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Joe Maddon, Donald Trump, and contemporary baseball politics

Joe Maddon’s explanation for his visiting the White House speaks to the current political climate’s assault on liberty and equality in politics and baseball.

Colorado Rockies v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

On Tuesday, it was announced that Joe Maddon and a number of other unnamed Cubs would be visiting the White House on Wednesday, making the team’s second trip there this year (after one while Barack Obama was still in office). In defense of the visit, Maddon stated:

“I like the United States a lot. I like living her a lot. And I like everything that it represents a lot. When you get a chance as a citizen to go to the White House, you go. Whether you like the person that’s running the country or not, out of respect to the office itself, you go. I don’t agree with all the other banter that’s going on right now because I have a different perspective. I like living here a lot. I like this country a lot. I much prefer living here than some of the other places that adopt different methods of government. I think sometimes that gets confused when people want to take a stand and not really realize what we actually have here. Which is a lot than most every place else.”

Though Maddon likely intended the statement to be uncontroversial, it speaks volumes about his political stances, and how baseball fits into these beliefs.

First, Maddon’s repeated affirmation of America, and his belief that the White House and president should be revered, illustrates the dissolution of political responsibility. For decades, perhaps since the election of movie star Ronald Reagan, Americans have come to see the president as something of a celebrity, but also somebody who is above criticism, who should be revered rather than held accountable, and who should be defended rather than questioned, particularly by those who support the president’s party. Indeed, party loyalty has become so integral to the American political system that voters frequently shun critical thought in favor of adherence to single issues or a strict party line.

Naturally, this degradation of the political system is most apparent in the responses to the Obama and Trump presidencies. Those who opposed Obama did so ferociously, accusing him of being anti-American, literally un-American, and determined to destroy the country. Now, when they are faced with a man who happens to represent their party, they flock to his defense, asserting that the president should receive blind support simply because he is the president. These defenders argue that the president should be shielded from the people, an idea counter to the Founders’ original conception of the presidency as the branch most accountable to the people as a whole. And so errors, ineptitude, and bad policy on the part of a president are excused by supporters, because his position is somehow so important and so difficult that criticism is unfathomable.

This blind party loyalty ties into Maddon’s affirmation of the status quo as good, and his rejection of the idea that America needs to change. He predicates these views on the notion that America appears to him to be less despotic than many other regimes. In doing so, Maddon displays an unwillingness to view politics from differing points of view, believing anyone in opposition to this regime is simply mistaken about the facts. Indeed, many life-and-death decisions are understood by the right to be simple questions of policy, of paperwork. It lumps this regime and the assault on individual freedoms over the past 15 years with standard American politicking over "minor" disagreements. It normalizes a system of violence directed toward the most vulnerable members of the American community and labels its opponents radicals, thereby ensuring the continuation of a broken system that serves those few at the top, who climbed there on the backs of minorities and the oppressed.

Baseball plays a role in this system, as well. The post-9/11 forced militarism and paid patriotism shoved into MLB helps solidify these beliefs, asserting that America is a divinely-manifested, special country and all its critics are radicals bent on overthrowing all America stands for. It further portrays patriotism as equivalent to military support, asserting that our freedoms are solely due to military action and ignoring the impact of domestic dedication to responsible government and community-building. This nationalism also demonstrates the superficial understanding of American politics, presenting military issues as obvious areas of support and approval. There is hardly a thought about whether these military actions are justified, how they impact their target countries, and what happens to veterans upon their return to America. For many, support begins and ends with standing for the Star Spangled Banner and God Bless America and applauding the military personnel present at each game. There is no thought to the difficulty members of the armed forces face in re-integrating with American society, in receiving proper physical and mental care. These matters are extraneous, and military actions assume a “good” vs. “bad” character that suppresses critical thought and beneficial debate. It operates via blanket statements (like Maddon’s) that are intended to elicit emotional responses rooted in belief in American exceptionalism.

For decades, America forced baseball on its neighbors through military conquests, while maintaining it at home as a sport exclusively for white men. And so when these countries, like the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Japan, turned baseball into integral aspects of their culture, white Americans clung steadfastly to the idea that these versions of baseball were not the “real” American version of the game. This notion became another means of subjugating and othering non-white people. Because many of these groups are systematically silenced, the predominant views remain largely unopposed, and as people in power are constantly afraid of losing it, diversity and equality become pipe dreams for most. Though baseball has recently increased its Latin population, the black population has declined, and MLB overall is still a white man’s game. The notion of "playing the game the right way" is frequently deployed against non-white players, while those who do speak about inclusivity frequently are scrutinized and rejected. There still has never been an “out” LGBTQ player in Major League Baseball, and female representation seems even farther away.

Though baseball recognizes these diversity problems, it largely fails to take measures to rectify them, instead patting itself on the back for mentioning them at all. Echoing the viral photo of an all-white male Trump team drafting women’s health care, the power within baseball leaves the problems of the lack of diversity to a rich, white, male group of executives. Beginning with unpaid internship positions, most MLB jobs are wholly inaccessible to the poor, who are disproportionately non-white. Such individuals lack the financial means necessary to work without compensation for years and start working up the ladder of MLB positions. Thus, the league’s relatively new plan to look internally for diverse candidates is guaranteed to fail. But because these homogeneous executives have “taken steps” to diversify, they can then claim that no minorities were interested in these positions, maintaining the status quo while pretending to be progressive, and pandering to the superficiality of modern American politics.

Baseball has always been a game that changes incrementally, meaning it has always lacked diversity. For somebody like Maddon, diversity occurs in baseball thought, in how the game is played, and how to best incorporate advanced statistics. Like the more policy-oriented political sphere, where life-and-death issues are boiled down to two-line alterations in a bill, baseball lacks humanity. Fans believe they have a right to treat players however they like, because by supporting the team, they now partially own the players, and if players get upset about these jabs, they can turn to their money as comfort. Money dictates large amounts of the political process, which frequently includes baseball. Those without money are often left without voices, while those with the most money dictate policies and rules. These people, if they have no money, are entirely cut from the process, while those who have some — but not as much as those at the top — are vilified. “Quirky Joe” Maddon is often labeled baseball’s managerial innovator, encouraging players to display their personalities, to show themselves as human, but as someone entirely too willing to operate in a system dictated by money, his dress-up days and quirky t-shirts ring hollow.

The point is not that Joe Maddon himself could suddenly uproot a deeply capitalistic, labor-based economic and political system. The point is that he is one of a broad swath of people who do not believe that there is a political or moral problem with that system. To equate "better than some places" with "good enough" leads to the degradation and destruction of the country. It prevents us from progressing toward greater liberties, more responsible governance, and establishing qualities every area of the diverse populace can proudly uphold.

Joe Maddon is not some old guy yelling at clouds, nor was his statement bland and un-newsworthy. It instead represents the prevailing views held by those in power, the views that stifle diversity and oppress minorities. Joe Maddon speaks as both a MLB manager and an American citizen. The two are not distinct positions. Baseball, as a business and as a distinctly American enterprise, must match the predominant beliefs in the country. It has welcomed post-9/11 militarism, stagnated diversity, and dissuaded critical thought. The fact that none of those elements are deemed controversial proves the necessity to critique Maddon’s statements and oppose his, and baseball’s, connection to this destructive regime.

Mary Craig is a baseball history enthusiast who writes about the sport’s relation to America’s political history. You can follow her on Twitter at @marymcraig.