For many Americans, Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season elicits memories of childhood: playing with friends in the waning daylight hours, the crack of leather on leather as ball meets glove, and the feel of the sun on skin as it finally melts away the ossified remnants of the cold, dark winter. Baseball is far more than merely a game as it is intrinsically imbued with metaphors for Spring, rebirth, hope for a better future.
And in a very real sense, both progressives and conservatives attempt to lay claim to these almost metaphysical concepts as baseball, like all human activities, is inherently political.
For a progressive, the new season might represent the immutable march forward, the belief that what comes next must be made better than what came before. For a conservative, it might evoke childhood and the idyllic past when things were simple, knowable, and good. And so, in a sense, baseball belongs to everyone.
But this is 2019, a bumbling orange fascist sits in the White House, and nothing is pure. In this Hobbesian nightmare of neoliberal America where the war of all against all is scorched earth, and where collateral damage is measured in unfollows and blocks, baseball is not some apolitical sanctuary to which one can retreat. It is not the redoubt of harmonious fellowship and competition within which human conflicts and existential social crises simply recede into the ether. Rather, baseball (like all politics), is struggle.
Sadly, there are very few baseball writers, or sports journalists in general, who have either the desire or professional capacity, to truly examine the battlefield, to inspect the trenches, guns, and bombs, and to tell the war stories that must be told (Dave Zirin at The Nation being a wonderful exception). For, if baseball belongs to everyone, then no one must be offended.
This is utter nonsense, of course. The era of fake news and fake presidents does not untether our society from reality, nor does it release journalists from their obligation to tell the truth, even if it hurts the corporate bottom line of the media robber barons or loses them friends on Facebook.
And so, with an eye toward dealing with the uncomfortable realities of America in 2019, baseball becomes a microcosm of the state of our society and culture. And to that end, it represents an important barometer by which we can measure the ebb and flow of the country and the progress (or lack thereof) in the era of the MAGA reactionary.
Wins and losses, Cy Youngs and MVPs aside, here are three storylines to follow in Major League Baseball this year.
What’s the Next MAGA Moment?
In mid-July 2018, during MLB’s annual All-Star showcase, a disturbing series of tweets from Milwaukee Brewers pitching sensation Josh Hader, one of baseball’s rising stars, were unearthed. These vile tweets were overtly racist, misogynistic, and homophobic, with wanton use of the n-word and other offensive language. The controversy was immediate, with pundits chiming in and MLB handing down a suspension, though arguably it was much too short.
But the tweets, and the ensuing apology and suspension, were not the real political story. Rather, it was what happened when Hader came back from his suspension and took the mound that was noteworthy. He was greeted not with the mild applause mixed with a smattering of boos that would have been appropriate. Instead, Hader received a rousing standing ovation.
Some argued at the time that Hader was simply getting the show of support from Brewers fans that any player coming back from suspension would get. And that may be true.
But there was something unmistakably different about this show of support, something decidedly reactionary both politically and socially in a city described by a recent report from the Brookings Institution as America’s “most segregated city.” In fact, Milwaukee’s history of virulent racism is well documented with recent surges in racially motivated incidents that mirror those around the country. As Dr. Martin Luther King famously noted during his trips to the upper Midwest, “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I’ve seen here in Chicago.” He might as well have been talking about Milwaukee which in many ways exceeded Chicago and other Midwest cities in overt racism, segregation, and violence.
And it is with this painful legacy in mind that we return to the moment that Hader walked in from the bullpen to the mound to the chorus of applause that reverberated through Miller Park, and across the baseball world.
Hader was more than the recipient of emotional support, he had become an avatar for the MAGA chuds in their Quixote-like war against the windmills of political correctness and liberal elites. As if by magic, Hader been transformed from a racist piece of shit into a Christ-like victim, crucified upon the cross of liberal opinion. Sound familiar?
White supremacy showed its face in Milwaukee that July day. It was a MAGA moment, even if the journalists who cover baseball were reticent (or unable) to say it plainly.
And as Hader, the Brewers organization, and MLB moved to put the controversy behind them with very little in the way of public self-examination or in-depth sociological critique, they unwittingly demonstrated one of the most insidious aspects of the white supremacy at the core of American society. For instead of openly reckoning with that moment in Milwaukee and using it to fundamentally address some of the deeper political and social problems underlying baseball (and the country as a whole), they chose to “move on,” just as the US has never reckoned with the true legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and imperialism.
So where will the next MAGA moment come from?
Baseball has managed to sidestep the Trumpian clusterfuck that has engulfed the NFL and NBA. There has been only one overt protest of the national anthem, and very few public comments from baseball players that match those from the likes of Lebron James, Steve Kerr, and Steph Curry who have each taken on Trump numerous times. This lack of engagement with the historical moment, and the racial injustices playing out throughout the country, reflect the social shortcomings of baseball which is much whiter than the NFL and NBA, with most players of color being from Latin America, not the US, thereby perhaps lowering the chances of political engagement. This is a tremendous failure of MLB given the need to rise to the political and historical moment.
