Midweek Musings: Is There Room for Politics in Baseball?
There was a recent article by Jayson Stark on why baseball players don’t get political and his article touched on some of the issues. But, I believe this isn’t an issue just related to ballplayers. As engaging and history defining as this past election felt there was still record low voter turnout. A few of us are engaged and care deeply about the direction of this nation but most of the populous simply want to have their circuses and bread and go about their daily lives. Our modern lives are filled with distractions and turbulence and willfully adding more in doesn’t appeal to many people. With the focus and dedication it takes to be a professional athlete I would imagine most ballplayers don’t opt in to politics because it would be inviting one more distraction into their lives.
That is far from the only reason or it might be the overarching reason under which all my other points will fall. Think about our modern political parties. First the Tea Party and now Trump have moved the Republican Party far to the right. The Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party is viewed by many as just as extreme. The average person isn’t willing to choose between two extremes and more often than not the third parties that run are either even further to the right or left of the mainstream parties leaving the average person with no choice. As Ralph Nader said, “The lesser of two evils is still evil.”
Look at many hot button issues and the sides our political parties choose to take. I’ll give two examples the first is immigration. I was watching CNN the other night and they had one person from the left debating a person from the right. The person on the left took the position that anyone should be allowed to come to America and do whatever they want because most immigrants want to be here and are hard working people. The person on the right took the position that we need to deport the people here illegally that have committed multiple crimes. While the latter point sounds perfectly reasonable that isn’t what Tump is doing at all and multiple crimes could include multiple traffic violations. Neither of these gentlemen took the position that we need immigration reform so that the people already here can become documented and work towards becoming citizens and that we make it easier for those not already here that want to come to America to come to America.
The debate went as so many debates of that nature go. Two people from different political sides retreated to the extremes and resorted to name calling. My second example is bathroom bills. This was not even and issue until North Carolina decided to make it one. People had this all figured out on their own and no one invited the government into our public restrooms until they forced their way in to create the most annoying debate in American history and it has now become two parties promoting two awful choices. If you’re going with the two mainstream parties your choices are that trans people have to use the bathroom of their birth gender or that bathrooms become gender neutral and going number two in public becomes even more awkward than it already is. Here I am and I believe most Americans would be that we’d just like things to go back to the way they were before the government interfered and no one cared if a trans person was pissing next to you.
For both of these issues there seems to be a rational and easy to reach compromise but neither of our political parties wish to reach it. They only wish to retreat to the extremes and hurl insults at each other, and this does not help to engage the average person let alone a ballplayer trying to focus on the very difficult pursuit of athletic greatness. This is only one small part of it and what I think is the much bigger issue is athletes are much more available in the modern world.
As much as I enjoy Twitter and other social media they have broken down barriers and privacy. Because of smart phones we are always connected, always available, and always on. We have very little private time to decompress and relax away from the outside world. When we sign on to Twitter or turn on Twitter notifications we’re inviting the outside world in. The thought about politics is any position you take 50% of the people are automatically going to disagree with you. While that is true 49.9% of the people that disagree with you won’t vocalize it or for lack of a better term will agree to disagree. It is that small minority that are going to make your life a living hell.
Think about the movement of Gamergate. How many people was that really? What percent of the American population? It has to be a very small minority. Perhaps 10,000 at most, but 10,000 well organized nutcases with access to the internet and social media can make a lot of people’s lives a living hell. Let’s just say after the next mass shooting or episode of police brutality an athlete takes the position of crazy people shouldn’t have guns or cops shouldn’t shoot unarmed individuals. I doubt these statements would offend 50% of their fans and most people would likely agree with them, but it only takes a well organized small minority to harass someone on the internet. One person could spend their day making multiple Twitter accounts and bombarding an athlete, and now that athlete can’t engage with the fans in the way he’d like. Any innocent statement made on social media can invite the harassment of crazy people, and so it’s easier to just not get political.
The mind of the professional athlete is focused and determined on the goal at hand. Inviting in the distraction of politics and the retribution of crazy people on social media may not appeal to many, and this doesn’t even mention that a lot of ballplayers are country or Cuban born, two traditional bases of the Republican Party. The cities that they play in are largely going to lean left and therefore getting political may have even less appeal to them. As we saw last season with Daniel Murphy people will forgive you your political beliefs if you can hit .300 but that isn’t everyone and as I’ve said before a well organized minority on social media can make a person’s life hell, and at the end of the day that is likely to largest reason athletes choose not to become political.
Ever since I was little, baseball has been an escape for me. As a kid, Yankees games provided me with a deadline to get my homework done. In middle school, I was sidelined from sports for medical reasons, and my fandom became an obsession. And, when I look back on major life events – death of a loved one, breakups, 9/11, health scares – I can relive play-by-plays of statistically meaningless games that took place on those days. Baseball is an escape, and – by nature of the 162-game schedule alone – I’d argue that it’s an escape in ways that other sports can’t compare.
But, it doesn’t operate within a vacuum.
I fully recognize Dave’s stance – as well as Jayson Stark’s – and whole-heartedly agree that baseball players likely work – harder and harder, given the current political climate – to tune everything out. I’ll even argue that it’s probably a smart idea to log off social media and turn off the television when you’re getting ready for go-time. But, in trying to pin down my official “stance” on this topic, I just couldn’t sum it up in bullet points. On the one hand, I myself seek solace in baseball and have been counting down the days to this year’s Opening Day with as much fervor as I had when I was a little kid, because today's political reality causes me so much stress. On the other hand, as an engaged citizen with only meager reach per my work and personal networks, I often feel it is my responsibility to speak up for what I feel is right; and I would fully understand if a pro-ballplayer felt the same way. Nevertheless, I’ll try to work out how I feel by sharing my (largely unprocessed) reactions to this topic.
First – while I think both Dave's and Stark's points are valid, I think we, as a people, are too new to the political era in which we now live to predict whether or not baseball players are – or will be – increasingly vocal about politics. I’ll do my best to leave my own political leanings out of this piece, but unless you’ve worked hard to adopt an ignorance-is-bliss lifestyle, you have to recognize the widening of the political divide in our country, regardless of whether you would classify yourself as to the left, to the right, or foundering in the middle of that divide. We don’t yet know what is coming down the pike, but I have a difficult time believing that construction work on a border wall, a backpedaling of U.S.-Cuban relations, or even just an inflammatory social media post from one of our nation’s political leaders would prove incapable of bursting baseball’s protective bubble. I can’t help but feel like baseball is holding its collective breath. It is, in many ways, the most diverse league in U.S. pro sports, but in other ways, its ability to appear to keep politics out of the picture has been helped, in part, by the fact that some demographic groups have virtually no representation in the game. For example: to the best of my knowledge, there has only been one Muslim player of Arab descent in the history of Major League Baseball. I fully recognize and acknowledge that this more than likely stems from where baseball is popular in the world; however, Muslims do not have representation in the clubhouse, so recent developments – namely, the travel bans impacting predominantly Muslim countries – have gone unacknowledged. We’ve also, of course, never seen a woman umpire for a regular-season MLB game. And, while I think this lack of representation is a byproduct of the histories of baseball and softball, it does mean that topics such as equal pay and family leave go relatively unnoticed – the latter of which did until Adam LaRoche walked away from baseball last year after White Sox management asked him not to bring his 14-year-old-son to the clubhouse.
Second – while I will never claim to know what it takes to handle the day-in-and-day-out challenges of being a Major League Baseball player, I do in fact feel that baseball players are still everyday human beings who are in no way immune or apathetic to what’s going on in our world. I’ll admit, in conversations with both peers and colleagues (including those who have advanced much further in their careers), we have all acknowledged times at which we silenced our phones or turned off news alerts because we couldn’t get down to work while processing the latest White House press conference. Yet, by day’s end, we’re all caught up via one means or another. We live in a world now where the news finds us, even when we do try to block out what we deem to be negative. We can’t think baseball players are any different. On the other hand, I, too, refrain from – or, at the very least, tone down – political posts, in large part, because I recognize that I work with colleagues who represent all areas of the political spectrum. I respect and understand why baseball players would do the same.
That said, we can’t, in the same breath, acknowledge that the climate in which baseball now operates is unlike any other since the civil rights era while arguing that baseball players will continue to work with a “same old, same old” mentality. We have the benefit of hindsight to observe how important Jackie Robinson was in creating what Stark describes as a “more socially aware” culture within baseball; at the moment, baseball lacks a “face of the game,” and there is no single, unifying issue under which players have even started to unite. But, that could change. Yes, players – and ownership, I’m sure – are worried about social media backlash resulting from if and when they voice a political opinion. But, if we applaud a baseball player for choosing not to speak up so as to avoid internet bullies, then we’re applauding a new world order that frankly scares me. If baseball really is an escape for fans, it should remain that regardless of offline politics. (Yes, I realize that’s wishful thinking.)
Without defining where my politics stand, I’ll say this: growing up, I was a huge fan of a Yankee great, with whom I disagree on essentially everything that even remotely relates to politics. Post-retirement, he’s grown ever more vocal, and his public support of select politicians has prompted me to more than roll my eyes on multiple occasions. He’s fielded a ton of criticism from fans and sports bloggers, but he continues to chug along in his career as a baseball analyst. And, I’ll say this: he remains one of my favorite analysts in the game today. He’s talented, he’s funny, and he does a great job of drawing in both lifelong fans and casual viewers. So long as he keeps politics away from the in-booth mic, I won’t let his offline commentary sour my love of the game. I simply can’t. What makes baseball great day after day is that it is a constant force in our lives. For 9+ innings a night, the game of baseball is just that, and the sight of players of all ages and backgrounds – including political backgrounds – coming together to play a game for the love of the game is not lost on me, regardless of who is on the field. Nor should it be.
In the same way that so many of us need to clock in day after day to work side-by-side colleagues who may not be in step with our own political viewpoints, so too do baseball players. If we don’t stand with an athlete’s political leanings, we can still learn something from watching players come together to operate as a cohesive unit, regardless. If those same athletes choose to voice their opinions on a real-world issue during an interview or on social media, more power to them: they have worked hard to be where they are, and they recognize that they have an influence. For better or for worse, they recognize their ability to speak up for what’s right, and I admire anyone who can juggle being both a successful ballplayer and an engaged citizen in the same fashion that so many in this country would self-identify as an engaged citizen, in addition to their many varied roles in life.
From what I’ve read, the MLB has done a decent job of clarifying that players are free to express their political views. I don’t know what pressures may or may not be in play for each team, but much of the “politics and baseball” discussion seems to center on a thesis that it is the players, themselves, who have chosen to remain silent. They certainly have the freedom to do so, but I don’t stand confident that they will always choose to do so.