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.

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
USA Today
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.