In just a few weeks MLB will celebrate Jackie Robinson Day, an annual league-wide tribute to the man who broke the color barrier in baseball, and ushered in the modern era of the game and of the country. And here we are, 72 years later, and while formal segregation and the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” [to keep baseball segregated] is in the distant past, many of the same issues remain with us, like an infected wound festering from inattention.
When Will Baseball Finally Say #MeToo?
In December 2017 MLB faced what many thought would be its first #MeToo moment. A photographer made public her harrowing encounter with Minnesota Twins third basemen Miguel Sano, considered by many, at least at the time, to be a big league star on the rise. Then a Minnesota sports photographer went public with her story about how Sano sexually assaulted her in a mall bathroom.
There were stories written that the reckoning had finally come to baseball. And then…nothing. After an investigation, MLB decided there was “insufficient evidence” to punish Sano. Strike One.
Then in May 2018 Toronto Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna was arrested and charged with assault for a reportedly very serious domestic violence incident. Some suggested at the time that this would be a test of MLB, and of individual organizations, in the Me Too era. Well, despite MLB’s suspension of Osuna for half the 2018 season, he was still traded for by the Houston Astros, one of the sport’s model organizations in terms of progressive thinking, at least on the field. If Osuna was a litmus test for baseball, the game failed.
But beyond violence against women, there remains the woeful underrepresentation of women in the league. According to the 2017 Racial and Gender Report Card for Major League Baseball, a study by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, women’s representation in the league actually decreased from 2016. Moreover, at the individual team level, it was even worse.
Dr. Richard Lapchick, one of the authors of the study, noted that “In terms of gender, senior team administration received a D+ while professional administration received a C-. ‘The team front offices need to have more open hiring practices so they will look more like the residents of their community and of America,’ Lapchick said.”
So, it seems that baseball still has a long way to go to actually use #MeToo as something other than a hashtag and cultural currency. Instead, only fundamental changes that bring equity of representation both in terms of race and gender will fundamentally address the disparity that still exists.
Will the Exploitation of Minor League Players Come to an End?
A few weeks ago it was reported that the Toronto Blue Jays will be increasing the salaries of its minor leaguers across all levels, from Dominican Summer League to the Triple A level. To most casual fans and outside observers, this may not have seemed a significant news item given the perception that professional baseball players are all paid millions of dollars to play a game. But, of course, reality is much bleaker.
According to a class action lawsuit brought by 20 former minor league players, “major leaguers’ salaries have increased by more than 2,000 percent since 1976, minor leaguers’ salaries have, on average, increased only 75 percent since that time. Meanwhile, inflation has risen by more than 400 percent over that same time period.” But this more than just a question of getting paid more.
Most observers, and even baseball fans, may not realize that many minor leaguers, especially at the lower levels, earn well below minimum wage. Thanks to Save America’s Pastime Act, the players are classified as “seasonal workers” and therefore the organizations employing them are not subject to minimum wage laws. As sports business writer Maury Brown wrote:
“The lawsuit claims that MLB is breaking the Fair Labor Standards Act, along with state laws by paying salaries below minimum wage. Both MLB and Minor League Baseball are seeking to lobby congress to nullify the lawsuit by classifying minor league players as an occupation outside of the Fair Labor Standards Act.”
Of course, this raises the question of unionization and collective bargaining. While the MLB Players Association has long been recognized as a major labor union that has been involved in some landmark labor disputes, there is no equivalent for minor league players. These young players, many of them mere teenagers, have no right to collectively bargain, and there is little effort, at least publicly acknowledged, to address this.
So, the Blue Jays have voluntarily raised the salaries for these players. That’s great. But will this become a trend in baseball? That remains to be seen.
But the broader question of labor organizing in the minor leagues is also essential. Management will never act in the best interests of workers, they are functionally incapable of doing so. The bosses will always prioritize profits and bottom line of their billionaire owners rather than working towards fair pay for players. So that leaves independent organizing as the last hope of truly fighting back against the exploitation of these kids, most of whom will never make it to the big leagues and will never cash a large check. Most of them go home to Iowa or Florida or the Dominican Republic with little more than memories of their brief time in professional baseball. These are the players that need protection.
As Joe Hill famously wrote to radical labor organizer Big Bill Haywood before Hill was executed on a trumped-up murder charge, “Don’t mourn, organize!”
So here we are at the dawn of a new baseball season. And while there are so many issues swirling around the game, both on and off the diamond, it is not improper to take a moment and just enjoy the warmth, the sounds and smells, and the hope that comes with a new season.
It is a beautiful game. It is a beautiful struggle.