting into professional baseball and working a way through the system and all that, and it made sense to me and that's when I decided, hey, I'm going to do this.

MARTIN: So what was umpire school like?

Ms. CORTESIO: It's kind of like boot camp. They're five weeks long, six days of the week, 10 to 12 hour days. The mornings are spent in the classroom. The afternoons and into the evenings are on the field. And we cover everything from - I mean obviously all the rules and mechanics and positioning and that sort of thing down to how to take your mask on and off to working on your plate stance and a strike zone.

MARTIN: Were you the only woman there at the umpire school?

Ms. CORTESIO: Nope. I went twice. I went in '96 then in '99, and both times I was one of two women.

MARTIN: Well, why is it then you're the only woman in professional leagues at this point? Why do you think that is?

Ms. CORTESIO: It is very competitive to get into professional baseball. It's easier to get into professional baseball as a player than it is as an the umpire.

MARTIN: Do you have a sense that the fans or the players or the other team officials notice that you're a woman at this point?

Ms. CORTESIO: Coming up through the minor leagues, you all know each other. If you don't - you know, if I don't this guy, I know his brother, I probably threw his brother out. I know his dad, his cousin. I know the guy he played college ball with. I mean it's kind of a big extended family. And so, you know, once you've been in for a couple of years, you know, everyone knew who I was -especially now, everyone knows who I am, especially with all this media attention lately.

MARTIN: I'm interested in your comments about having to do interviews. I'm kind of getting the impression this is not this is not your favorite thing.

Ms. CORTESIO: It's not part of the job description for an umpire and it's actually, you know, frowned upon that if I were a woman, professional player in AA, okay, that's one thing to do interviews. But as an umpire, we're supposed to pretty much, you know, sneak into the game, work the game, slide out unnoticed; you know, that's the reason we wear navy blue and gray and black at the Major League level. You know, we're supposed to fade into the background, and so that's one reason I kind of find it a little unnatural.

MARTIN: But you're looking forward to a time when I guess you'll really fade into the background, people won't notice as much.

Ms. CORTESIO: Well, you know, what happened was the NBA - the NBA has had females officiating, you know, in the National Basketball Association, at the highest level of basketball, for over a decade. And when they first - they called up two women, Dee Kantner and Violet Palmer, together, and when they first were called up there, there was kind of a ruckus and Charles Barkley had some things to say. And for about five days it was news.

And to this day, one of the two women is still in the NBA and it's been more than 10 years. And no one cares. In fact, you know, I'll say that and people are like, there's women in the NBA? Yeah. You know, there have been women for so long that no one cares anymore. And I know is what would happen in Major League Baseball.

MARTIN: But there's still only one in the NBA, and there's still only you in baseball. And I just wonder, why is that?

Ms. CORTESIO: The expectations placed on women in this society, similar to the expectations placed on men, are that women have to be submissive and have to please everybody. Women are valued only for their sexual appeals and until I guess our society's attitudes towards how men need to be and how women need to be change, mature, grow up, get out of the gutter, you know, you're probably always going to see this lack of women in authority roles.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, you're doing your part. I appreciate it. Ria Cortesio, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. CORTESIO: Thanks for having me.

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