I felt a twinge of empathy when I saw various well-meaning individuals lamenting the Washington Nationals’ trip to the White House on Monday in honor of their World Series win. For people on the left who adopted the Nationals during this October’s pennant race, seeing Kurt Suzuki posing in a MAGA hat while President Donald Trump grabbed his chest like a randy college student on spring break must have stung. What a bitter betrayal, after giving your heart to these plucky underdogs, to see them felt up by a professional groper.
But folks, that’s baseball. To expect the Nationals to engage en masse in any sort of political protest is to expect baseball to be something it simply is not.
I understand how one might make the mistake of assuming otherwise. Sports, like everything else, is often distilled into a clear binary of good-versus-evil, another front in the perpetual conflict between liberals and conservatives. The Houston Astros, the patsies in baseball’s latest fall passion play, were earmarked for villainy thanks to their shoddy handling of the controversy around Assistant General Manager Brandon Taubman’s abusive language toward a female reporter who committed the apparently cardinal sin of tweeting out information to assist domestic violence victims.
During the World Series, my Twitter feed was full of people rending their garments in the hopes that Washington might teach those dastardly Astros how to run a sports franchise. And the Nationals played their part to near perfection. They danced in the dugout while smiting far more talented teams such as the Astros and the Dodgers; they hugged with apparent abandon. They even adopted the insufferable children’s tune “Baby Shark” as their unofficial team anthem. Never mind that devoting portions of your sporting event to a children’s song with no discernible message or redeeming social value will age worse than doing the “Macarena” at your junior prom. It was cute!
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Breathless newspaper puff pieces extolled the bipartisan virtues of D.C.’s baseball club. If Trump was incapable of reaching across the aisle, perhaps an Anthony Rendon home run could bridge the divide.
Put all that in a box, ship it to the White House, and let the most divisive American political figure of the last 30 years use it for his personal gratification and you get the ideal conditions for liberal disappointment. “Baby Shark” is not so cute when Trump is singing along. (Actually, it makes you realize that the song is actually quite annoying and maybe adults pretending to be sharks during a baseball game is rather ridiculous; a bitter taste of reality.)
But it’s more evidence that baseball is not just a conservative sport. It is the conservative sport — one that has historically thrived on its adherence to nebulous ideas of “tradition” and “playing the right way.”
This is the sport of players, not just stodgy referees or owners, arguing against home run celebrations — like the Astros’ Alex Bregman carrying his bat during his trot around the bases in this World Series. There was enough backlash to his “grandstanding” that he had to apologize. That has nothing to do with race or politics, but it does illustrate what the dominant culture in baseball really is. It’s a culture of repression, puritan self-flagellation, and humility porn.
That sort of rigidity — the notion that there are unwritten rules that must be followed despite no one having really agreed to them in the first place — runs at the core of the conservative ideology. Be aware of your place in this world and do not deviate. It’s tradition as prison, even if that tradition has been perverted a million times over, either with the Electoral College or something far more reprehensible, like the designated hitter rule or the Wild Card game.
In baseball, like in politics, tradition is just a slogan. Baseball is not America’s pastime, it’s a for-profit enterprise called Major League Baseball that, for decades, excluded people of color from its ranks. Modern baseball stadiums have pools in the outfield and fans singing annoying nursery rhymes between innings. The league adds more and more teams to the playoffs to elongate their already turgid postseason in order to add to their bottom line. There’s even talk of moving a team to Las Vegas, of all places. Tradition might just be a marketing tool to captivate longtime fans, but it matters to players like Madison Bumgarner who get visibly perturbed if anyone even sneezes without showing the proper deference to the blessed game of baseball.
Baseball can be a joyous, devastating, deeply human game, but it can also be stodgy, dull and pretentious — and it’s the sport that saw no need for consequences after the casually racist Braves closer John Rocker lamented the way Japanese people supposedly drive in a now-infamous “Sports Illustrated” profile in 1999. Sure, baseball isn’t as unabashedly white as NASCAR or golf, but it’s certainly far from the zeitgeist occupied by the NBA or the NFL. The idea of Major League Baseball having a LeBron James to stand up to the president or a Colin Kaepernick to protest the national anthem is almost laughable.
Baseball actually has a habit of producing openly conservative voices, be it garden variety Republicans such as Mariano Rivera and Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky to fringe thinkers such as Curt Schilling or Jose Canseco, who last year tweeted that he was ready if Trump needed “a bash brother for Chief of Staff.”
Then, there’s the perception, fair or not, that baseball is a “white man’s sport,” as outfielder Adam Jones, currently of the Arizona Diamondbacks, said in 2016. An ESPN study in 2017, though, found that Major League Baseball had the lowest percentage of black players since they started keeping track of such things in 1991. Considering the president’s dominance with white male voters in 2016, it stands to reason that a sport that’s still predominantly white would have a fair number of his supporters playing it.
Baseball can seem like a homogenous culture, where one has to get along to survive, and a Washington Post article about the Nationals’ White House visit even implied that some members of the team chose to attend the event simply because they were afraid of rocking the boat. And, it’s true that it’s far more shocking in baseball than other sports when someone does step outside the norm and make a political statement like the Nats’ Sean Doolittle, who declined to attend because of his dislike for the president’s rhetoric.
But the political statements that shouldn’t shock anyone are the ones like Suzuki wearing a MAGA hat, or Ryan Zimmerman thanking a president under an impeachment investigation due to dubious dealings with foreign countries for “keeping us safe.” Baseball can never truly be a front in the culture war, because, as with crying, there is none of that in baseball.