A Whole New Ballgame

A few days ago, I turned on the radio and heard the dulcet tones of San Francisco Giants broadcaster Jon Miller announcing this year’s first spring training game. I thought, “Ah, baseball is finally back and all is well in our national pastime, our country and the world.” Of course, that’s not true, so my reverie was cut short. For all the optimism many of us hold for the new season and have held for the Obama administration during its first year, the Major League Baseball (MLB) dynasty and American empire remain deeply troubled and seriously misguided.

In baseball, the steroids issue won’t go away. Consider the controversy around former slugger Mark McGwire’s current attempt to get back into the major leagues. Rather than a quick apology, it has only reminded us of the sordid and longstanding nature of MLB’s own self-inflicted wound. And in America, we see again that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The Obama administration has continued most Bush White House domestic policies. Baseball Hall of Famer Sen. Jim Bunning has also pitched in nicely with his recent filibuster of the jobs bill – perhaps the least of the obstructionism he and his fellow Republicans have thrown up in the last year. Even more seriously, Obama has perpetuated and even intensified, Bush’s foreign and military policies, stalling on the troop pullout in Iraq, abandoning the Guantanamo shutdown, dramatically escalating the Afghanistan attack, expanding the war on terrorism into Pakistan, beefing up US military presence in Colombia and the Philippines and institutionalizing drone warfare virtually around the globe. It remains a US foreign policy on steroids.

The convergence among baseball and American military, diplomatic and globalization policies has a recent, but also a very longstanding, history. For more than a century, organized baseball has been pursuing a “national pastime tradeoff.” In exchange for being an unceasing booster for US expansion around the world, MLB has reaped untold profits and exemptions from serious rules or oversight. Baseball has used flag-waving patriotism as a marketing tool since as far back as the Spanish-American War. It’s supported virtually every American war and every military, diplomatic and economic intervention ever since. In return, the US foreign policy establishment has gained a valuable ally, a training partner, an unabashed cheerleader and a convenient social control mechanism for diverting the attention and wrath of the people whose nations the US has so frequently invaded and occupied, including current-day Iraq and Afghanistan.

When the US Marines landed, almost invariably baseball did, too. The 1898 war against Spain was launched not merely to “Remember the [blown-up US warship] Maine” but also to avenge the loss of the ship’s baseball team. The sport rode along as the US intervened in Cuba, Guam, Haiti, Samoa, Puerto Rico, China, Japan and the Philippines. The promotion of US culture and products abroad – Americanization masquerading as early globalization – was pioneered by America’s quintessential sport via a series of international missions dating back to the late 1800s. Baseball prepped the nation for World War I with its close-order drills at ballparks and then its proliferation throughout the European theaters of war. Ballplayers used their throwing skills to train soldiers in tossing hand grenades. Baseball accompanied the endless US military and corporate interventions in the Caribbean and Latin America, including Nicaragua, Mexico, Panama, Colombia and the Dominican Republic and even Brazil, Chile and Argentina. Baseball became a powerful and poignant symbol of America during its involvement in World War II, which took the game not only to Europe again, but to Africa, the Middle East and South and East Asia. MLB fervently supported America’s wars in Korea and Vietnam, and played a significant role in the decades-old cold war against the Soviet Union – as a political, cultural and propaganda tool.

From this longstanding relationship, organized baseball has profited dramatically, escaping the constrictions of American anti-trust laws and converting patriotism into billions of dollars in revenues. Yet, in the 1970s, football began to compete with baseball for the “national pastime” title. And after decades of court-rebuffed challenges, ballplayers finally escaped their bondage to major league teams and pursued “free agency.” Rather than share the riches and renew the sport’s appeal among the American people, organized baseball has instead declared its own war and redoubled its efforts to sign on to America’s continuing wars and interventions.

In its war abroad, MLB International, Inc. became a significant player in the emerging new era of globalization, cutting costs by exporting its operations to cheap labor havens abroad. A few weeks ago, MLB offered $1 million to Haiti earthquake relief, yet organized baseball and its allied industries made hundreds of millions of dollars on the backs of Haitians workers, who were paid slave wages for making balls, apparel, merchandise and other baseball equipment. MLB was offering back “pocket change” in exchange for all Haiti had given it (until the human rights outcry forced baseball to move its manufacturing operations to Costa Rica).

