Baseball, Politics, and Polarization

The Mets, amazingly enough, were mentioned by President Obama this morning as he was announcing the appointment of Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court. Noting Kagan’s reputation for respecting a diversity of legal and political views, Obama said, “This appreciation for diverse views may also come in handy as a die-hard Mets fan serving alongside her new colleague-to-be, Yankees fan Justice Sotomayor — who I believe has ordered a pinstripe robe for the occasion.”

Once again, we see how important baseball is to the fabric of American life and once again we are prompted to consider the way in which baseball loyalties relate to the other important loyalties in our lives. I mean, let’s say that I was trying to choose between two candidates for office and let’s just say for the sake of argument that both were decent and principled people. Let’s say that one of them was liberal, as I am, in most of his/her positions, and the other was conservative. Let’s say that the liberal was a Yankees fan and the conservative was a Mets fan. How could I ever determine which one to vote for?

What do you think I am, an idiot? I mean, there is no way in which I would vote for someone just because they were a Mets fan and there’s no way I would vote against someone just because they were a Yankees fan. The main thing that would matter to me was their positions on issues and the other important considerations would involve their character and intellect. The fact that somebody is a Mets fan does not make me think any more highly of them than I would if they weren’t a Mets fan. I’ll take this further. Although I like the myths and traditions of Mets fandom more than I like the myths and traditions of Yankees fans or Phillies fans, I don’t think that Mets fans are better people than Yankees fans or Phillies fans and I actually get upset when Mets fans say things that suggest that they genuinely believe that they are.

There may be Mets fans who dislike people just because they’re Yankees or Phillies fans, but I’ve never actually met such a person.  We all know that it’s fun to pretend undying emnity, but we also know where to draw the line.  There’s a particular pleasure, I think, in striking up a conversation with the Phillies fans who drove up for the day, in sharing with them the sense that it’s all in fun.  Nobody seriously believes that Kagan and Sotomayor are going to have a problem with each other on the court because they root for different teams.  

So what then is the point of all this baseball loyalty, all of this loud and fervid tribalism? If you don’t actually get to hate the people you pretend to hate, what good is it?  Well the good stuff comes from the fact that you get to like people you wouldn’t otherwise like, to be on the same side as people you would otherwise think of as on the other side.  I can’t help but get a real kick out of situations in which I find myself sharing Mets love with people who might disagree with me on every other conceivable issue. I love the sense that if you got me and Tim Robbins and Jon Stewart and Richard Nixon and Bill O’Reilly in a room together, there is something at least we could talk about without getting mad at each other.

Baseball loyalty offers a sense of temporary peace, of suspension of all other hostilities, precisely because it doesn’t involve an allegiance to any specific ideas. I think in fact that this is one of the reasons why baseball has been such a force for positive change in American life. Like many, I really think that the integration of baseball may have done as much to change racial attitudes in this country than the worthy ideals of the civil rights movement. Many people wouldn’t listen to these ideas, because they were the ideas of the “other.”  But they could be convinced to change their ideas by finding themselves loyal to a person of another race, by finding themselves hoping for his good fortune.  The meaningless game was able to bring about meaningful change for many people who found the meaningful ideas too threatening.

By sharing my Mets fandom with people who disagree with me about everything else, I find it easier to imagine their humanity and I hope they find it easier to imagine mine. In these sometimes absurdly polarized times maniacs, on the internet, on the radio, on cable television, and, alas, on bookshelves, urge us to ignore the humanity of those who disagree with us. One thing about baseball is that is reminds us of the humanity we share with those with whom we disagree. The sharpest political or religious disagreement cannot destroy the bond of those who now ride the waves of excitement offered by Ike Davis and Hot Rod Barajas.

This is one of the great and wonderful ironies of baseball. The artificial oppositions don’t really mean anything. But the artificial unions do.

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