Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2017 — No. 15: Bruce Maxwell takes a knee

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We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

In the fall of 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the National Anthem in silent protest of police brutality and racial inequality. He was joined by a handful of other players at first, and then by many more in 2017.  The protests led to a political firestorm, fanned by President Donald Trump and conservative news outlets, each of which willfully mischaracterized the players as protesting against the American flag and the National Anthem itself. Since then the NFL, its fans, its players and coaches and team owners, politicians, advertisers, broadcasters and commentators of every stripe have been consumed with the politics of athlete protests.

On September 23 — a day after President Trump called for all protesting NFL players to be “fired” — Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first baseball player to take a knee during the National Anthem. He would continue to do so for the final week of the season. His stated reason for doing so: to express his frustration at the Trump-led opposition to the player protests and to criticize the President for endorsing “division of man and rights.” The Oakland A’s had Maxwell’s back on the matter, saying in a statement that they “respect and support all of our players’ constitutional rights and freedom of expression.” Maxwell got some boos on the road, but nothing serious came of his protest during the season.

As I wrote at the time — and as I still believe — protests during the National Anthem are highly unlikely to become widespread in baseball. Partially because baseball players, generally speaking, skew more conservative than football players do. Partially because baseball, by its nature, values and encourages a certain conformity and strongly discourages non-conformity or individuality. Even if a player feels strongly about a given matter, he’s not likely to take a knee or protest in any other conspicuous way before or during a game lest he become “a distraction.” I suspect that Maxwell himself will cease to protest in 2018 given that, after the season, he became embroiled in minor scandal and criminal charges. When you’re anything short of a superstar, you do not want to stick out if you can avoid it.

Whether or not Maxwell or anyone else kneels during the Anthem in 2018, it’s doubtful that baseball can avoid politics indefinitely. We live in an age where seemingly everything carries with it at least some political overtones and, despite the contention of many, sports are a part of society, not an escape from society. They provide a lot of entertainment, yes, but they do not provide a safe space for those seeking to ignore society’s problems. Largely because athletes are people too and the world impacts their work and their lives just as it impacts yours and mine. Also because sports owners, sports leagues, sports unions, sports advertisers and sports broadcasters are all, to various degrees, advancing their own political agendas at almost all times.

So perhaps a catcher kneels. Or perhaps a pitcher says he won’t visit Donald Trump if his team wins the World Series. Maybe a respected manager breaks out of cliches and speaks frankly. Maybe the new awareness of sexual misconduct in the workplace affects baseball executives. Maybe baseball executives speak contemptuously about their workers in public. Maybe the fallout from political strife puts the lives of players and their families in danger. Maybe something totally unexpected takes place which causes baseball to be put under the same political microscope football is under these days.

You may wish we could keep sports politics free, but given that politics do not stop at the stadium gates, such a wish is futile.

Biden praises Braves’ ‘unstoppable, joyful run’ to 2021 win

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said the Atlanta Braves will be “forever known as the upset kings of October” for their improbable 2021 World Series win, as he welcomed the team to the White House for a victory celebration.

Biden called the Braves’ drive an “unstoppable, joyful run.” The team got its White House visit in with just over a week left before the 2022 regular season wraps up and the Major League Baseball playoffs begin again. The Braves trail the New York Mets by 1.5 games in the National League East but have clinched a wildcard spot for the MLB playoffs that begin Oct. 7. Chief Executive Officer Terry McGuirk said he hoped they’d be back to the White House again soon.

In August 2021, the Braves were a mess, playing barely at .500. But then they started winning. And they kept it up, taking the World Series in six games over the Houston Astros.

Biden called their performance of “history’s greatest turnarounds.”

“This team has literally been part of American history for over 150 years,” said Biden. “But none of it came easy … people counting you out. Heck, I know something about being counted out.”

Players lined up on risers behind Biden, grinning and waving to the crowd, but the player most discussed was one who hasn’t been on the team in nearly 50 years and who died last year: Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.

Hammerin’ Hank was the home run king for 33 years, dethroning Babe Ruth with a shot to left field on April 8, 1974. He was one of the most famous players for Atlanta and in baseball history, a clear-eyed chronicler of the hardships thrown his way – from the poverty and segregation of his Alabama youth to the racist threats he faced during his pursuit of one of America’s most hallowed records. He died in January at 86.

“This is team is defined by the courage of Hank Aaron,” Biden said.

McGuirk said Aaron, who held front office positions with the team and was one of Major League Baseball’s few Black executives, was watching over them.

“He’d have been there every step of the way with us if he was here,” McGuirk added.

The president often honors major league and some college sports champions with a White House ceremony, typically a nonpartisan affair in which the commander in chief pays tribute to the champs’ prowess, poses for photos and comes away with a team jersey.

Those visits were highly charged in the previous administration. Many athletes took issue with President Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric on policing, immigration and more. Trump, for his part, didn’t take kindly to criticism from athletes or their on-field expressions of political opinions.

Under Biden, the tradition appears to be back. He’s hosted the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks and Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the White House. On Monday he joked about first lady Jill Biden’s Philadelphia allegiances.

“Like every Philly fan, she’s convinced she knows more about everything in sports than anybody else,” he said. He added that he couldn’t be too nice to the Atlanta team because it had just beaten the Phillies the previous night in extra innings.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was later questioned about the team’s name, particularly as other professional sports teams have moved away from names – like the Cleveland Indians, now the Guardians, and the Washington Redskins, now the Commanders – following years of complaints from Native American groups over the images and symbols.

She said it was important for the country to have the conversation. “And Native American and Indigenous voices – they should be at the center of this conversation,” she said.

Biden supported MLB’s decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to protest Georgia’s sweeping new voting law, which critics contend is too restrictive.