In its war at home, MLB exploited another globalization by-product: cheap labor for actually playing its game. Ballplayers in Latin America and the Caribbean are excluded from the baseball draft. Hidden from rules and agents, hundreds of Latinos were harvested by MLB for a couple of thousand dollars each. This “boatload mentality” was tremendously profitable, inexpensively stocking the major leagues while casting aside most prospects (many of whom were under-age boys), often despite extravagant promises and substandard conditions. This was one way to beat off the higher costs of player salaries after free agency: sign more foreign players. Or, as MLB did in the 1980s, have the teams collude with each other to drive down the price of free agent American ballplayers. And when that backfired, so desperate was MLB to monopolize its riches, it even risked killing the sport altogether: in 1994 it pushed the players association into striking, with the goal of breaking the union. Instead, it forced the cancellation of one of America’s sacred rituals, the World Series and threw the game into a tailspin.

Having shot itself in the foot, and by now almost fatally challenged by football, MLB nevertheless kept waving the flag, hoping jingoism could help rescue the day. Thus, it applauded the Reagan administration’s aggressive militarism and low intensity warfare, endorsed the Bush I White House interventions and Gulf War and backed the Clinton administration’s incursions in Bosnia, Colombia, Haiti and Iraq. But this was a losing battle; MLB needed much more to win back the American people.

It’s hardly a secret any longer that MLB knew about its steroids problem by the late 1980s. Free from any serious regulation or outside scrutiny, organized baseball hadn’t kept its own house in order. With steroids, however, MLB had what was not a problem, but perhaps a solution. At least that’s how it might have looked a couple of years after the devastating 1994 World Series cancellation. Suddenly, not only MLB, but also fans and then Americans generally, began noticing how home runs were flying off the bats of major league ballplayers. Excitement was in the air and signs at ballparks claimed that even “chicks dig the long ball.” And in 1998, when McGwire and Sammy Sosa thrilled the nation with their home run race, against each other and against the single-season record, baseball was back. Ballparks were jammed, television ratings skyrocketed and the country periodically came to a standstill awaiting the latest results – with tens of thousands of new fans generated in the bargain. Of course, it begged the question: where did all that newfound home run power actually come from? MLB didn’t want to know and even though it did know, it certainly didn’t want to tell.

But could its comeback be sustained? It wasn’t long before accusations and revelations about steroids began to leak out. While organized baseball entered the 21st century as an apparently rich and vital empire, its foundations were terribly vulnerable – threatened by what had only recently seemed to be its salvation, perhaps not dissimilar to the negative, “blowback” consequences of the US foreign policies MLB had so faithfully championed for so many years.

In the end, MLB would have at least one more opportunity to do so. Late in the 2001 baseball season, with Barry Bonds about to break the home run record McGwire had set only three years earlier, baseball’s legitimacy was being tested by allegations that Bonds and other ballplayers were cheating. Then 9/11 hit and everything changed. Having been in the right place at the right time, baseball turned from being a suspect into being a salvation – “a shelter in the storm” for a shell-shocked nation, as was dramatically captured in the documentary, “Nine Innings at Ground Zero.” MLB leaped into the breach, resuming the games and using the ballparks to rally not only for American survival and recovery, but also as launch pads for its response. The US foreign and military establishment took full advantage of the baseball hoopla. Bush’s White House commandeered one ballpark after another for demonstrations of America’s military resolve and in effect, he launched the wars on terrorism, Afghanistan and Iraq with the perfect strike he threw from the Yankee Stadium pitcher’s mound during the World Series. Bonds broke the home run record and, in the short run, nobody cared. To the contrary, it was the very symbol of US power many Americans sought to unleash. It was baseball, not football, that had returned to rally the troops and wave the flag.

