February 26, 2016
Players Prefer Presentation
The Self-Expression Trap
Last week, after careful consideration of their organizational dysfunction, the Miami Marlins got to the root of the issue and banned facial hair. A new season and media training session brought Yankees players an uncomfortable comparison between Russell Wilson and Cam Newton. And months after his notorious scuffle with Bryce Harper, Jonathan Papelbon traipsed through the Nationals Spring Training facility in an “Obama Can’t Ban These Guns” t-shirt. All three incidents stirred the baseball world’s collective ire, with the Marlins, Yankees, and Papelbon facing derision. Papelbon is ready made for a black hat; the Yankees and Marlins are ironically ready to twirl mustaches. But the backlash seemed to me a failed test of our self-professed commitment to player expression.
We bristle at the mandate of the Marlins because they assume a particular sort of person looking a particular sort of way while playing baseball is doing so the best way. It carries with it the same sort of ickiness decades of beardless, nameless Yankees uniforms brought, without the tug of tradition to ground such silliness. Players become interchangeable commodities, widgets. But these are men with stories and families, places and experiences they’ve lived and survived, baseball diamonds visited and surpassed. They flip bats, own silly pets, and are imbued with personality and opinion in equal measure. Reducing them to the create-a-player consistent with a team’s media and labor strategy feels disingenuous and scheming.
Surely teams perceive some advantage in the anonymity of the laundry. Players become easier both to cut and to excuse. Those who demand too much for themselves are more easily dealt or left to free agency. As fans and observers, we hope to liberate the individual from his facelessness, and ascribe personal accountability to his actions. We want him to be himself. As we are able to pick them out as individuals, we are blessed and burdened by their specificity. We are unable to turn away from their struggle, and no longer free to ignore the pain they might inflict.
We—and here I’m claiming a particular, like-mindedly progressive “we” that I expect is more likely to read this column; don’t feel as though I’m forcing you into the pronoun—disagree with the Marlins’ policy on facial hair and look aghast at the Yankees’ instruction to imitate Russell Wilson rather than Cam Newton. Those policies are problematic for many reasons, but the core objection is that they stifle expression and force players into a mold that is often racialized.
So, then, why do we mock Papelbon for his t-shirt? Yes, it is a talisman of a political agenda of which many of us want no part. But these outbursts are bound to be the outcome at least some of the time if we embrace player expression. We’re going to get people who say odd things, or have bad opinions, or are more conservative or liberal than we are, or less thoughtful than we’d like.
We say we want players to be free to express themselves, but mostly we want them to be free to express themselves like we would. We want them to be real and authentic, but buried in that desire is the hopeful assumption that athletes, afforded fame, wealth, and a microphone after years of almost exclusively playing baseball, will somehow defy what we know about people, which is that many of them are awful and all of them are flawed. We want the joyful exuberance of the bat flip but look askance at something thornier. Some players hold virulent opinions, but many of them are simply people. Many of them are a ho-hum kind of traditional. They’re your least thoughtful uncle, or your conservative cousin asking for the potatoes at Thanksgiving. They’re Daniel Murphy.
Murphy has shared his views on homosexuality rather matter-of-factly. He sees it as a “lifestyle.” He has characterized it as a choice. His opinions don’t conform to the progressive mainstream’s understanding of the question. It isn’t progressive, and might fairly be characterized as thoughtless or hateful. And it also isn’t that unusual for a baseball player. Given what we know about the demographics of major-league clubs, it might constitute a centrist view. When Billy Bean visited Mets Spring Training in 2015 as MLB’s Ambassador for Inclusion, Murphy said, “I do disagree with the fact that Billy is a homosexual. That doesn't mean I can't still invest in him and get to know him. I don't think the fact that someone is a homosexual should completely shut the door on investing in them in a relational aspect." His view of Bean’s life as lifestyle, as a choice rather than a fact of his biography is problematic, but the openness he displayed to dialogue, however boundaried we find that willingness to be, probably puts him ahead of many of his teammates.
That ho-hum sort of insensitivity and intolerance can do a lot of damage. Some of us flee our families rather than endure such casual meanness. The ho-hum can say hurtful things. Daniel Murphy said hurtful things. He left room for dialogue when Billy Bean visited the locker room that day, but I doubt Bean appreciated Murphy’s limited tolerance being bestowed like some sort of gift. It’s not how I would engage the question of gay players in baseball, or address a gay person’s sexuality. But Murphy isn’t that unusual in baseball. He’s ho-hum. And he faced opprobrium because he made the mistake of opening his mouth where other, more conservative players gritted their teeth and sat in stewing silence. What strikes me is that we know those players subscribe to more caustic forms of conservatism but give them a pass because they remain silent. It’s only when those ideas demand air time that we rally. We’re punishing the expression, instead of doing the hard work of changing the idea or finding compromise.
It’s an odd thing, the public trust that is baseball. We are often disappointed when corporate executives put themselves at odds with our collective values, but rarely do we ask rank-and-file employees for their take, considered or otherwise. But because baseball asserts cultural weight, because our children emulate players’ movements and their game teaches us things, we want the assurance that ball players think like we do. We, of course, don’t think one way about anything; the views of baseball players, varied as they are, find their advocates in our ranks as easily as their detractors. This fractured “we” then gets up and asks them questions. As surely as we want to understand their approach at the plate, or their pitch mix, we want David Ortiz to opine on domestic violence, Daniel Murphy to share his insights on homosexuality, or Clay Buchholz to share which candidate he is voting for.
It’s strange when we decide to hold those players accountable as players rather than looking to engage them as citizens. And it is made all the stranger because we’re supposedly getting exactly what we said we wanted. Once we open the door to expression and sanctify it as a virtue, as a more authentic and honest understanding of the game and those who play it, we open the door to imperfect politics and quirk and thoughtlessness. We make room for expressions of culture and confusion, lesser discourse and principle and privilege. Some will be Curt Schilling, but mostly they’ll just be folks, a mix of compassion and rigidity, as folks often are. Baseball will have to decide how that expression fits into their business; we’ll have to decide how to get along with folks with whom we disagree, and how to sit next to the folks who support them.
We are unlikely to always agree on exactly what we are dealing with, but we’ll always be dealing with people, in all their flawed peopleness. So we have to be careful; to object to a person’s ideas rather than their impertinent assertion of them, to find fault with those beliefs when they manifest as hostility toward fans or teammates, to do something other than simply relishing pulling off the villain’s mask. To find a posture other than frustration, and to accept that the tricky work of discourse might not result in changed minds but uneasy detente.
The League has laid claim to a national pastime and thrust its employees into the odd position of being hero, teacher, and exemplar. It ought to engage questions of race and gender and power and privilege. Baseball told us that it’s a part of our lives, and an authentic expression of our national identity; having taken baseball at its word, we rightly expect it to better the lives to which it is bound. It must engage and teach and train its players. It has to do all those things. And we have to know that some of that won’t stick. That there will always be good old boys with whom we don’t agree. They’ll find themselves replaced by new generations who will hopefully be better practiced in hard conversations, but might not be. They’ll express joy at a well-struck home run, engage in dugout silliness, advocate political action, and make us angry. They’ll be themselves. And we have to be prepared to deal with that. After all, we’re the ones who asked them to start talking.