April 20, 2017

Ball season.

The start of the baseball season, like the sport of baseball itself, is a time of conflict. The Mets and the Blue Jays (the two teams that I have cheered for since childhood) often begin their seasons poorly, leaving me conflicted between the fear of another wasted, losing season, and the reality that fifteen games are not a reliable marker of the true potential of the team. Fandom is hard.

Since I was a child, I felt an affinity with baseball because it was played by people who looked like me, or who I could be. Baseball players (especially in the late 80s and early 90s) came in all sorts of sizes, a solace for a child like me who was too short to play basketball, too fat to play soccer, too small to play football. More than that, a baseball team looked like the people around me: a mix of white, Black, Latin, and Asian players (the lack of South Asians is still glaring, but I was willing to overlook that as a child) all getting along and playing a game together.

This is the childhood I remember: everyone in the community, no matter what they looked like, playing games together. More often than not, that game was baseball.

The conflict comes from the realization, now as an adult, that baseball may be visibly mixed, but it is less-than-cosmopolitan. It may be a sport full of people who look like me (less and less so, these days, with more athletic bodies and still a complete lack of South Asians), but it is not a sport played by people who think, live, experience the world like I do.

From John Lingan’s excellent A Season of Reckoning For a White Man’s Sport’ in Hazlitt:

Baseball occupies an odd space in the spectrum of U.S. sports. It is both the most genuinely diverse game and, as a result, also the most white. According to the current Racial and Gender Report Card published by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, MLB players are fifty-nine percent white, twenty-nine percent Latino, and eight percent black. That’s more than double the percentage of white players in either the NBA or NFL and a small fraction of the percentage of black players in those leagues. Neither basketball nor football fields a statistically significant number of Latinos or Asians, and MLBs increasing reliance on those demographics also lends it a diversity of nationalities that the other leagues can’t touch. […]

Ironically, baseball’s very diversity may account for some of its small-c conservatism and squeamishness towards social justice issues. In a locker room with that many skin tones and backgrounds, it may be hard to find political consensus, and so politics in general can become a third rail. But diversity also doesn’t signal equality, and even in mid-century, when the definition of white” was far more limited, the sport was largely native-born white guys: a majority of the [Giants’] players hailed from the American South and Midwest,” Tygiel acknowledges, and today, despite the MLBs genuinely global player base and audience draw, that remains the case. […]

This isn’t to say that every rural-raised American or junior-college ballplayer is a Republican or a Trump supporter, just that a good number of the MLBs players spend their professional lives in areas far less cosmopolitan and diverse than the cities they wear across their chests in the pros. And in a country where political fate is now closely aligned with population density, baseball’s geographic, ideological, and ethnic diversity have forced it into atypical relevance: it resembles the U.S. in all its multicultural, reactionary complexity better than any other sports league.

What does it mean for baseball to not look like me, anymore? What does it mean for the country to not look like me—even though it really never has? Does it matter? All questions I will grapple with as I sit in the stands, eat a hot dog, and cheer on the home team.