Even so, baseball’s popularity may again be living on borrowed time. To begin with, American foreign policy has been discredited, especially by the lies (about terrorist ties and weapons of mass destruction) used to rationalize the US attack on Iraq. America’s military, diplomatic and globalization policies are widely resented around the world and baseball should reconsider its long association with such initiatives. Beyond resentment, America’s empire – while apparently strong militarily – may instead be a sinking ship. Waving the flag for America’s current wars is paying diminishing returns for baseball. Without that to boost its fame, MLB is still left with the lingering steroids problem. To shake off that albatross, MLB needs a bolder stance: stop blaming the players, admit its own complicity, apologize to the fans and commit itself to more responsible behavior.

Thereafter, organized baseball must become a better caretaker for the game. It needs to promote baseball for baseball’s sake and not merely where it enhances MLB’s bottom line. At home, that means the promotion of baseball playing not merely baseball spectatorship. Baseball will never be the life blood of the American experience again if it’s observed primarily from a distance or carefully confined to official leagues. Instead of promoting Little League, how about getting kids back on sandlots to organize their own games? And what happened to the days when every American town had an adult team, where local competitions rivaled major league contests? Most of all, MLB must promote more than token projects for bringing African-Americans back into the sport – it’s a scandal to constantly celebrate Jackie Robinson amid the dramatic decline of blacks in baseball. These initiatives would require real resources and serious programs, which wouldn’t likely generate short-term profits but would aid MLB immeasurably in the long run – not to mention the game.

Baseball needs a new strategy for retaining its national pastime designation. If it expects to maintain its anti-trust exemption, then it must police itself much better, in the public interest rather than merely for its own gain. MLB has to stop letting teams extort cities for publicly supported ballparks that add nothing to local economies, and stop allowing clubs to play cities off against each other for who gets teams. And organized baseball needs to get serious about revenue sharing: while riches don’t guarantee championships, they give a few teams an unnatural advantage. A third of the major league teams are already out of the running on opening day; that has to end. And maybe some ballplayers make too much money, but if they have to accept a salary cap, then teams need to accept a profits cap. Turn excessive profits into affordable prices for the fans.

MLB must also recognize what it’s lost as the handmaiden of US foreign and military policy and as a multinational corporation tainted by top-down globalization. For example, America’s outdated Cuba policy is not in MLB’s best interests. Rather than risk being implicated in defections such as the recent signing of former Cuban national player Aroldis Chapman by the Cincinnati Reds, organized baseball must push harder to undo reactionary, cold war policies. Besides repairing the game at home, MLB must better promote it abroad, establishing greater equity and a more level playing field. It should institute an international draft, and stop exploiting Latino ballplayers. It should extend the same protections for Caribbean leagues as has already been established for the Japanese and Korean leagues. Instead of raiding players and depleting foreign leagues, MLB must adequately compensate foreign teams and players. Forced to pay foreigners competitive salaries, organized baseball might begin taking US players more seriously again, especially African-Americans. If MLB isn’t going to work to restore baseball to the Olympics, then its World Baseball Classic must be opened up, expanded and more broadly shared. Have the next Classic played elsewhere in the baseball world, such as Japan, and let far more national teams compete. Make the Classic into something more than merely a profit center and a chance for MLB to recruit top foreign players. Pursue such tournaments as if MLB really cares about the game. And act responsibly as a global corporation: stop relocating baseball manufacturing to the cheapest labor haven. Pay workers a decent wage, and send Haiti something more for its troubles than a token gesture.

At the ballpark, MLB needs to stop waving the flag. Enough with the military extravaganzas, the patriotic songs and the obligatory jingoism. MLB can be a good citizen without being an extension of the Pentagon. Hold respectful military appreciation days. But how about a separate day to celebrate Americans who have dedicated themselves to peace without weapons or wars? If MLB wants to endorse programs such as Barry Zito’s Strikeouts for Troops (which raises money for the worthy cause of helping returning soldiers), then at least stop short of allowing it to serve as a pro-war propaganda tool for the Fox network (its corporate media sponsor) and for Sean Hannity’s and Oliver North’s Freedom Alliance (its primary financial conduit). And for goodness sakes, stop being cheerleaders for illegal and counterproductive US wars. The late journalist, Mary McGrory lamented, “baseball is what America used to be, while football is what we’ve become.” That’s got to be turned back. Let football beat the war drums, while baseball promotes higher American ideals.

It’s nearly opening day, and I can’t wait. Wouldn’t it be great if MLB could start playing a whole new ballgame?