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Thursday, 03 March 2011 12:15
Major League Baseball, US Politics: The Great American Past-Times
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Just what is America’s favorite pastime? Is it baseball or politics? The past few years offered interesting contrasts. On one hand, we went from a full-blown presidential campaign right into a major political controversy of how to “stimulate” the economy. Certainly in the past year, politics has become a major spectator sport both in Louisiana and throughout the rest of the country. But don’t sell baseball short. Not only has baseball been around longer than any of America’s professional team sports, the game’s highs and lows have been injected in national politics almost from the sport’s inception.

 

Now I’m a diehard baseball fan. I grew up in St. Louis, and lived next door to the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, the great former Cardinals shortstop Marty Marion. I was in his box on a Sunday afternoon back on May 2, 1954, when “Stan the Man” Musial hit five home runs on the same day in a doubleheader. All this week, I’m in Tampa, Florida for spring training and will watch five major league ballgames, including a trip to the home stadium of my perennial favorite, the New York Yankees.

The problems of major league baseball have often served as a mirror image of the problems facing America. Its history is both a reflection of this country’s fears and ignorance, and its hopes and promises. Like almost any other cultural phenomenon of such prominence, baseball has served as solace and as a poke to our conscience.

In 1948, the major leagues faced the problem of segregation earlier than the politicians in Washington DC did.  Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and won the rookie of the year award in his first season. It took court cases and sit-ins to get our political representatives to follow suit. Today, steroid use by baseball players has become an issue, and in some cases, undermined the image of the ball player as a wholesome example for American youth. And the use of performance-enhancing drugs has become a major focus of congressional investigations and possible legislation in the nation’s capital.

Baseball played a role in the last presidential campaign. Senator John McCain accused Barack Obama of baseball rooting malfeasance for the way he used baseball analogies at the start of the World Series as he traveled campaigning the country.  The Republican nominee charged repeatedly: “When he (Obama) is campaigning in Philadelphia, he roots for the Phillies, and when he’s campaigning in Tampa Bay, he shows love to the Rays. It’s kind of like the way he campaigns on tax cuts, then votes for tax increases after he is elected.” Obama shrugged off the criticism by saying that McCain did not have the courage to take a stance: “I guess these are the kinds of attacks you make when you’re campaign has conceded that if you talk about the economy, you will lose.”

At recent press conferences, the new President continues to get questions about steroid use in baseball, and whether or not the federal government should get involved in closer monitoring. Even though the country is facing an economic recession, multiple wars abroad, a large elephant in the room, and a major energy crisis, he still can’t get away from baseball. By the way, the President answers the steroid question by saying he is certainly disappointed and talks about its negative impact on children.

And don’t forget that our last President came from a baseball background. In 1989, George Bush headed up an ownership group that bought the Texas Rangers, but the former President didn’t get a lot done in that job either. The Rangers had zero World Series appearances, and hired a cast of characters right in the middle of the steroid mess, including José Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, Juan Gonzalez, and Ivan Rodriguez. The former President’s swings and misses as a baseball man should have given voters an indication of the kind of president he was going to be.

You can even find a number of political analogies just by studying the baseball teams themselves. Two years ago, the Tampa Bay Rays were the Cinderella team that went from “worst to first,” finishing in last place a year earlier, but winning the American League pennant the following year. Maybe it has something to do with their name. They used to be called the “Devil Rays” and their record was terrible. As soon as they dropped the word “Devil,” they became victorious overnight. Is it baseball pure and simple, or is the Religious Right involved?

It’s impossible to get away from campaigns and politics by focusing on spring training in baseball, but I’m going to give it a shot.  Many major league games this season will be carried by the Fox network. You know — as in “Fox News.” In the National League, everyone, even the pitchers, gets an equal chance to bat. Will Fox say that the National Leaguers are “socialists?”  Will their commentators argue they should call some home runs out if they are “too far to the left? “  And I guess you can’t blame the Democrats for bemoaning that every time someone “steals” a base, they get reminded of the 2000 presidential election.

There is also a lesson to be learned from Babe Ruth as congress considers limiting executive pay and bonuses of corporations who receive bailout money.  When the Babe was asked how he could justify making more money than the President, he shrugged off the question by answering: “I had a better year.”

I suppose one of the biggest differences between these two spectator sports is the sense of optimism that baseball brings every spring. The crack of the bat, a pop fly against a blue sky, and the green grass seem to offer a sense of renewal. It almost harkens back to the essence of youth and heroes of the past, and you feel that almost anything is possible in the coming baseball season.  But in today’s political climate, there is little thought of great statesmen and the principled political figures of the past.  Political courage today is too often defined by poll watching and sticking a wet finger to the wind.

So when the TV clicker stops with a choice of politics or baseball, I’ve chosen the great American pastime.  It’s baseball hands down.

See you next week back in Louisiana.

********

The difference between politics and baseball is that in baseball, when you are caught stealing, you’re out.” Ron Dentinger

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

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