BEFORE THEY STRETCHED, before they played catch, before they practiced their first cutoff and relay this spring, the New York Yankees watched a video. It was part of their annual media training. Prominent among the topics was the hottest button in American life right now:
And the message was as clear as the sky over Steinbrenner Field: If you’re asked about modern American politics — beware.
“The platform of the baseball player is a very powerful one,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman says. “It’s a free country, and you can always utilize that platform whenever you so choose. But just know, when you choose to do so, what the potential ramifications are.”
“There’s a quote,” Cashman says. “The higher on the tree the monkey climbs, the more you see of his ass. So if you’re going to choose to climb that tree, you’re putting your ass out there. So I think you just educate everyone on dealing with the media. And you’re educated to know the waters you’re choosing to swim in. It doesn’t mean you have the ‘Don’t swim’ sign. It just means, ‘Caution, no lifeguard.'”
Welcome to baseball in 2017, a year like no other in our nation. In the NBA, coaches and stars take regular aim at the policies of the new president of the United States, from the executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries to plans for building a massive wall along the Mexican border. But in Major League Baseball — where locker rooms feature a multicultural melting pot of athletes, many of whom could be directly or indirectly affected by those policies — what you hear (or don’t hear) is the careful sound of political silence.
Several clubs have made a point this spring of giving their players the same sort of “advice” the Yankees provided. We even know of one high-ranking club official who told his players that if they choose to take a stand on anything political, 50 percent of the people who used to cheer them would not just stop cheering. Those cheers would turn to hate.
“In these times, we’re polarized on every issue,” that official says. “I don’t know if it’s 50-50 or 60-40. But there’s a huge segment of the population that has a strong opinion on every issue. So if you’re a player, there are a certain number of fans that are going to have a negative reaction to any position you take. You’re immediately alienating 50 percent of your fans. So if they don’t know you, all that 50 percent knows is that they hate you.”
Not every team has been quite so upfront about its message to players. Many, in fact, have avoided this subject entirely this spring. Players and club officials alike have told us that repeatedly. But that’s because the people who run those teams say they don’t have to deliver that warning. As Detroit Tigers GM Al Avila puts it, that situation “takes care of itself” in the clubhouses of today, where players shut off the outside noise and leave their problems at the door.
That’s the code of conduct that has governed baseball for generations. But here’s a question that’s difficult not to ponder in these divided times:
Is 2017 the time for a new code of conduct? Is it time for a more socially aware culture — in this, the sport of Jackie Robinson?
THERE IS NO official policy of Major League Baseball that says: Do. Not. Talk. Politics.
In fact, commissioner Rob Manfred tells ESPN, the policy is exactly the opposite.
“I would never presume to give players advice as to what they should be comfortable doing,” Manfred says. “I think the more important stance for the institution of Major League Baseball is that we have never been an impediment to players expressing whatever political point of view they wanted to express. And that will continue to be the policy of baseball as long as I’m the commissioner.”
Still, what political points of view have actually been voiced this spring — by any of these players?
There was the social media storm stirred up by St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Dexter Fowler, when he dared to express personal concern for his wife’s Iranian-born family in the wake of President Donald Trump’s travel ban. And there were Oakland A’s pitcher Sean Doolittle‘s comments in support of refugees, after he’d invited a refugee family to his house for Thanksgiving.
That, however, is it. So you definitely wouldn’t mistake the talk pouring out of locker rooms this spring with, say, “Meet the Press.”
But that comes as no shock to the host of “Meet the Press.”
Fifty years ago, NBC’s Chuck Todd says, “baseball healed the divisions” in a racially torn country. Because it was the sport of Jackie Robinson. Because it was the most powerful sporting presence in the land.
“But I’m not surprised,” Todd says, “that baseball is the least political of the sports right now.”
“Baseball has an opportunity to heal the country, because of the political, ethnic and racial diversity in its locker room. No other sport has that. So it can either hide in a corner and pretend nothing is happening — and baseball becomes America’s distraction — or maybe we’ll see some leadership … where some players who politically disagree get together and say, ‘This is way too tense.'”
Chuck Todd, host of “Meet The Press”
Todd is trained to size up the political landscape from 30,000 feet. He’s also a passionate, box-score-devouring baseball fan. So what he sees when he gazes from afar at the world of modern baseball is the most diverse sport in America, where every clubhouse is a complicated mix of human beings from a unique array of cultures, countries and backgrounds.
“You have rural whites,” Todd says. “You have Hispanic immigrants. You have African-Americans. So it’s a very diverse locker room, which means you know there are some diverse political opinions. And if you’re trying to keep a team together, you go with the old rules of, ‘Hey, let’s talk about anything other than politics and religion.’ So I’m not surprised it’s been quiet on the political front. I could see how this could divide a locker room very quickly, more so in baseball than the other sports.”
But that brings baseball to a moment of truth. On the outside, there is the divide in the nation, pervading the lives of just about everyone. On the inside, there is the potential divide in these clubhouses, which could undermine the fabric every team needs to function and win.
