I find myself watching Major League Baseball more closely these days, and it has nothing to do with the fact that the Chicago Cubs are actually winning games.
Okay, I lied a little right there. As a lifelong fan of the Cubbies, it does my heart good to see them actually winning more than they lose. Chicago’s Lovable Losers won their first World Series in 108 years in 2016, have won the NL Central in back-to-back seasons, and have been to the NLCS three consecutive years. They’re loaded again in 2018 (even if they’re off to an inauspicious 4-4 start through the first week and change of the season). I’ve always watched baseball, but I’d be lying if I said MLB has had my undivided attention since the Sammy Sosa-Mark Maguire homerun race in 1998.
But there is another reason I’m paying extra attention to baseball these days: it’s the one sport I can watch that doesn’t delve into politics.
It isn’t that I dislike politics. I’m something of a political junkie. I begin each day by browsing the stories served up by RealClearPolitics, my favorite political website because it presents political opinion with a bipartisan flavor, delivering the voices of the left directly alongside the voices of the right.
But I prefer my sports to be free of politics. I turn to politics when I want to be informed, and to sports when I want to be entertained. I’ve never found overpaid athletes to be more closely attuned to things that matter outside the sports industry simply because they are multi-millionaires.
More and more, though, it seems that sports and politics have become helplessly intertwined — not just by the athletes and coaches, but by the media outlets delivering sports entertainment to our living rooms.
First came the politicization of the National Football League through anthem protests that purported to highlight racial inequality but seemed to be thinly veiled efforts to discredit American law enforcement. Then the National Basketball Association politicized itself by allowing its marquee players and franchises to use championship wins as platforms to criticize the duly-elected President of the United States. NBC has long used its Sunday Night Football program as a soapbox for Bob Costas’ pregame and halftime political rants, and ESPN could often be mistaken for CNN if not for the logo plastered on the screen.
I didn’t watch a single NFL game this season — not even the Super Bowl. That wasn’t too hard to do; I’ve never been a huge fan of football at the professional level. In recent years, my fandom was limited to whichever team former University of Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning was playing for.
I also haven’t watched a single NBA game this season. That was a little more difficult. I was a lifelong fan of the San Antonio Spurs, beginning when the Spurs drafted David Robinson in the late 1980s and continuing through the Tim Duncan era. But as political diatribes by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich have increased in frequency, my interest has waned. I’ve long thought Popovich to be the best coach of the modern era — perhaps of any era — but that doesn’t mean I need him to use his time in front of the sports media to lecture me on how I should live my life. His recent rant about the need to revoke the Second Amendment, which came in his postgame interview following a Spurs lost, was simply the latest — if not most egregious — example. Likewise, I have long admired Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who was a Spur late in his playing career, but I don’t care for his political lectures.
My stance has nothing to do with my own political leanings. I’m a moderate, with conservative friends who call me a liberal and liberal friends who call me a conservative. I’m truly independent; I vote for Republicans and Democrats alike, preferring to examine their stances on issues that are important to me rather than rubber-stamping my ballot based on the letter that follows their names.
Rather, my stance is about the principle of overpaid athletes and their coaches who use their celebrity platform to push their views over on everyone else — usually the blue-collar Americans who survive paycheck-to-paycheck yet fork over money for tickets, apparel and cable subscriptions to afford these celebrity sports types their luxurious lifestyles.
That brings me back to MLB. The politicization that is ruining the NFL and NBA is — so far, at least — absent from MLB. I can watch nine innings of baseball without wondering what some manager’s or slugger’s opinion is of the most recent presidential election or Supreme Court ruling.
That isn’t just by chance. MLB club executives have been careful to send messages to their players and staff that freedom of expression is well and good, but does come with potential ramification from their fan bases. The league’s star players have responded by sending a message that they would rather focus on their game than on political messages that risk alienating half their fans.
The political silence from the MLB is ironic on some levels. Much moreso than the NFL or even the NBA, professional baseball is a melting pot of ethnicities. Foreign-born players make up a whopping 30 percent of the rosters in the majors. And with one of the hot-button political topics of today being immigration — from dreamers to the border wall — there is no professional sport whose athletes would potentially be more directly or indirectly impacted by proposed policy than MLB. Yet, unlike the NBA and NFL, where players use the pregame anthem or postgame press meetings to sound off on political matters, MLB players simply go out and play ball.
I appreciate that. Not because I don’t like politics. I like politics just fine. But I also like ice cream just fine, and that doesn’t mean I want it mixed with my potatoes and gravy.