“Respect the Game” is baseball’s version of “Make America Great Again”

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Jay Caspian Kang of the New York Times knocks baseball culture out of the park in his column today. The subject: the much-discussed “respect the game” and unwritten rules business. But instead of talking about them on the surface, he dives deep to decode what it is, exactly, which truly animates the discussion.

What animates it, really, is the whiteness of baseball and the attempts by those with influence in the game to keep the values of white American players dominant while discrediting and in some cases attacking the values of black and Latino players. Jorge Arangure has gone over this territory with some very, very sharp analysis in the past. I’ve written a lot of words about it too. King, however, may have put it more succinctly than anyone with this, referencing battles 20 years ago over Ken Griffey Jr.’s backwards cap:

The Griffey showdown was one in a long line of coded racial arguments, minor battles between two types: the “standard” white player and his nonwhite foil. The archetype of the white baseball player has always been a study in negative space. He does not flip his bat after home runs. He does not insult the hard-working fans with talk about politics. He never takes more than one day at a time. As a result, he cannot exist without a foil to embody all those “flashy” or “hot­headed” or “provocative” things he is not. The foils, of course, have generally been black. But as the demographics of the sport have changed, so, too, has this dynamic.

That negative space idea is the key here. “Playing the game the right way” is almost always said in the wake of someone who is said to play it the wrong way. Respecting the game is always a way of saying someone else is disrespectful. There is no consistent definition for any of these allegedly non-reactionary ideals. It’s all situational. Indeed, the contradictions inherent in “playing the game the right way” are literally the stuff of laugh-out-loud comics.

In the presidential race right now, we’re seeing a notable backlash of generalized white identity politics which has been spurred on by fear and anxiety over “the other.” The fear that immigrant hordes or Muslim terrorists are stealing our jobs or putting our lives at risk. Is there a rational core to any of that? On some level, sure. Immigration and security are legitimate topics of political debate. But there has been a tremendous, defensive and wholly irrational overreaction to it as epitomized by the nonsense spewed by Donald Trump and the new visibility of the racist and Islamophobic fringes.

In baseball, decorum is likewise a legitimate topic of discussion. And, even I will admit, there is a point where one can be disrespectful on the field or, for lack of a better phrase, one can play the game the wrong way. As in politics, however, what constitutes such a threat or a transgression has been defined comically downward, primarily out of anxiety over change and new faces and different values being held by more and more participants in the game. It’s an overreaction which seeks to put the toothpaste back in the tube. It’s, more or less, a “Make Baseball Great Again” movement.

Jay Caspian Kang nails that here. It’s a must-read.