So which is the more important divide? Baseball clearly has chosen to worry about its own house. But is it possible that, by making that choice, it is squandering an opportunity to help Americans mend a much bigger divide?
“I’ll say this,” Todd says. “Baseball has an opportunity to heal the country, because of the political, ethnic and racial diversity in its locker room. No other sport has that. So it can either hide in a corner and pretend nothing is happening — and baseball becomes America’s distraction — or maybe we’ll see some leadership … where some players who politically disagree get together and say, ‘This is way too tense.'”
But players across a variety of demographics, and from both ends of the political spectrum, have made it clear this spring that they want no part of topics this volatile — no matter how outspoken they may be on a million other subjects.
“You put yourself at a lot of risk, even if it’s just being attacked verbally, just for expressing your opinions and your viewpoints,” Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer says. “It’s just stress you can avoid. And it’s a crazy world. You hear about things happening to people based off their views, whether it’s political or religious. You hear about things happening to people in America regularly. So I think it’s best for most [players] just to keep it to themselves.”
Miami Marlins reliever Brad Ziegler used to engage fans frequently on social media. But not anymore. Not after the personal attacks he fields after he has the nerve to, say, give up a run. Not after he converts 43 saves in a row, finally blows one and then has to deal with threats so unnerving that he says he has actually taken a screenshot of them and reported them to his team.
The hate has taken enough of a toll that he now is one of many players who have backed away from putting themselves out there on controversial baseball topics. So why, he wonders, would he want to set people off by expressing a political opinion?
“I have enough stress to my life just with baseball,” Ziegler says. “I have a stressful job. I don’t need to add to that stress outside of baseball with the things I do or say.”
All these political statements you’re not hearing are also a direct reflection of the culture of baseball. And obviously, that’s a culture that has grown increasingly nonpolitical, especially when you stack it up against sports such as the NBA.
The days when baseball led the fight against racial injustice are deep in the rearview mirror. Even after 9/11, when baseball played such a vital role in the healing of America, its most important contribution, Todd says, was just to supply “the normalcy we all needed every day of the week.”
But in terms of leading the way through difficult times, baseball has increasingly chosen to stand as a depoliticized zone. And that stance couldn’t possibly be more striking now, when measured against the political drumbeat of the NBA, a league that seems to occupy a very different space in America’s social conversation.
In basketball, the African-American stars have risen to such prominence that “the black culture depends on the NBA,” says San Francisco Giants infielder Jimmy Rollins, to have those stars set a social and political tone. And “what makes it more acceptable,” he says, is that so many of those megastar players are willing to rise up and speak in such great numbers.
But in baseball, Rollins says, even if a player wants to speak out, “it wouldn’t be easy.” And why is that? Because “no one wants to go it alone.”
Sooner or later, he guesses, “somebody in baseball may stand up on the issues of today. But it would take a brave person.”
Rollins can speak personally about the loneliness a player feels when he dares to wander into politics on any level — because in 2008, he campaigned for Barack Obama and even introduced Joe and Jill Biden at a rally in Philadelphia.
His Phillies team had just won the World Series, so he couldn’t possibly have felt more beloved on the streets of Philly in that moment. But Rollins admits now that, even in those very different times, he was almost terrified to take that step into the inflamed world of politics.
“I remember just sitting backstage,” Rollins says, “going: ‘Do I want to stick my toe into that hot cup of water?’ But as an American citizen, I had every right to. … As a citizen, here was an opportunity for me to speak up on something that I believed in politically. So I was like, ‘All right. Fine. I’ll do it.’ But even that was scary. And I was just introducing Joe and Jill Biden. And that’s not going into culture and race and things like that. So it would take a brave person.”
IN EVERY CLUBHOUSE in baseball, you can hear the TVs blaring. If you’re interested in watching highlights of the Duke-Syracuse game, you can definitely catch that on the clubhouse flat screens. If you’re interested in watching “Fox & Friends,” you’re in the wrong place.
Politics may be the No. 1 topic in America, but not here. Not in the locker rooms of spring training. Not in public. Not even in private, players swear. It seems impossible to comprehend, considering the political lightning bolts that seem to shoot through the sky everywhere you turn. But it’s true.
“People know it’s a very volatile subject right now,” Ziegler says. “No one wants to create tension that could end up riling up the locker room.”
And when these issues do come up, players find ways to deflect them with what they know best — namely, trash talk.
Roberto Osuna is the closer for the Toronto Blue Jays. He was born in Mexico, still lives in Mexico. He is proud to have come from his homeland, proud to have come from a family that has “done everything right,” proudest of all to talk about how pitching in the big leagues “is a dream that came true for me.” But when the conversation turns to that wall President Trump wants to build to seal off the Mexican border, he chooses his words carefully.
“To be honest, I don’t think that’s the best answer,” Osuna says. “But I’m not here to judge anybody or anything. I’m here to play baseball. And that’s what I’m going to do.”
When he is asked, however, if his teammates ever bring up that wall, Osuna actually smiles. Why? Because “they just make jokes about it,” he says, “but nothing serious.” And he says he finds those jokes funny.
