Racial Divides in the World Baseball Classic

My Love for the Game

I love the game of Baseball. I was introduced to Baseball, coincidentally enough, through statistics. I became involved with my high school varsity team when they were looking for someone who could keep their play book and calculate the players’ statistics. I did so throughout my four years in high school, even landing summer jobs for USA Baseball’s 18U West Coast tournaments where I kept statistics that would help select the top junior players in the country to represent the U.S. in international tournaments and the Junior Olympics.

Besides learning the ins and outs of the game through the numbers, I developed a deep love for the traditions. I found myself getting lost in the game. The ballparks, the sights, the smells, the sounds. I see so much beauty in it. From the poetry of a perfectly turned 6-4-3 double play. To its iconic players like Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente. To the mind-blowing impossibility of hitting a fastball (do yourself a favor, watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RENLMum5wz4).

But if I am honest, there are so many problems at the heart of the game I love that can’t be ignored. This year’s World Baseball Classic brought light to some of those problems, the racial divides of the game especially so…

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Neoliberalism & Financial Growth

It is impossible to understand the racial divides that were evident throughout the World Baseball Classic without first understanding the business aspect of the game. Baseball is first and foremost a business… and it holds many neoliberal ideals.

 Public Funds, Private Ownership 

Since the 1990s, many (if not all) Major League Baseball teams have built their franchises with the help of public subsidies and/or tax breaks (DeMause, 2011; DeMause & Cagan, 2008). Most of the time, this is validated by arguing that sports franchises are part of our cities’ civic and economic life.  Yet profits go directly into the pockets of private owners. For example, the New York Yankees’ new stadium cost an estimated $2.5 billion in 2009. It was constructed, in part, using $1.7 billion in tax-exempt municipal bonds issued by the city of New York.

Free (GLOBAL) Markets

Major League Baseball thrives off of free market ideals. First, baseball holds a free agency market, where franchises are buyers and sellers bidding for the best talent. It also competes in the global marketplace. Much like other global corporations in the 1990s, Major League Baseball developed overseas markets, most prominently in Latin America. Recruitment into MLB within the US is very regulated and structured. This is the exact opposite for Latin America, where MLB thrives from the deregulation of baseball talent (lack of amateur drafts, lack of agreements on talent transfers between professional leagues, etc.). Designed to access talent as young and as cheap as possible, the Latin American recruitment system includes “baseball academies” that are questioned for international human rights violations for their treatment of children in poverty-stricken countries as subjects of economic utilization (Marcano & Fidler, 2004).

American Nationalism

“This game is so profoundly in tune with our national character and temperament that it confirms my opinion as per which it is purely of American origin, that no other game or no other country has any right to claim any sort of kinship with it.”

-Albert Goodwill Spalding

Boston Red Stockings/Chicago White Stockings Pitcher 1871-1878

Spalding’s quote epitomizes America’s sentiment for its national pastime. Spalding was a central figure in making Baseball America’s national game. “His relentless promotion of Baseball as superior and uniquely American” went so far as to assert that only Americans (mind you, he meant American men) were capable of playing the game properly (Simmons, 2008, p.94). It is impossible to explore the racial divides of the World Baseball Classic without understanding the historical foundations of baseball and its everlasting connections to American Nationalism.

2017 World Baseball Classic

If you don’t follow baseball, the World Baseball Classic (WBC) is an international professional baseball competition. The 2017 WBC was composed of 16 nations (Canada, China, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Puerto Rico, South Korea, Chinese Taipei, US, Venezuela, Australia, Mexico, Colombia, and Israel).

The 2017 WBC highlighted some of the racial divides in the game…

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Playing the “Right Way” AKA the “White Way”

The WBC games brought a lot of attention to the differences in styles of playing Baseball. Many comparisons were made between the way in which the US team played to the style of play from the Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic teams. Baseball has many “unwritten” rules (http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1146901-baseballs-25-biggest-unwritten-rules)… these function as a sort of code of conduct for what is considered respectful versus showing off. Throughout the tournament, the US team was noted for its “understated, stoic approach” to play relative to the “joyful, expressive play and celebration” of other countries, most notably Puerto Rico (https://www.si.com/mlb/2017/03/22/ian-kinsler-team-usa-puerto-rico-dominican-republic-style-play-comments). Ian Kinsler, a local Tucsonan playing for the US team, commented the following on this:

“I hope kids watching the W.B.C. can watch the way we play the game and appreciate the way we play the game as opposed to the way Puerto Rico plays or the Dominican plays. That’s not taking anything away from them. That just wasn’t the way we were raised. They were raised differently and to show emotion and passion when you play. We do show emotion; we do show passion. But we just do it in a different way.”

