Commentary

As goes baseball, so goes America | Jonathan C. Rothermel

The changes in the game reflect the changes in our national temperament and politics

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – OCTOBER 31: Freddie Freeman #5 of the Atlanta Braves makes the putout on Martin Maldonado #15 of the Houston Astros during the fourth inning in Game Five of the World Series at Truist Park on October 31, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

By Jonathan C. Rothermel

Baseball is often referred to as the national pastime because it is intrinsically linked to American culture, history, and politics.  Pivotal moments of baseball’s history, such as Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, labor disputes, and various presidents throwing out ceremonial first pitches, are chronicled in Ken Burns’ award-winning, documentary mini-series, Baseball (1994).

Jonathan C. Rothermel (Capital-Star file photo)

Last week, Major League Baseball’s World Series began between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves.  It is a good time to reflect on what the state of baseball can tell us about the state of our nation.  Unsurprisingly, baseball is contending with similar changes faced by the country at large.

First, baseball is struggling to expand and diversify its fan base.  The average attendance to Major League Baseball (MLB) games is declining, and its fan base is growing older.  Only, 10.8 million viewers, a historic low for a series opener at a non-neutral site, tuned in for the opening game of the World Series last Tuesday.

MLB is actively trying to find ways to appeal to a more diverse market as they compete with the NBA and NFL for popularity and fans.  MLB increased its social media marketing (MLB is even on TikTok) and is working with city mayors to encourage more youth participation in baseball through its Play Ball initiative.  Since 1981 the number of African American MLB players declined significantly from 18% to only 7% in 2021 contributing to waning interest in the sport among African Americans.

In America, the electorate is changing as well.  According to 2020 U.S. Census data, the white population rate declined, while Latinos or Hispanics, Asian American, and Black populations grew by 20%, 29%, and 8.5%, respectively since 2010.  It is projected that the U.S. will be minority white by 2045.  The future of political parties will depend on their abilities to appeal to a more diverse electorate.

Texas, home of the Houston Astros, is the second most diverse state in the country.  This diversity is challenging the conventional political posture of Texas as a decidedly red state.  A Democratic president has not won Texas since 1976, yet it was labeled a “toss up” state by the Cook Political Report leading up to the 2020 presidential election.  While Trump won in 2020, the gap between Republicans and Democrats is narrowing.

Similarly in Georgia, home of the Atlanta Braves, high voter turnout among minorities resulted in the state voting for a Democratic president for the first time in 28 years.  There is also a resurgence of intense national scrutiny on the name of the team and the use of the fans’ “tomahawk chop” in the wake of recent changes to the formerly named Cleveland Indians (MLB) and Washington Redskins (NFL).

Second, baseball is trying to find ways to “speed up” the game by making it more efficient.  The average length of a baseball game has increased.  Changes have already been made including limiting the number of trips to the mound and stipulating pitchers must face at least three batters before being relieved.

The pressure to make changes to America’s favorite pastime is indicative of the fast-paced, impatient, and busy lifestyle of Americans who hate waiting for things and are willing to compromise nuance for expediency.

This mindset is evident in politics too.  Americans want to see the world in black and white – not shades of gray.  The trend towards retail politics – the over-simplification of political issues to make them more accessible to political consumers – is aided by opinion-based news and social media.  This trend erodes the quality of political discourse.  Instead of looking at the complexities of an issue, issues are pigeonholed into extreme viewpoints.

Finally, baseball players are striking out at higher rates than ever before, and batting averages are decreasing.  Batters are facing pitchers who are throwing at a higher velocity than ever before.

It is a problem that has prompted MLB to ramp up enforcement midway through the 2021 season against foreign substances being used by pitchers to increase their ball rotation.  Some have even proposed lengthening the distance between the mound and home plate.

In addition, baseball managers often “shift” their defense to account for higher probabilities of where a batter will hit the ball.  For left-handed batters, this often means 3 of the 4 infielders positioned on the right side of second base, further putting the batter at a disadvantage.

Americans also find themselves in unfavorable situations as they struggle to navigate a pandemic plagued world amidst an inflationary economy.  The deck is increasingly stacked against them as programs to provide relief, such as paid family leave, free community college, and lower costs of prescription drugs, were recently scrapped from the social spending bill amid intense negotiations between President Biden and his own party.

Meanwhile, It has been alleged that social media giants like Facebook use statistical algorithms to sow political discord among its users for the sake of profits.  While tech giants’ stocks soar, everyday Americans report higher levels of stress and concerns over financial security.

Yet despite these changes, the fact is that baseball and America are resilient.  Change provides opportunities to reflect, learn, and grow. As former All-Star Ken Griffey, Jr. once put it, “To succeed in baseball, as in life, you must make adjustments.”

Opinion contributor Jonathan C. Rothermel is a political science professor at Mansfield University. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ProfJCR.

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