Americanizing The National Pastime

Today is Memorial Day and the streets of Manhattan are eerily empty. I’ve always appreciated the imagery of this holiday –Naval fleets ashore at major cities, barbecues, three-day camping trips, and lots and lots of flags, even though I’m not sure the festivity jives too well with the somber task of remembering fallen soldiers. Memorial Day calls for reverence and quiet dignity. And although I’m a sucker for the stars and stripes and the anthem and all that stuff, I think baseball gets it wrong today and generally in all matters of Patriotism. Especially with these hats:

There is nothing inherently bad – in fact there is something tasteful and good– about baseball honoring our troops and our country on days like today. But as usual, the execution is cumbersome and overwrought and completely ignores the whole concept of subtlety. An unadorned moment of silence, for example, seems appropriate.

The aesthetics are terrible and strained. The hats every player on every team are forced to wear today and on July 4 and September 11 are a nice idea, but won’t match with uniforms, and make the tribute feel forced and contrived. Much like the confusing “everybody wears no. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day” idea, it sounds really wonderful in theory but falls flat on the field of play. The 162-game season leaves plenty of room for special events and meaningful gestures. No need to make baseball theater out of them.

Promotions like this take away from the quirky, original, and often more powerful statements that individual teams and players can make. The Padres wear those sillyish looking camouflage jerseys, for example, because of the large military presence in San Diego. It’s a fresh tribute for a specific team with a specific fan base and it works well. In the early days of Jackie Robinson ceremonies, it was an honor for certain players to dawn no. 42, whereas now it’s a chore. And the new Mother’s Day tradition of pink bats for breast cancer awareness is graceful and delicate in comparison.

Baseball appears to be on a quest to reinforce its brand as the national pastime by flaunting its history and its American-ness. I don’t think baseball’s national pastime status is even at risk in the first place. The cultural landscape is too well-defined around the sport. But if it is, just calling itself the national pastime is not the answer baseball needs. The answer is making the sport compelling and affordable to watch and play, especially for younger and lower-income communities in which it is struggling.

Ironically, one place baseball is thriving is internationally. The World Baseball Classic proved definitively that baseball is firmly entrenched as a serious sport in not just Latin America and Japan but Korea, Taiwan, and China. And it’s gaining traction in Europe too. A hefty percentage of every major league roster now consists of internationally born players. In that context, the heavy Americana is even less appropriate. Nothing more touching than a bunch of Japanese and Dominican guys honoring our troops.

Consider the Blue Jays, who will be wearing a corresponding Canadian Flag cap. This isn’t even a holiday in Canada, but if we really want to show how much we love our country, I guess these are the awkward politically correct bones we have to throw our neighbors. Of course the proceeds for these caps go to charity, which is not to be discounted as important – but let’s not kid ourselves. The purpose of these caps is informed by public relations, not the desire to be or do good. If we only wanted to do good, the classy flag patch style caps teams used in September of 2001 would be more than enough. They even looked alright for the Expos:

I’m not the first person or the most eloquent to have a problem with the Memorial Day Caps and other baseball-sponsored acts of manufactured patriotism. There has been a great chorus of internet pushback. My favorite comment comes from Phil Hencken in a little panel discussion at the awesome Uni Watch Blog. He writes:

“Wearing the caps once is a gimmick. But wearing them at least three separate dates (with possibly more, should teams wish) –that’s more than enough times to make a complete mockery of the gimmick.”

Gimmicks and mockeries of gimmicks are hardly the stuff of dignity, hardly the stuff I’d say is appropriate to honor our troops. But then again, there are worse things. Jon Weisman, who diplomatically condemned the Dodgers’ 2009 policy of singing God Bless America at every 7th inning stretch, has tentatively embraced the red hats. In his typical balanced and sage-like fashion, he writes:

“As long as they respect one’s right to question authority, to grimace when songs become so overplayed that they become devalued, then go ahead and do your thing. And maybe remind lucky people like me of sacrifice.”

To that end, Weisman has a point. There’s always value in honoring the fallen, and perhaps we’d all be better served to brush our cynicism off for a day. But there’s such a thing as too much perspective, and I’m not ready to embrace the showmanship. Baseball fans are baseball fans and baseball players are baseball players. We’re all capable of thinking for ourselves, honoring our troops, our country, our families, our causes, our religions as we see fit. Baseball is itself a cultural force, inherently and inextricably tied to the fabric of our nation. In that vein, maybe it would be more fitting to celebrate Memorial Day by honoring the scores of players who were killed in World War II.

We don’t need to dress our baseball players up in red hats to honor Memorial Day and we don’t need to dress the game up in outside causes and issues to reinforce its valued place in our society.

Have the Memorial Day you want today. Celebrate what American soldiers have given you and remember the ones you have known. If you go out to the ballpark, enjoy yourself and the game. If you don’t, enjoy the time off and with family and friends. Or not. It’s up to you, and that’s the whole point.

1 Responses to “Americanizing The National Pastime”

  • I hate to argue…well, no, I love to argue, but I do hate to argue with such a small point in such an eloquently expressed piece. However…

    A bunch of Dominican and Japanese guys might just be the perfect group to honor our troops. It’s been a very long time since “our” troops fought on “our” ground (for “our” freedom). Right now their fighting, primarily in Afghanistan and Iraq for the freedom of Afghans and Iraqis. Before that they were fighting in Vietnam, before that in Japan and Germany. Moving straight past the cynical explanation (that they fight for political power, oil, etc), and settling on the idea that even though they aren’t fighting specifically for “our” freedom, they are trying to spread (and perpetuate) the idea of America as a place of freedom and opportunity, a place that values freedom and opportunity so much that we’re willing to send our troops to defend those ideals all over the world.

    Baseball, being, as you say, the American pastime, is a field in which, despite its recent popularity in the international arena, the best opportunities still exist in America. The fact that many of the best players came here from someplace else is, in itself, an honor for our troops…which, I guess, actually is still evidence for your primary point (that the gimmick they’ve created is unnecessary and, not just a little bit, crass).

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