The Inherent Political Nature of Baseball

As baseball fans, it’s often difficult for us to navigate the relationship between players as players and players as people, particularly when it comes to politics. At least for me, I primarily hope my favorite players keep their mouths shut, as their views most likely differ from mine. I was deeply disappointed in both Tom Brady and Belichick in possibly endorsing Trump, and I was appalled when Jarrod Saltalamacchia said Colin Kaepernick needs to learn about the history of freedom in America. Too often are we told to ignore the political opinions of athletes, that sports aren’t political, all the while standing every game for the National Anthem and watching fighter jets pass over our heads, because “love of one’s country” apparently is not the least bit political.

In a sport such as baseball, where the start of the season is recognized by the President throwing out the first pitch, it seems particularly absurd to deny the political aspect. But every time a player comes out with a political opinion, people talk ad nauseum about how a player’s individual beliefs are inconsequential compared to his actions on the field, and, besides, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, regardless of what it is. There is a separation between on-field actions and off-field actions, with many — particularly those involved with the NFL — believing on-field actions supersede off-field ones, since sports should be a-political and athletes should be judged on their contributions toward the game. But this opinion represents a fundamental misunderstanding of democracy.

Hannah Arendt, the most published writer on fascism and its relation to freedom, believes in what she calls the “public sphere,” which is separate from the private household and consists entirely of free action and speech, both political in nature. Speaking from a Western perspective, Arendt cites the Athenians as being the first to create such spheres, with the agora functioning as the public sphere. However, in modern times, the two spheres — public and private — have blurred together, ultimately resulting in the rejection of the political. Modernity has resulted in a deep attachment to the individual and therefore isolation, as the need for privacy has partly created a society that “expects from each of its members a certain kind of behavior, imposing innumerable and various rules, all of which tend to “normalize” its members, to make them behave, to exclude spontaneous action or outstanding achievement.” While some might argue the rise of social media and possibly liberalism has created a need for attention and a means of connecting people to one another that ultimately breaks down the private realm, Arendt’s notion of the blurring of public and private speaks to more than just the need for attention or the idea of the “PC Police”. Rather, it’s the refusal to believe that the public and the private co-exist in the sense that people today view their actions as somehow separate from their political repercussions; they cite the First Amendment while ultimately being detached from those who ultimately protect it — the politicians.

These concepts are perhaps better elucidated by Alexis de Tocqueville in his idea of soft despotism. Writing about America in the early 1800s, Tocqueville argues that despite its early attachment to democracy and the belief that its checks and balances and the Constitution will forever uphold this democracy, America is not safe from tyranny. Unlike the brutal tyranny found elsewhere in the world, American tyranny would be less recognizable and would largely maintain the appearance of liberty. American tyranny would look like this:

After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting; it does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupifies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. (Democracy in America, 662.)

This despotism takes the form of pleasure; it directs all citizens toward seeking pleasure and preys on their fears so that it can pretend to offer security while slashing their freedoms. This process is exacerbated by individualism; as Americans separate themselves and surround themselves with like-minded friends, the well-off “form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine their whole destiny is in their own hands”. These people believe that as nobody owes them anything, the reciprocal must also be true. Thus, this individualism creates social settings that blur together the political and the private, while those inside them acknowledge only the private element.

Baseball acts in this same way. It creates a social setting that draws together individuals who, for 3 hours a day, 162 days a year, shut out politics in favor of the enjoyment of baseball. While the fanbases of each team are somewhat more diverse than Tocqueville’s perceived social circles, they still in a certain way act as an echo chamber, particular with the deep roots of tradition in the sport that have consistently waged war on innovation, whether via the introduction of SABRmetrics or the integration of POC and women both on the field and in the front office. Baseball is viewed as a sport and a pastime where people can find a recluse from the stressful and divisive politics of the time. When a game is on, nothing else matters, and the highlighting of political questions is met with derision and rage.

Yet these same critics of the melding of baseball and politics were there, cheering along with all of us, when George Bush threw out the first pitch of Game 3 of the 2001 World Series. The pitch, following the tragedy of 9/11, was immediately heralded as a symbol of hope to the grief-stricken nation. Although in the days leading to the game, President Bush urged Americans to continue living their lives as they had on September 10th and all the preceding days, it was this pitch that really drove home the idea of normalcy and the first time Bush stood as leader of the country rather than as representative of simply one party. It is difficult to deny the political implications of baseball in this instance, as it was this intersecting of political and private that gave America strength.

It is the nature of democracy to make every aspect of citizens’ lives political. Every citizen is a political actor, and it is only through the meeting of individuals and the recognition of the depth of politics in everyone’s lives that democracy can create and execute progress. While there are individuals who are not yet free or equal, there is no “safe space” from politics. And while it is true that everyone is entitled to their own political opinion, it is also true that athletes are not free from criticism on the basis of their profession being inherently a-political. And so when a baseball player tweets a political statement as Matt Garza did:

It is the duty of everyone to take seriously this belief and reply to and converse about it as such. It is the nature of democracy, and all political regimes, that the freedom of one is contingent on the freedom of all and vice versa; if one person — or one group of people — is not free, everyone’s freedom is in jeopardy. And turning a blind eye to this in the name of baseball being merely entertainment is ignoring your duty to yourself, your neighbors, and the future of your country.