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.