It’s not the first uncomfortable subject baseball players have found ways to laugh about. It won’t be the last. These are people who have to spend the next seven months around each other. So unlike the forces in the world around them, their clubhouse generates gravitational forces that pull them together. It is those forces that empower them to deal with whichever issues complicate their lives.
“And that’s the only way you’re going to have success,” Ziegler says. “As a whole, if your team doesn’t have a common goal and everybody fighting together, you’re not going to win anything. You can’t do it if there’s constant division in the locker room. And it’s a small microcosm of our country. In our country … no one can get anything done, because there’s this divide. And after a while, nothing gets accomplished, because no one is working together on it.”
“It’s much easier to join a movement than to start a movement.”
Archer is also acutely conscious of the contrast between the clubhouse and the real world. He describes himself as “interested” and “concerned” by the political divide around him. And that concern extends to his Hispanic teammates who may be perceiving that the America they came back to this spring isn’t the America they left last fall. He is sure, he says, that there are players on his team who are feeling those worries or whose families are feeling those worries.
“There has to be,” he says, “because there are a lot of immigrants that are in the game. And a lot of people who have work visas to be over here, and have different religious and spiritual beliefs.”
But the conversations in his locker room have felt no different than usual because, well, that’s the way of the baseball culture. For a long, long time now, that culture has driven clubhouses to solve problems in their own way, according to their own rules.
Tony Clark is the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association. He played 15 seasons in the big leagues before retiring after the 2009 season. He has found himself in the middle of dozens of players-only meetings “and been a leader in a good number of them,” he says. But if the political divisions in America spill into clubhouses in any form, he expects teams to deal with those issues the way they always have.
“I don’t see this manifesting itself, within the walls of a clubhouse, in the fashion that some seem to be concerned about,” Clark says. “Just because, in any good clubhouse, we are going to work through it, whatever it is. And I mean whatever it is.”
So how does that happen exactly? It happens because players look at their clubhouse not just as a workplace, Rollins says, but as “our sanctuary.”
“This is our home as players,” Rollins says. “And we decide what we let in and what we keep out. We decide what we discuss and what we don’t need to discuss in this atmosphere. And if we don’t need to, then take it into the corner. Take it into the back room. But it doesn’t need to happen in this room right now, because our focus needs to be on winning.
“Anything that can pull people apart — and politics can do that in a heartbeat — that’s a conversation that, all in all, should just stay out,” he says. “If you want to go one-on-one? Fine. Let’s go to dinner. But the clubhouse is not a place for it.”
MAYBE IN THOSE dinner conversations, there is a path to understanding in a world, Rollins says, where people don’t listen to each other enough anymore. For baseball to use its unique platform to play a leadership role in a divided country, it would need to generate a much louder conversation, among many diverse voices.
But baseball, says its commissioner, leads by the example it sets, not the stands it takes.
“I don’t want to overstate this,” Rob Manfred says. “But I do believe that our sport, with the way people feel about our sport and the spot that it occupies in our culture, is related to the fact that we are a symbol of inclusion. We became that because of the Jackie Robinson experience. And we work very hard to maintain that symbolism. Everything we do in the community, all of our efforts with youth, has a focus that we try to include people of all races, colors, socioeconomic backgrounds.”
There are those who would argue that the “Jackie Robinson experience” gives baseball a special obligation to make a statement at a time like this — even if that statement is simply about what it means to have the backs of people from all backgrounds.
“Our role is to provide an environment that’s politics-free and controversy-free. I just care about what’s best for my team. I don’t want to risk losing any fan. I want all our fans to support my team. So I don’t think I have the right to take a position that would alienate our customers.”
“We believe that we make a statement every day,” Manfred says, “when we put out a product that’s amazingly diverse on the field, made up by the best players in the world, and continue to have our ballparks be a haven where people can go, no matter what issues are weighing on their minds, and escape by watching what I regard as the best entertainment available.”
Did it get your attention to hear him use the word “escape”? Well, there is no escaping the fact that his sport needs to play a role in American life right now. But what is that role?
“Our role is to provide an environment that’s politics-free and controversy-free,” says an official of one team, who was so interested in remaining controversy-free that he asked not to be named. “I just care about what’s best for my team. I don’t want to risk losing any fan. I want all our fans to support my team. So I don’t think I have the right to take a position that would alienate our customers.”
So what that means, he says, is that he has no interest in entertaining “the topics that divide us. I only want to discuss the topics that bring us together.”
Sports has the power to do just that. But for how long? Those 5 million people who were brought together, for one day last November, by the Cubs’ World Series parade didn’t think of themselves as Republicans or Democrats. But when that parade was over, what exactly did it heal?
“It didn’t heal anything,” Todd says. “That’s why I look at baseball as more of an ‘escape’ than a ‘heal’ … unless some players stand up and decide to heal.”
But we’re now nearly three weeks into spring training — and who, other than Fowler and Doolittle, has stood up, on either side, on any issue? And what that tells us is that the sound of silence can somehow be so deafening, it makes it hard for anyone to raise his voice.
“You know, it’s much easier to join a movement,” says Rollins, “than to start a movement.”