To Republican supporters of former president Donald Trump, Major League Baseball hung a fat one over the plate last week when it announced it was pulling the All-Star Game from Georgia over what critics decry as a voter suppression law. With the personal (including, especially, pop culture preferences) now increasingly the province of the political, the GOP knew just what to do with the pitch.
"Baseball was supposed to be America's pastime; happy, unifying, fundamentally nonpolitical," mourned Fox News host Tucker Carlson. "President [Joe Biden] is willing to destroy even something as wholesome as the country's traditional game purely to increase [his] power."
"Baseball is already losing tremendous numbers of fans . . . Boycott baseball!" thundered Trump. And, channeling the former president's verve for unsubtle punctuation, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted: "Guess what I am doing today? Not watching baseball!!!!"
If you detect just a whiff of joy in these ostensible laments, though, that makes sense. Were Trump to put out an album titled, "Culture War Greatest Hits," his broadside against kneeling NFL players would surely be the opening track.
Inveighing against athlete activism reliably drew more applause from the GOP base than, say, the signature legislation of his term in office — one that cut taxes for corporate shareholders and the wealthiest Americans. Offshore repatriations and estate exemptions are complicated and arcane; symbols slyly simplify, often insincerely so.
Thus, this week's Trumpist playbook call might be summarized as: "Let them eat Kaepernick."
An indignant Texas Gov. Greg Abbott refused to throw out the first pitch at the first-ever baseball game with fans in attendance at the Texas Rangers' new stadium — which, thanks to Abbott's decision to lift most coronavirus restrictions in the state, packed more than 38,000 people in on Monday. Abbott condemned the "shame" of seeing America's pastime politicized, as other Republican leaders vilified the "woke" grandstanding coming out of left field, both in terms of bias and randomness.
It is, indeed, random: Baseball's an unusual fit for this political strategy, and its unexpected decision on the All-Star Game doesn't make it any less so. After all, this was not Kaepernick genuflecting during the anthem, not soccer star Megan Rapinoe colorfully beefing with Trump, not NBA teams wildcatting off the court following the Jacob Blake shooting.
This relocation boycott came forth from the Ken Burns-iest of pastimes. Like the game it stewards, Major League Baseball, organizationally speaking, does not move swiftly. It is defined by a small-c conservatism, of the Edmund Burke sort.
Baseball tinkers with rule changes — feebly snipping a few minutes off game length, here and there — while a digital world whooshes by, accelerating and disrupting our lives, and other sports happily remake and contort themselves for that media spectacle. (Two-point conversions! 24-second shot clocks! Laser pucks! Are you not entertained?!)
Baseball also has the oldest demographic of fans among leading U.S. team sports — an average age of 57, compared with the NBA's 42-year-old mean. And despite rightly mythologizing Jackie Robinson's struggle and triumph (perhaps partly as a self-aggrandizing means of declaring itself on the right side of history), its less auspicious racial present finds African American participation dwindling to single digits, while the game's unwritten rules against flashy play are compellingly critiqued as coded norms of Whiteness.
This is, after all, the sport that bafflingly cracks down on jaunty bat flips from players of color rather than openly encouraging them to live stream video selfies directly to TikTok while rounding the base path.
In short, baseball is a long-running, slow-moving target — the sort of pop culture icon that, you'd think, wouldn't make it a target for Republicans.
For several years, conservative media (and Trump himself) have gleefully tallied the ratings' slide in other sports as fan backlash against woke activism. They've certainly had evidence to seize upon. Following declines of 8 to 10% in 2016 and 2017, the NFL regular season bounced back before again dropping by 8% last year during the pandemic. The Super Bowl, meanwhile, has declined steadily from its mid-2010s high. In basketball, last year's Lakers-Heat Finals, down 49%, was the least watched ever.
But everything's down, everywhere, sports and non-sports alike on broadcast and cable television — a platform whose main role at this point, ratings-wise, seems to be the delivery of pro football.
Moreover, as any social scientist will remind you, correlation does not causation make: It could be that miffed conservatives are abandoning pro sports. It could also be cord-cutting and an incredibly competitive entertainment marketplace that never captured the evanescent attention of millennials and Generation Z in the first place.
All of this means that when stuffy old baseball's ratings sag this year — a trajectory that felt inevitable well before the Georgia law passed — Republicans will crow about the political comeuppance from aggrieved audiences, rather than noting that the last time the All-Star Game was played, it had already set a record low.
As Bob Costas once told me, "When people say, 'Don't talk about politics in sports,' what they're really saying is: 'Don't say anything I don't want to hear or I don't agree with.'" For most of American history, sports culture has been plenty conservative — particularly on issues of economic inequality, military hawkishness and gender roles — with few consciences burdened. The defining feature of the alleged "politicization" of sports in the past decade is advocacy for racial equality and civil rights, which is less polite to rail against compared with complaining about the more nebulous "politics" taking over sports.
For a sport forever freighted with tradition and the glacial pace of change it demands, last week was a remarkable — and refreshing — change of pace. But this won't catapult Major League Baseball into the affection and relevancy it truly needs.
Michael Serazio, an associate professor of communication at Boston College, is the author, most recently, of "The Power of Sports: Media and Spectacle in American Culture." This piece was written for The Washington Post.