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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2017 — No. 15: Bruce Maxwell takes a knee

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We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

In the fall of 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the National Anthem in silent protest of police brutality and racial inequality. He was joined by a handful of other players at first, and then by many more in 2017.  The protests led to a political firestorm, fanned by President Donald Trump and conservative news outlets, each of which willfully mischaracterized the players as protesting against the American flag and the National Anthem itself. Since then the NFL, its fans, its players and coaches and team owners, politicians, advertisers, broadcasters and commentators of every stripe have been consumed with the politics of athlete protests.

On September 23 — a day after President Trump called for all protesting NFL players to be “fired” — Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first baseball player to take a knee during the National Anthem. He would continue to do so for the final week of the season. His stated reason for doing so: to express his frustration at the Trump-led opposition to the player protests and to criticize the President for endorsing “division of man and rights.” The Oakland A’s had Maxwell’s back on the matter, saying in a statement that they “respect and support all of our players’ constitutional rights and freedom of expression.” Maxwell got some boos on the road, but nothing serious came of his protest during the season.

As I wrote at the time — and as I still believe — protests during the National Anthem are highly unlikely to become widespread in baseball. Partially because baseball players, generally speaking, skew more conservative than football players do. Partially because baseball, by its nature, values and encourages a certain conformity and strongly discourages non-conformity or individuality. Even if a player feels strongly about a given matter, he’s not likely to take a knee or protest in any other conspicuous way before or during a game lest he become “a distraction.” I suspect that Maxwell himself will cease to protest in 2018 given that, after the season, he became embroiled in minor scandal and criminal charges. When you’re anything short of a superstar, you do not want to stick out if you can avoid it.

Whether or not Maxwell or anyone else kneels during the Anthem in 2018, it’s doubtful that baseball can avoid politics indefinitely. We live in an age where seemingly everything carries with it at least some political overtones and, despite the contention of many, sports are a part of society, not an escape from society. They provide a lot of entertainment, yes, but they do not provide a safe space for those seeking to ignore society’s problems. Largely because athletes are people too and the world impacts their work and their lives just as it impacts yours and mine. Also because sports owners, sports leagues, sports unions, sports advertisers and sports broadcasters are all, to various degrees, advancing their own political agendas at almost all times.

So perhaps a catcher kneels. Or perhaps a pitcher says he won’t visit Donald Trump if his team wins the World Series. Maybe a respected manager breaks out of cliches and speaks frankly. Maybe the new awareness of sexual misconduct in the workplace affects baseball executives. Maybe baseball executives speak contemptuously about their workers in public. Maybe the fallout from political strife puts the lives of players and their families in danger. Maybe something totally unexpected takes place which causes baseball to be put under the same political microscope football is under these days.

You may wish we could keep sports politics free, but given that politics do not stop at the stadium gates, such a wish is futile.

How long do you stay a fan of a team that left town?

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File this under “not a really deep thought, but there isn’t much going on this morning, so why not?”

I was catching up with the latest, and final, season of “The Americans” over the weekend. I will give no spoilers and ask that you do the same, but I want to talk about something that came up in the second episode.

The episode takes place in October 1987 and a character is listening to a Twins playoff game on the radio. He later talks about baseball and the Twins with some other characters. The context is not important, but the guy — probably in his mid-late 40s, living in the Washington D.C. area — makes a point to say that he has been a Twins fan since the beginning, and then says he was, in fact, a fan of the franchise back when they were still the Washington Senators.

In case you are unaware, the original Washington Senators moved to Minnesota following the 1960 season and became the Twins. At the same time an expansion team, also called the Senators, was placed in D.C. to replace them. That franchise would stay in D.C. for 11 seasons before moving to Texas in 1972 to become the Rangers.

In light if that, am I the only one who has a hard time buying that such a man actually existed? How would the character, who was a kid when the original Senators moved, be a Twins fan some 26 years later?

There were relatively few televised baseball games back then. Just a game of the week and some out of town coverage of local teams. There was obviously no internet. Outside of the 1965 World Series, it’d be a shock if more than a couple of Twins games were broadcast to the D.C. area during the rest of the guy’s childhood. Maybe he kept up with the Senators players like Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison via box scores, baseball cards and The Sporting News, but I couldn’t imagine a D.C. guy raised on the Senators keeping up with the Twins through the 1970s and 1980s. Would he not become a new Senators fan or, eventually, a Rangers fan? Maybe, like so many people on the D.C. area, he picked up the Orioles as his team due to their 1960s-70s dominance? Any number of things could happen, but I’m struggling to imagine the existence of a Senators guy who becomes a hardcore Twins fans up to and including 1987.

All of that got me thinking about other relocated teams.

The Dodgers are the most famous example, of course, with the narrative being that Dodgers fans in Brooklyn felt betrayed by Walter O’Malley and thus turned their back on the club, later adopting the Mets as their rooting interest. The betrayal narrative is less pronounced with the Giants, but that’s the same general story with them too. I mean, there’s a reason the Mets picked orange and blue as their colors. They wanted to, and largely did, co-opt the old NL New York fans.

I’m sure a lot more Dodgers and Giants fans continued to follow their teams in California than would let on, given that many of the same players starred out there in the ensuing years, but that likely died out as those players retired. Bob Aspromonte was the last Brooklyn Dodger to play in the bigs, retiring after the 1971 season. Willie Mays played through 1973. I assume NL fans in New York kept some nice thoughts for them — particularly because the Mets picked both of them up for the tail end of their careers — but I can’t see those guys rooting for, say, Steve Garvey and John Montefusco in 1979.

Others:

  • There likely aren’t many St. Louis Browns fans left — they last played in Missouri 65 years ago — but even if the ones they had in 1953 felt like rooting for the Cardinals was impossible, I bet most of their kids and grandkids became Cards fans;
  • The A’s fans in Philly — and later Kansas City — probably have a similar story. I mean, there’s a reason that franchise skipped town twice, so to expect undying love over the decades, with the Phillies and Royals around, is a bit much. The Philadelphia A’s glory years were like 90s years ago now anyway, and all of those fans are dead. The A’s modern glory years have all come in Oakland. No one in Philadelphia or Kansas City is looking to the California with an aching in their heart;
  • I could imagine someone’s grandfather in Milwaukee still thinking that the Braves are his team, but not many other people. The Braves won a World Series and two pennants in Milwaukee, but that was an awful long time ago and they moved to Atlanta before the A’s moved to Oakland. Don’t even get me started about Boston Braves fans. They all have to either be dead or have long since moved on. Following a team to a new city is a big ask, but following them to two new cities over 66 years seems pathological. UPDATE: OK, there are some pathological people out there.
  • I have some Nationals fan friends and they tell me that there is a small, weird contingent of Expos fans who root for Washington now. I get that since it wasn’t terribly long ago, but was Brad Wilkerson really a good enough reason to carry a torch? I’d like to talk to some of those people and ask them about their value system;
  • The only other team to move was the Seattle Pilots. They played one season in Seattle and no one would remember that if it wasn’t for Jim Bouton’s book, “Ball Four.” If you find someone claiming to be a Pilots fan in Seattle, you’ve found yourself a hipster peddling revisionist b.s.

Anyway, that’s a lot of words wasted on a couple of lines from a TV show, but as always, your thoughts are appreciated.