On Thursday afternoon, in the overpriced and stratified city that I now call home, the San Francisco Giants will play their home opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Giants are among the favorites to win the World Series, which, if it happens, would be their fourth title in seven seasons. The Giants also play in what is widely regarded as baseball’s most picturesque stadium, a placid pitchers’ ballpark named after a telecommunications giant and set hard against the waterfront.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is seemingly very little wrong with baseball in San Francisco. The Giants are an exemplary franchise with exemplary leadership and a wealth of homegrown talent; the Giants signed a pair of high-priced free-agent pitchers in the offseason in an attempt to further the even-year numerology that has come to define this era. Until Stephen Curry began defying the space-time continuum, the Giants were the primary show in town, and because the Warriors still play in a no-frills Oakland arena for the moment, the Giants remain the most popular sporting experience in the city.
But then, I imagine you could also say there is very little wrong with baseball in cities like St. Louis and Chicago and Boston and Kansas City, where the sport still drives the cultural conversation and spurs sports-talk radio discourse throughout much of the year. From city to city (with the possible exception of the southern doldrums of Tampa Bay and Miami), baseball is as healthy as it has ever been. And yet this leads us to the paradox that baseball has long confronted, ever since football surpassed it as the national pastime (and even long before that): Every offseason, we find ourselves bandying about the notion of whether baseball itself might be slowly dying from the inside.
I don’t mean this literally, of course, because baseball is not literally dying, and baseball is in no danger of literally dying (well, sort of). It’s making far too much money, both through local attendance and through national television deals, for that to be the case. But as Ben McGrath pointed out in The New Yorker a couple of years back, every discussion of baseball’s health can essentially be peeled in a pair of directions: There is the economic, and there is the cultural. And it is the culture of baseball that has been the repeated source of the debate. And it is the culture of baseball that prompts the majority of the concern-trolling.
A few weeks ago, speaking to Tim Keown of ESPN the Magazine, Bryce Harper, the 23-year-old hipster-coiffed force of nature for the Washington Nationals, triggered yet another round of discussion. Harper declared baseball to be “a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself. You can’t do what people in other sports do. I’m not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that, but it’s the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair.” Harper was not the first person to point this out, but his quote was featured prominently in a national magazine, and so it prompted the kind of back-and-forth about baseball’s largely unwritten code of conduct that has been carrying on for decades.
Most recently, it flared up when the Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista had the audacity to flip his bat after a home run during the American League Division Series last season; in response to that, former Yankee reliever Goose Gossage recently called Bautista a “fucking disgrace to the game.” Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, who hit 548 home runs for the Phillies, wrote a pedantic op-ed that declared, “Baseball demands a certain level of dignity toward the opponent. It’s part of its charm.”
You can read between the lines on these comments in many ways. There are numerous reasons that these arguments continue to arise – baseball is slow, baseball is conservative, baseball is old, etc. – but at least one reason is because baseball’s ethnic makeup is so much different from the other two major professional American sports. A USA Today study last fall found that 87 percent of bench-clearing brawls over the past five seasons involved antagonists of differing ethnic backgrounds. “If you’re going to come into our country and make American dollars,” Padres pitcher Bud Norris told USA Today, “you need to respect a game that has been here for over a hundred years…There are some players that have antics, that have done things over the years we don’t necessarily agree with.”
“We learn to play the game a different way than they do,” responded Astros outfielder Carlos Gomez.
It would be an oversimplification to say that this is entirely about race and ethnicity – Harper himself is white – but this discussion does get at the identity of baseball itself, which has always tended toward a kind of suburban middle-aged conservatism. Baseball is not cool like the NBA or the NFL. It has little youthful cachet, despite the presence of a generation of young stars like Harper and the Angels’ Mike Trout (who, for the record, is against the bat flip). And part of that lack of cachet circles back around to race.
For the past 15 years, Dave Ogden, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, has studied the makeup of more than a thousand elite-level youth baseball teams in 31 states. His findings may not feel particularly surprising, given that only eight percent of Major League Baseball is African-American: Roughly three percent of the kids on those teams were African-American. This is a stubborn number that doesn’t seem to change much, even as programs like MLB’s RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) have tried to right it for the better part of a generation. The problem is part structural, but it is also largely cultural. Baseball, as Chris Rock explained in 2015, doesn’t appeal to young black sports fans, and because black culture is inextricably linked with youth culture in the 21st century, baseball doesn’t resonate with young people.
There are a few ways to react to this. One is to point to exceptions like Boston’s Mookie Betts, a budding young African-American star. Another is to wonder, as the writer Chuck Klosterman did on a Bill Simmons podcast a few weeks back, about whether it really matters at all. What if baseball is just different? What if baseball is the uncool pastime that catches on with people later in life? If baseball is making money and succeeding in wealthy trendsetting cities like San Francisco and New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, does any of this really matter?
“I’ve heard people say that, ‘If black people don’t want to play baseball, what’s the big deal?'” Ogden tells me. “But if you believe in any kind of heritage, all the suffering and pain that people like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby and Willie Mays went through could be forgotten. It goes into the dustbin of history. And second, as a fan you want your sport to have the best and most promising players there are. And because of where they were born, kids don’t get those same opportunities.
“Is baseball racist? I can’t say that. But it is exclusive.”
You see that, of course, in San Francisco, where rapid gentrification in the years since the Giants’ picturesque ballpark was built has translated into exclusivity. In a way, what’s happening in baseball mirrors what’s been happening in the cities where baseball is played. And maybe on some level that doesn’t matter, as long as baseball is bringing in money and attracting fans, but maybe it’s a reflection of our stratified culture, of a country that appears to be sinking deeper and deeper into a cultural divide with every Trump rally that ensues. Maybe baseball itself isn’t the problem. Maybe baseball has been around long enough that it’s become a reflection of a country that is increasingly in confrontation with itself.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb