Pitcher in Pink: Baseball Rookies Wear Girly Backpacks as Part of Hazing Ritual

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We're surprised it even fits.

You can’t expect rookies to enter the big leagues without having to pay proper dues. What is less expected is seeing a professional pitcher strapped to a bright pink backpack adorned with unicorns and polka dots. (via New York Times)

It’s a harmless hazing ritual: Rookie relief pitchers on many Major League Baseball teams are being forced to wear little-girl backpacks while carrying equipment to the bullpen. The backpacks are often pink and festooned with florals and cartoon characters—Hello Kitty, Tinkerbell, Dora the Explorer and the like—and certainly contrast the male uniformed pro who is wearing it.

It’s not surprising. Baseball, a sport that still carries a whiff of early 20th-century charm, is known for its time-honored superstitions and customs, and the act of playfully diminishing a teammate’s masculinity is as old as the sport itself.

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“It’s just one more way to get at your rookie,” Mets pitcher Tim Byrdak told the Times. “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.”

Traditionally, the most junior reliever is responsible for carrying additional equipment for the team, but lugging it in a child’s backpack is a newer trend.

Trevor Hoffman, a retired reliever who was a Florida Marlins rookie in 1993, never saw these backpacks during his career, but said, “I think it’s amusing for the fans to see. It’s kind of a way of pointing out who’s the low man on the totem pole.”

Published photos indicate that teams vary on the type of backpack styles. The San Diego Padres franchise, for example, has steered from the colorful eyesores popular among young girls, allowing the rookies to instead wear Star Wars backpacks designed to resemble R2-D2 or Yoda. Leave it the Philadelphia Phillies, however, to force its reliever to not only don a Hello Kitty pack, but also a fluorescent pink feather boa.

It’s all in good fun because you rarely see a grown man, whether he’s an athlete or not, attached to a cartoon backpack unless he’s carrying his kid’s bag (along with the kid). Yet Jezebel noted the playful ritual’s problematic message. “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.”

But “while the practice implicitly denigrate girls,” Jezebel continues, “it also celebrates childhood” and the team’s ability to have fun.

For Padres reliever Erik Hamren, the ritual is indeed about fun. Though his Star Wars backpack is more gender-neutral and far less colorful, he has “grown to love it.”

But for New York Mets right-hander Pedro Beato, the hazing practice is serious business. Similar to striking out from the mound during a game’s final innings, wearing a bright pink Dora the Explorer backpack is “my duty.”

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Kai Ma is a TIME contributor. Find her on Twitter at @Kai_Ma or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.