A few words on baseball, giant American Flags and patriotism

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This morning I woke up and saw that a friend had posted a photo on my Facebook timeline. It was of the opening ceremonies for the first game at the Braves new ballpark Friday night.

The photo was of the large American flag unfurled on the field for the National Anthem. In case you could not see it, on every one of the large video boards was a digital image of an American flag. It was quite the scene:

We’ve seen sights like this one pretty regularly over the past 16 years. Opening Day, the All-Star Game and the World Series would, by now, be considered incomplete without a couple of acres of red, white and blue on the outfield grass. Or, for Blue Jays game, just red and white. 

Baseball and the American flag have obviously long gone hand-in-hand. “The Star Spangled Banner” was first performed at a baseball game years before it was actually our country’s national anthem. Red, white and blue bunting goes back further. Baseball may not really be the national pastime anymore, but its patriotic rituals reach way, way back to a time when it unquestionably was.

As better writers than I have noted, however, the degree and intensity of patriotic display at sporting events has been dramatically ratcheted up since September 11, 2001. The big flags, the addition of “God Bless America” and the incorporation of the military into nearly every aspect of the promotion of the game. The impulse to do so was obvious and understandable, just as other patriotic displays in times of war, peril and tragedy are. The reasons for it make perfect sense and the escalation of conspicuous patriotism at the ballpark is unmistakable.

Something else has happened over this same period, however. Patriotism has been transformed from something most Americans demonstrate out of natural national pride and personal motivation to something more . . . performative. Often, something de rigueur. Unquestionably more political.

We can see it in the silly controversies over who does and who does not wear a little flag on their lapel. Or whether there are or are not the proper number of flags on stage at a political nominating convention. The impulse to characterize one’s political opponents as unpatriotic as a means of advancing one’s own political agenda is undeniable. Casting oneself as more patriotic than the other guy has always been a primary tool in the politician’s toolbox, but it has become a far more important tool in the past 16 years. “If you’re not for us, you’re against us,” is a sentiment that has expanded beyond matters of the literal basic security of our country from its enemies and has become an argument for any old policy one supports or opposes. You can be accused of being in league with ISIS for disagreeing about the ideal rate of taxation for certain brackets.

While people may wish for the ballpark to be a place where the real world does not intrude, sports often reflect what’s going on in society at large. To that end, the world of sports has likewise seen its natural patriotic habits amped up quite a bit. As mentioned above, a lot of that was natural and understandable in the wake of 9/11.

But there has been some opportunism and performative patriotism at play at the ballpark as well. Most notably in the pay-for-patriotism scandal from a couple of years ago in which it was revealed that the government had paid teams to promote patriotic and pro-military initiatives for propaganda and recruitment purposes. Less craven than that but still calculated is the degree to which corporate sponsorship has seeped into patriotic activities. For the 2014 World Series, American flags were provided to every fan at the entrance of Kauffman Stadium. Major League Baseball made sure we knew in the press release, however, that they were “presented by Bank of America, the Official Bank of Major League Baseball.” There are many examples of this sort of thing.

Whether patriotic initiatives and displays are craven or genuine in their conception, they aren’t going anywhere. While conspicuous acts of patriotism have always spiked at the ballpark during times of war — check out the uniform patches worn during World War II — they’ve always subsided after a time. This isn’t happening now. As I’ve mused on this site many times, baseball seems unable or unwilling to cut back on the big flags and the military initiatives even a little bit in the post-9/11 world. I suspect it’s because, in this new age of performative patriotism, they’re worried about being called unpatriotic for doing so. One less big flag on Opening Day or Game 1 of the World Series would be the baseball equivalent of a politician not wearing an American Flag lapel pin. At some point it’s just easier to roll out the flag again than to catch that kind of hell.

Against that backdrop, I looked at the photo my friend posted on my Facebook timeline, and I tweeted out a little joke, poking at those who claim that sports and politics never go together. I did so by sarcastically adopting the voice of one of the many “stick to sports” people we’ve mocked around here many, many times:

Initially most of my followers and people who saw it realized I was trolling the “stick to sports” people and nodding to the many things I’ve written over the years about the often political nature of patriotic displays.

A few hours later, though, some conservative people who are not familiar with all of the stuff I’ve written about this sort of thing over the years saw it and believed that I was denigrating the American Flag and claiming that the Braves were conducting a political propaganda exercise on Friday night. By mid-morning that began to snowball and since then I’ve been flooded with literally thousands of people calling me a commie, saying my tweet was treasonous and telling me that if I don’t like this country I can get the hell out right now. One person said I should be burned at the stake. Another said I should be hanged. One guy even told me he hopes I get cancer.

I get a lot of crap thrown at me on Twitter and I really don’t care, mostly because I stir up a lot of it myself. It goes with the territory. So I am less bothered by the crap than I am by the literally hundreds of people who, while not wishing cancer upon me, simply responded by telling me that, no, it is impossible for the flag or for a patriotic display to be political. That such things are, always, inherently neutral and benign and simply symbolize one’s love of America, nothing more, nothing less.

Whatever these people think of me, this sentiment is unadulterated nonsense.

As mentioned above, patriotism and flag-waving are a huge part of political strategy and always have been. There are entire ideologies based on it. It is likewise used for other, non-purely-patriotic purposes. Brands routinely wrap themselves in the American flag to sell you stuff. Indeed, there are rankings of which brands best-leverage patriotism for commercial purposes. This occurs in baseball too, of course, as noted in those Bank of America-sponsored flags and countless other bits of for-hire patriotic display. While patriotism is a laudable trait — and while I consider myself to be a patriotic American — to suggest that flag-waving is exclusively done by those with noble and pure intent is simply laughable.

Do I think the Braves were making a political point with their giant flag on Friday night? No, not particularly. At least not anything beyond the efforts made by every baseball team which wishes to make its fans feel like going to the ballpark is not merely a commercial experience but a uniquely American one. Especially on Opening Day. And, well, especially when they just made those fans hand over their tax dollars for a new ballpark the team didn’t really need, so hey, let’s make sure we create the impression that this is about more than the Braves’ bottom line.

But let us not pretend for one second that displays of conspicuous patriotism haven’t spiked dramatically in our country over the past 16 years. Let us not pretend for one second that they persist for all of the same reasons that initially inspired them. Let us not pretend that, over more than a decade and a half of it, many have not learned how effective it is to leverage patriotism to aid their political careers, their images, or their marketability and the marketability of their brands. Patriotism is a feeling and an ideal, and like any other feeling or ideal, it can be twisted to any number of other ends, good, bad or neutral.

Even in baseball.

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

aaron judge
Cole Burston/Getty Images
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TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.