Craig Calcaterra

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The Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2015 — #23: Some ballpark patriotism revealed to be sponsored by the military

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We’re a few short days away from 2016 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2015. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were creatures of social media, fan chatter and the like. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

Baseball has always featured the National Anthem before “Play Ball” and red, white and blue bunting has been commonplace in ballparks for years. After 9/11, however, baseball saw a surge in patriotic displays –tributes to the troops, the flag, veterans and the like — before, during and after games.

This is understandable, of course, as our nation went to war and such sentiments surge during wartime. At some point in the past 14 years, however, the exercises began to become increasingly scripted and increasingly rote. More troubling, they also became more a function of corporate sponsorship than unadulterated, heartfelt patriotism. It wasn’t just Major League Baseball saluting the troops. It was Bank or America. It wasn’t just the Kansas City Royals offering veterans seat upgrades at games, it was Budweiser. At some point after 9/11 professional sports saw fit to allow corporations to ride on the back of patriotic sentiment in an effort, intentionally or unintentionally, to bolster their own image.

Against that backdrop came a story last May about how the military actually spends tax dollars to pay for a lot of this stuff, using it as a recruitment and P.R. tool. Indeed, National Guard officials admitted as much when asked about it. Nothing illegal occurred in this, but many considered the practice to be manipulative in that fans were clearly led to believe that these salutes to the troops and “Hometown Hero” tributes were public services by the team or, at the very least, spontaneous tributes. Which they clearly were not. They were advertisements. Soon after the report came out a Congressional investigation was launched and a bill was introduced aimed at outlawing the practice.

As for baseball, one gets the distinct impression that the conspicuous displays of patriotism, while far from being pushed out of the game, are beginning to be ratcheted back ever so slowly. A comparison of the pre-World Series game activities from 2014 to 2015 showed a shift from military-related ceremonies and public relations opportunity to more community based, youth baseball-focused ones.

Baseball will never dispense with giant flags and patriotic associations, but one gets the sense that, each year, the post-9/11 volume we experienced with these things will be dialed back a tad.

The Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2015 — #24: Barry Bonds comes back to baseball

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We’re a few short days away from 2016 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2015. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were creatures of social media, fan chatter and the like. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

Barry Bonds has been in baseball’s wilderness for a long, long time. Most of it of his own doing, of course. After breaking Hank Aaron’s home run record in 2007 Bonds never played again. There was still every indication that he was a useful player — he posted a line of .276/.380/.565 that year — but he was unable to find a team who would sign him. Was it collusion? Possibly, though an arbitrator eventually ruled that it wasn’t. That left us with the explanation that baseball just didn’t want to deal with him and the controversy which surrounded him any longer. In addition to being a famously difficult personality in the clubhouse, Bonds was indicted and was facing a perjury and obstruction of justice trial.

For most of the next eight years, baseball’s all-time home run leader was consumed with legal matters. He was acquitted on all but one of the charges and, after a lengthy appeal process, prevailed on the remaining count. This past July the government finally and definitively dropped all efforts to make a criminal out of Barry Bonds. At long last, Bonds would be able to slip into quiet retirement, pursuing what had become his new passion: cycling up and down the mountains of the Bay Area.

Or would he?

In late November reports circulated that the Miami Marlins were interested in hiring Bonds to be their hitting coach. Bonds had been a guest instructor for the Giants during the past couple of spring trainings, but nothing about his post-playing life suggested that he’d be amenable to returning to the eight month grind of Major League Baseball. Bonds surprised everyone, however, by accepting the job. He’ll be back in uniform come February and will be back in a major league dugout on Opening Day.

There is some reason to believe that Bonds’ decision to take this job, with this club, was not well-considered and that his tenure with the Marlins may not last a very long time. But in the meantime, a man baseball fans and commentators love to hate is back in the game.

He’s not the only guy who fits that description who returned in 2015, but you’ll have to wait a good while for us to get to the other rehabilitated pariah on our countdown.

 

The Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2015 — #25: Curt Schilling’s Year in Social Media

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We’re a few short days away from 2016 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2015. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were creatures of social media, fan chatter and the like. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

Cancer kept Curt Schilling on the sidelines in 2014. Thankfully he fought and beat it and returned to the public eye in 2015. Boy howdy, did he make up for lost time.

In January he claimed that he didn’t get as many Hall of Fame votes as he should have — as many as, say, John Smoltz got — because he is a Republican. Never mind that Smoltz is a Republican too. In March he got praise for lowering the boom on a couple of awful people who tweeted vile and borderline criminal things about his daughter, getting one of them fired and causing a police investigation to be launched with respect to the other.

That stuff, however, was just a warmup for the main event: Schilling posting a tweet that equated Muslims to Nazis. He deleted it, but not before it created an uproar and brought considerable attention to Schilling’s habit of posting controversial political memes on Facebook and Twitter. In the past Schilling’s employer, ESPN, had largely ignored this stuff, but this time they were none too pleased, issuing a statement which said “Curt’s tweet was completely unacceptable, and in no way represents our company’s perspective.” They immediately took him off of his assignment providing commentary for the Little League World Series.

More significantly, Schilling was suspended from his primary job, providing color commentary for Sunday Night Baseball. Which, while a bad thing for Schilling, was a good thing for Jessica Mendoza. Just days before Schilling’s social media controversy erupted Mendoza, the former Olympic softball player and studio analyst for ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight,” became became the first female in-game analyst for an MLB game on ESPN, contributing to a Diamondbacks-Cardinals game. After receiving praise for that assignment ESPN almost immediately slotted her into Schilling’s place on Sunday Night Baseball where she remained for the rest of the season.

Mendoza has gotten glowing reviews for her work in the ESPN booth and, while Schilling is under contract with ESPN for another year, it seems likely that she will continue in that role. For his part, Schilling has been shifted to studio work and continues to post controversial things on his Facebook and Twitter pages.

One gets the sense that, after his contract expires in 2016, he’ll have a lot more time for Facebook and Twitter. Which is sort of ironic, as his Twitter handle — Gehrig38 — is a tribute to Lou Gehrig while his social media habits got him Wally Pipped from his broadcasting job.