Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Church of Baseball

On Memorial Day I went to the A's game. I specifically ordered these tickets in the off season because it was a Monday game, and at that point I was off on Mondays, and because it was one game of the only series that the Yankees were going to be in town. There are only two things that get me steamed without any discussion, and one is the Yankees. The game sucked, and my opinion of the Yankees hasn't changed any. They hit the ball hard over and over, making Trevor Cahill, who has looked awesome all year, look like a 5th starter on a team with crappy pitching. It was the first sell-out I've been to in at least 5 years, and it was great to see the ( Coliseum full. It was not, however, great to see it at least half full of Yankees fans. Rude, pompous, blue and white wearing Yankees fans. This is Oakland, dammit. The sell-out was cool, though, even if it meant waiting in line for the bathroom (and concessions due to crappy Coliseum architecture) and a short line to get in, and a long line to get back to the BART platform. There were people there, dammit!

But what I really want to write about is the separation of church and baseball, and the state and baseball. If it's not written into the Constitution, it should be. About two weeks ago, I went to the awesome game where the A's scored 14 runs. I don't think they've scored 14 runs since then, total. But I was substantially creeped out because it was "Jewish Heritage Night." Now, you can accuse me of anti-Semitism all you want, and it may be that I'm a self-loathing Jew (I've been accused of this before), but the issue to me was not specifically about Judiasm. I do think that's a little part of it: There is something in the history of the Reform movement in particular that makes Jews in America sort of anti-ostentation. Blatant displays of religion on the part of Jews make me (and I believe other Reform Jews) cringe. But the real issue was that there was religion at my ballpark. MY ballpark, my sanctuary. There were little snippets of the religious groups on the big TV, and some people were walking around with Israeli flags (don't get me started, this is the other thing that gets me steamed). The messages that were on the screen welcoming groups to the ballpark were predominately religiously oriented. I've heard about other "heritage" nights on Phillies broadcasts, but I didn't think it would come to Oakland.

If I had to articulate my feelings that night, I'd say squeamish, grossed out, resentful. Religion, I think, doesn't belong at the ballpark. Baseball *is* religion. Serious fans, students of the game, come to the ball park (or turn on the TV or radio) faithfully, at scheduled times. We ritualistically stand up before the game for the national anthem (more on this later), and again for the 7th inning stretch and the singing of "Take me out to the Ballgame." We eat ceremonial foods like peanuts and hot dogs, and drink ceremonial wines. (I've written about this a little bit before.) Baseball is ecumenical: anyone, of any religion, can enjoy it. We leave our religious differences, our political differences, in the parking lot. We enjoy our games, because it is play. Religion is deadly serious, and doesn't belong or near the field.

War, nationalism, and patriotism are also, obviously, deadly serious business. They also don't belong on the field. I know that most would argue that baseball is patriotism, and as American as apple pie. I'm willing to concede this- we'll always stand up for the National Anthem, and fine, it's America's national pastime. Sure, baseball has a history of racism and exclusion (and still does- Matt McCarthy's wonderful "Odd Man Out" is a great reminder of this, and I listened to a great episode of Edge of Sports about Adrian Burgos' new book about Alex Pompez. Have you heard about the recent Civil Rights game in Atlanta?) But so does America. Some would argue that baseball is part of the progress in America, and I guess you could say that regarding civil rights, though I would also argue that it lags way behind in other areas- ever heard of a gay baseball player? will we ever see a woman baseball player (I don't think so)? How long will teams be named "Braves" and "Indians" and how long will fans accept and participate in the "Tomahawk Chop?" So sure, baseball is American, and makes "us" "feel" "American," whatever that means.

But on Memorial day, it wasn't just patriotism that I saw at the ballpark. And it was worse than the religion stuff, which I thought was pretty bad. First, though great to see a sellout, the stadium was padded with Yankees fans, who are by their nature, patriotic to the extent of bordering on nationalist. Okay, I don't know if individual Yankees fans are like this, but seeing the Yankees reminds me of the absurd, war-like nationalism that has been at the Yankees stadium at least since 9-11. The 7th Inning Stretch at Yankees stadium now also involves the playing of "God Bless America," which combines the eerie combination of religion and nationalism. And not only do they play this song every 7th inning, it's broadcast on the radio every game. I understand the grief caused by the terrorist attacks, and I understand that baseball, or any large sporting event, can bring people together. However, when civic pride crosses into a mixture of religious based nationalism with the audience standing and saluting the flag, it borders on fascism. I know I'm overreacting by associating the Yankees fans with shows of extreme nationalism like this, but after 9-11 everyone was wearing Yankees gear with that iconic "NY" logo. I don't think a third of them were Yankees fans. It was just The Thing To Do. Supporting New York, and by extension, America, meant wearing Yankees gear. If you aren't with us (the Yankees), you're against us.

Then the pomp of the Memorial Day game started. The A's players warming up on the field were wearing camouflage hats in some sort of cloth, army style, not the typical baseball caps. And then a ceremony started on the field, and it took me a minute to realize that they were swearing in new recruits to the Marines, right there on the baseball field. The baseball field, where men play a game wtih strict rules of comportment, had just become the entre for the battlefield, where wargames: deadly and lawless. I felt sick to my stomach watching the rookies, signing their lives over for tiny salaries and a life of extreme hardship: the baseball field was not the place for this. A marine threw out the first pitch to Dallas Braden, who was wearing a sling and a fully Army uniform, though he is not a veteran. The A's then changed into special Memorial Day baseball caps before taking the field, and we were shown clips of the soldiers who had warn them in the field before sending them back for the game. It was a lot.

I want to make something clear here. I am glad to be an American. I consider part of this to question and criticize what it means to practice my identity as "American." This is my understanding of patriotism. I appreciate people who become soldiers, who give up their lives as they know them, and often actually give their lives, following their understanding of what it means to be an "American." I think Memorial Day is very important- we need to remember and honor our troops. I also understand that it's not going to happen anytime soon that we honor them in the way I think is appropriate: by bringing them home from the many pointless situations they're in now: unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, standing on the DMZ in North Korea, etc. I do not, however, think that nationalism is productive. (See some better explanations.) It leads to jingoism, war, us/them mentality, etc. You could say, ala David Chidester, that baseball is its own form of nationalism: each team is its own mini-nation, and the teams compete for supremacy. The teams have strict borders, and homogeneous societies. Viewed this way, like Clifford Geertz and his cockfights, we're playing out (or watching baseball players play out) some serious stuff.

But the bottom line is, we're not doing the serious work of nationalism, war, or religion on the ball field. Baseball becomes the serious stuff. Fans are patriots of the game, we worship at the temple of baseball. I don't want to see marines sign up and take their oath. I don't want to see people, however proud they are, and know what religion they are. Our commonality is our love for the game. I can sit next to someone, and fine, maybe they're a Yankees fan, but we still love the game. And beer, and hot dogs. For 27 outs, war and religion and borders don't matter. I'd like Major League Baseball to consider this, and to stop confusing matters.


tuffylovesfilm said...

Well said!

Unknown said...

RAmen brother! I agree 100%.