Baseball is the sport that’s responsible for the National Anthem being played before sporting events, and it was always going to be the last sport to get sucked into the controversy. It’s responsible because the tradition started at a World Series game 99 years ago, during World War I, when millions of young men were killed for reasons that most adults don’t remember today. It was going to be the last sport because it’s the stodgiest one. It’s the sport that’s the most resistant to change.
Baseball was going to be the last sport to get sucked in because it’s the one that appeals to how great everything used to be. With football, you can measure the height, weight, and 40-yard dash time of the average player in 1956, compare it to the modern player, and laugh. With basketball, you can watch five seconds of video from a different era and appreciate the difference in skill and speed today. With baseball, there’s always someone to call back to, someone who was the best you ever saw, full stop, no context needed. The sport doesn’t have to progress to be enjoyed, even as it unquestionably does.
Baseball was going to be the last sport to get sucked in because it’s the one in which traditions are followed because they’re traditions, and this is important because the traditional traditions are traditionally followed in a traditional manner, look, just respect the traditions. Don’t stare too long at a home run. If they hit our guy, we hit theirs. Rookies don’t get to complain to umpires nearly as much as veterans. There is rarely any introspection when it comes to the unwritten rules. They’re commandments, and they’ve just always been there, man. Don’t ask too many questions. Follow them or get hurt.
Baseball was going to be the last sport to get sucked in because it’s one of the whitest sports, both in terms of participation and viewership. Whitest makes a difference not because patriotism is connected to pigment, but because it makes a huge difference in one’s ability to say, “Hey, knock it off, nothing’s wrong, what’s the big deal?”
Baseball was going to be the last sport to get sucked in, but it was never going to be immune. This conversation was always coming because it’s nearly impossible to pretend like nothing is wrong right now. This makes people so damned uncomfortable. The status quo is incredibly comfortable, just a warm, snuggly blanket, and now it’s being challenged by rude, shivering people. This ruins your whole vibe.
The only surprise, really, is who challenged that status quo and how perfect he was for the job. Bruce Maxwell was born on a military base. He’s on record as saying that the patriotic garb for Memorial Day and Independence Day means more to him because of his family’s military background. He made a calculated effort to draw a clear line between protest and disrespect.
The most important part is that Maxwell is a 26-year-old rookie with absolutely everything to lose. He’s a backup catcher with a .244 batting average and three home runs. He’s someone who’s been worth 0.1 WAR this year, which means he’s a replaceable player, by definition. He looked at Colin Kaepernick, an accomplished veteran without a job, someone too toxic for the billionaires of the NFL to consider, and knew what the worst-case scenario was. Maxwell kneeled anyway because he felt his message and the amplification of it was more important than his job security.
As a reminder, that message is this:
That’s it. That’s the controversial message that has everyone so upset. Instead of mindlessly singing along and pretending that the country is beyond criticism, we have to listen now? The people who are upset at anthem protests are upset that they have to listen and engage with the idea that the country isn’t perfect, that there’s still more work to do. The current president was elected on a campaign slogan that roughly translated to “Everything is shitty now, but I can help,” but he’s also the loudest critic of anyone who dares to say, “This one specific thing has always been shitty, and we need you to listen.” The cognitive dissonance is overwhelming.
A man born in Germany because of his dad’s devotion to this country would like you to listen.
If you want politics out of your baseball, I regret to inform you that they’ve always been there. Hollywood got to make a clean, shiny movie about Jackie Robinson, which allowed people to feel good about the progress we’ve made, except Robinson didn’t get to live in that clean, shiny movie. He lived in a bleak reality, where the death threats didn’t stop coming when the two hours were over. If you think baseball has always been about keeping politics out, Hank Aaron has some letters to share with you.
If you want an example that’s less dramatic, consider the story of Andrew McCutchen, who explained why there are fewer and fewer American-born black players in Major League Baseball.
For all the backlash around the Jackie Robinson West team “cheating,” most people are ignoring the truth of how these 12-year-old kids make it out of their towns and onto a national stage. Individuals step in and fill that financial gap. Hopefully those people are trustworthy and have their hearts in the right place. I was fortunate in that respect. Other kids might not be. When you talk to players around Major League Baseball, almost every single one of them has a story about a person who stepped in and took care of their expenses. You hear it all the time: “If it wasn’t for this guy, I wouldn’t be in the league.”
It takes money to play travel ball. It takes money to play at the highest amateur levels. African-Americans have a disproportionately small amount of the country’s wealth, which means they’ll have a disproportionately small chance of climbing the ladder in baseball. And you have two choices: You can believe that African-Americans are poorer because they’re genetically inferior, which would make you a flaming racist, or you can believe that it’s the case because of opportunities that were denied to earlier generations, with a clean, neatly drawn line that goes back to slavery and the guns, germs, and steel that allowed the institution to exist. It’s not a stretch to suggest that the declining number of African-American players in baseball shares a root cause with the systemic violence that Kaepernick was protesting in the first place. It’s all tangled up in the same bloody history, and having everyone wear the number “42” once a year isn’t going to fix that.
And if you have a moment to listen, Bruce Maxwell would like to point all of this out. That’s all he asks.
This isn’t the first time that players have used the National Anthem to send a message. This was just a couple years ago:
Scott Van Slyke and Joe Kelly used the National Anthem to send a message. That message was this: Tee hee. They weren’t thinking about the sacrifices their fellow Americans made to keep them free. At that moment, the anthem was just a vehicle to break the tension, get a few giggles, and give their teammates an incrementally better chance of winning. And no one minded. Not a single editorial was penned in response, which suggests that the problem isn’t that athletes are using the anthem to send a message, but that they’re using the anthem to send a message that’s more threatening than “tee hee.”
Baseball was always going to be the last sport to get sucked in, but this was always coming. If history is any guide, Maxwell will be remembered fondly. I walked past a statue of John Carlos and Tommie Smith every day for years, which would have been unthinkable to the people who were the angriest at being told to listen back in 1968. It’s why Jackie Robinson went from death threats to a national hero, even though he used his autobiography to point out that the National Anthem rang hollow to him, too.
Until history is on his side, though, Maxwell will be dealing with a lot of nonsense. He knew that. He knew that there would be consequences, and he weighed that against the urgency of his message. He decided the message was more important. Maybe you should check out his message, then. It won’t take too long.
Bruce Maxwell would like you to listen. He risked his career because he thinks you should listen. Won’t you take a few minutes to listen?