This “playing the right way” debate is not new… but its racially coded language spilled over into the WBC. Critical Race Theory’s central themes of white supremacy, liberalism, and interest convergence can be applied to the WBC and baseball in general in understanding this debate.

If you’re interested see José Bautista’s monstrous bat flip and the celebration that ensued as a classic example of “not the right way to play”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UdsVO7HaJg

White Supremacy & Liberalism

Crenshaw (1988) speaks to the ways in which society portrays Blackness as “otherness.” She critiques liberalist notions of colorblindness for “repackaging” racism to keep White folks in power while appearing to be “progressive” and “equal”. These concepts can be applied to Ian Kinsler’s quote and to baseball’s “the right way to play” debate. Most brawls and arguments in baseball involve players from different ethnicities, primarily White American players versus LatinX players. These tensions mirror the way American society has experienced racial conflict. Up until recently, the majors adhered to dominant White American culture. This includes the style of play, to the music and food at ballparks, to LatinX players accepting Americanized versions of their names (e.g. Bob Clemente).  The steady increase in the numbers and prominence of LatinX players in the majors have driven a shift in culture to reflect these changes (e.g., the Ponle Acento campaign asking MLB to recognize the influence of LatinX players and culture on the game by putting accent marks and tildes on the names of players’ jerseys). This “right way to play” debate is, seems to me, a function of White American players reacting to and attempting to regulate this shift in culture.  The debate often uses racially coded language (“us” vs “them”, “nothing against them”, “that’s not how we were raised”) to portray LatinX players as “other” and to maintain the White American elitist culture of Baseball while appearing to be progressive on the shifting cultures of the game.

Interest Convergence

Interest Convergence, the concept that White elites will tolerate or encourage racial advances for people of color only when it simultaneously promotes White self-interest, can also be applied to the debate on “the right way to play” (Bell, 1980).  Baseball is often celebrated for its “racial progress,” with Jackie Robinson’s debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 integrating baseball seven years before Brown vs Board of Education. Just as Bell (1980) argued that interest convergence was the driver of desegregation in public education, I think interest convergence can also explain the “integration” of different styles of play in the MLB.  In 2014, ball players born in Latino America made up 25% of major leaguers, 33% of the All-Star team, and more than 40% of minor leaguers (Dokoupil, 2014). It’s not a longshot to state that LatinX players have largely contributed to the successes of MLB franchises, this includes everything from their talent, to their prominence with fans, to their financial exploitation. It is under this interest convergence that “the right way to play” debate is put on the backburner and “different styles of play” are tolerated. Different styles of play (and the ballplayers themselves) are tolerated when they contribute to winning percentages, when they bring in more fans into the ballpark, and when they help White owners pocket more profit from their franchises at the end of the day.

REFERENCES:

Bell Jr, D. A. (1980). Brown v. Board of Education and the interest-convergence dilemma. Harvard Law Review, 518-533.

Crenshaw, K. W. (1988). Race, reform, and retrenchment: Transformation and legitimation in antidiscrimination law. Harvard Law Review, 1331-1387.

DeMause, N., & Cagan, J. (2008). Field of schemes: How the great stadium swindle turns public money into private profit. U of Nebraska Press.

DeMause, N. (2011, August 5). The Nation: Stop The Subsidy-Sucking Sports Stadiums. National Public Radio. Found here: http://www.npr.org/2011/08/05/139018592/the-nation-stop-the-subsidy-sucking-sports-stadiums

Marcano, A., & Fidler, D. (2004). Baseball℉ S Exploitation Of Latin Talent. NACLA Report on the Americas37(5), 14-18.

Simons, W. M. (Ed.). (2008). The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, 2007-2008. McFarland.

 

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