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.